Costume dramas attract huge audiences in China for their sensational soap opera themes, love affairs and murder plots that draw on a nostalgia for China’s imperial past.

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As Beijing celebrates the 70th anniversary of communist rule, its vast TV industry is feeling the pinch. 

With full-size replicas of palaces from China’s imperial past, the world’s largest film studio is normally teeming with actors making historical costume dramas that are wildly popular with the country’s television audiences. But as the Communist Party prepares for the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, Hengdian World Studios, a complex covering 11 square miles in the country’s east, is eerily quiet.

China’s top media regulator last month announced a 100-day ban on broadcasts of dramas judged to be “entertainment-focused,” singling out costume dramas, which celebrate what the party sees as the country’s decadent pre-communist past, and “idol dramas” — soap operas starring celebrities. Instead, the National Radio and Television Administration ordered the production of 86 dramas focusing on the Communist Party’s achievements, such as its victory in China’s civil war, its technological and military triumphs and the positive impact of recent economic reforms on ordinary people.

“I haven’t got any work at all this year,” says Li Jin, a member of a group of amateur actors known as the “Hengdian drifters,” who live near the studio and normally find roles as extras.

There is an effort to curtail what has been perceived as junk-food content  …  to refocus people on more ideological content.

Entertainment is just one of the industries feeling the fallout from preparations for China’s National Day, which culminates in a military parade in Beijing on Tuesday. The government has tightened internet censorship across the country and increased efforts to interfere with internet services used by individuals and businesses to evade the country’s “Great Firewall” of blocked websites. Online celebrities in China who sometimes appear in revealing clothing on local equivalents of YouTube and Instagram have been warned not to appear “too sexy” during the National Day period, according to online marketing executives. “It’s being enforced at the platform level,” says one executive who did not wish to be identified.

The Beijing government said on Sept. 15 that flying pigeons, kites, drones and balloons would be banned in seven districts to ensure safety ahead of a military parade on Oct. 1. In Tangshan, China’s biggest steel-producing city, which is near Beijing, steelmakers have been ordered to cut production to ensure blue skies in the capital for the parade, at which President Xi Jinping is set to address the nation.

But the entertainment industry has felt a more severe impact. Communist Party officials began to turn against costume dramas after Story of Yanxi Palace, a tale of backstabbing imperial concubines, attracted 530 million online views per episode last year. Costume dramas attract huge audiences in China for their sensational soap opera themes, love affairs and murder plots that draw on nostalgia for China’s imperial past — all elements that have attracted the ire of censors, according to industry insiders.

“There is an effort to curtail what has been perceived as junk-food content  …  to refocus people on more ideological content,” says one entertainment industry executive, adding that historical dramas threatened the viewership for communist-related material. “If you have a choice to watch a historical drama about Mao Zedong, or who a prince is having sex with, what are you going to watch?” the executive asked.

“If you have a choice to watch a historical drama about Mao Zedong or who a prince is having sex with, what are you going to watch?”

The Chinese Netflix equivalent iQiyi, which last year reported a big revenue boost from Story of Yanxi Palace, this year is focusing on Me and My Motherland, a series in which celebrities comment on short videos about the country’s progress since 1949.

“We needed to capture young people’s attention while showing respect and saluting the country for its 70th anniversary,” Wang Zhaonan, iQiyi editor in chief, told the state-run Global Times newspaper.

In cinemas, National Day releases focusing on patriotism include The Climbers — about a Chinese team that ascends Mount Everest — and The Chinese Pilot, a heroic tale of aviation.

Analysts expect box-office receipts over the National Day holiday week to reach up to 4 billion RMB ($562 million) compared with 1.9 billion RMB last year. But tighter film censorship this year ahead of National Day has hurt business for several film companies.

Shanghai-listed Hengdian Film and Television, which owns the studio complex, said last month its net profit had fallen 24 percent in the most recent quarter from the same period of the previous year to 173 million RMB.

“Since the ban on historic dramas, the industry has been going downhill this year, and a lot of people have left. I may return to my home city next year,” says Hengdian actor Ma Bin. “It’s become a ghost town here.”

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2019.

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