In 2014, “IP Cinema,” a flashy new term with a touch of high-tech flare, suddenly surfaced in the Chinese film industry with tremendous publicity, claiming to overhaul the whole business of filmmaking in China. Centered on trans-media contents as original IP (intellectual property) for film adaption, the notion of “IP cinema” refers to film products as part of larger franchises that transport contents across multiple media (e.g. novels, games, music, and comics). Such a strategy of tying cinematic production and consumption with other media, in fact, is nothing new. It has been a common practice in global media industries for decades. What is new about the recent rise of IP cinema in China, however, is where it came from.
Introduced by the Chinese IT industry, the concept of IP cinema marks the forceful entry of the Internet companies into the ecosystem of filmic media, demonstrating the powerful impacts of the logic of “platforms” on content creation and consumption. Two of the largest Internet companies in China, Alibaba and Tencent, have both entered the business of film production and distribution in the past two years, which led to the sudden emergence and rapid spread of the very notion of IP cinema. Through various press releases, trade conferences, business roundtables, and film festivals, these two Internet giants played a key role in establishing the discourse of IP cinema and popularizing it as a new model for platform-based content creation in media industries. In 2014, Tencent announced that its newly launched film production unit, Tencent Pictures, will establish a new platform called “Tencent Movies +” that is designed for IP development and management, which, according to Variety, “allows the company to expand revenues from its intellectual property assets and to sell more content to its huge user base.” (Frater, 2014). In 2015, Alibaba went even further by making a notorious claim that its film unit, Alibaba Pictures, would stop hiring professional screenwriters. Instead, the company fashioned its own film production system described as “IP+ Fans +Stars” and would primarily develop contents from online fictions, blogs, and forums (Chou, 2015). To a large extent, the sudden emerge of IP cinema, as well as the media hype surrounding it, was the direct result of the profound impact from the rise of a new type of intermediary and delivery systems (such as WeChat and QQ, two popular social networks that are both developed and operated by Tencent), which are now commonly described as “platforms.”
This paper examines the discursive formation and the industrial formulation of the so-called IP cinema in China, examining it as less a novel strategy for filmmaking than a new logic of content management that is mediated and controlled by digital platforms. Although the term “platform” often refers to many different meanings in different contexts, it conceptualizes certain spaces in the current media ecology that operates with the distinctive logics of the Internet era (Gillespie, 2010; Hands, 2013; Jin, 2015). And the impacts of such logics on the modes of content generation, distribution, and containment remain to be thoroughly investigated. Therefore, by decoding the meaning of “IP cinema”, as well as by examining how the concept was invented, interpreted, publicized, and utilized in China’s fast-changing media industries, the paper seeks to interrogate the deeply woven relationship between platforms and contents and to understand how the operational logic of platforms have changed the ways in which we produce and perceive media contents in cultural, economical, and political dimensions.
Particularly, the paper focuses on the notion of “IP” by tracing China’s troubled historical encounter with the concept and politics of intellectual property. The notion of intellectual property rights (IPR) was nonexistent in China until the 1980s when the economic reform and the “open-door” policy introduced the global system of IP protection and regulation. The legal system for patent and copyright protection was quickly established afterward, the social, cultural and political acceptance of IPR, however, was largely lagging behind, demonstrated by the prevalence of counterfeit goods and pirated media (Wang, 2003). Even content creators were reluctant to embrace IPR, and some Chinese filmmakers, artists and intellectuals implicitly celebrated piracy as an alternative mode of cultural production and circulation (Li, 2012). The lack of enthusiasm for IP regulation, according to Laikwan Pang (2012), is because the symbolic links between IPR, knowledge and creativity are fundamentally at odds with the cultural tradition and policy in China, where creative contents have long been considered as communal assets instead of individual properties. The emergence of IP cinema, on the other hand, marks the first instance that intellectual property is not only advocated as valuable goods but is decidedly branded as something uniquely modern, progressive, and technologically advanced. The fact that it is the platform providers, instead of content creators, who first embraced “IP” as both a concept and a politics in China raised the questions of property and ownership. In the platform-controlled media economy, what are the actual properties? Where are they located and contained? How are they managed? Who own them? By tackling these questions, the paper argues that it is the profound change in the structure of media property and ownership that defines the central politics of platforms. If the logic of platforms indicates “the capturing of digitalife in an enclosed, commercialized and managed realm” (Hands, 2013), then what are captured and enclosed are certain properties whose nature and ownership have become increasingly obscured. The rise of IP cinema, therefore, is what Steinberg (forthcoming essay) describes as “a push for platform-enabled digital lockdown.” It is not simply the contents but the users and their information that are being locked as the real properties on platforms.
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Steinberg, Marc (forthcoming), “Converging Contents and Platforms: Niconico Video and Japan’s Media Mix Ecology” in Asian Video Cultures (Duke University Press).
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Jinying Li is an assistant professor of Film Studies at University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on the media culture of East Asia. Her essays on Asian cinema, animation, and digital media have been published in Film International, Mechademia, The International Journal of Communication, and Camera Obscura. She is currently co-editing a special issue on Chinese animation for the Journal of Chinese Cinemas.