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Trafficked Actors

Prestigious drama schools are struggling to retain their students, who are unable to resist the lure of instant online fame and fortune – but only as long as they drive online traffic

By Ni Wei Updated Dec.1

Liu Tianchi feels teaching has been unbearably tough these years. She says she is like an old hen wrestling with “the force outside” – a force that drags her students one after another to film or television productions, while Liu struggles to tempt her students to stay in class.  

An associate professor at the Central Academy of Drama (CAD) in Beijing, Liu has taught acting for two decades. Many of her students have become household names in film and television, including Deng Chao, Bai Baihe, Wen Zhang and Tang Yan. But now she is powerless to stop her young students from skipping class for paid acting gigs as she watches them graduate without having learned much.  

In 2017, Liu opened an acting studio, offering a program for young professional actors who want further training. So far, more than 200 professional actors have studied at Liu’s studio.  

From her perspective, the radical change in China’s film and television industry started 10 years ago. With the rise of online videosharing platforms and the popularity of smartphones, hot money flooded the industry. Many shoddily made works were released to feed the enormous demand for online entertainment.  

The digitally empowered fan economy has tremendously changed the landscape of China’s entertainment industry. Lots of films and television shows are only a tool to produce “traffic stars” – the hyped celebrities who drive online traffic.  

The predicaments young Chinese actors face is unprecedented. They are forced to battle in the same arena as the traffic stars, not with acting talent but looks, youth, fanbase and the traffic they generate. Many talented actors lose out.  

Liu Tianchi

Younger, the Better 
Clad in a plaid shirt and ripped jeans, Li Yue walks into a theater dressing room with a script under his arm. He has been busy rehearsing and performing in several plays.  

Compared to the high-profile, lucrative film and television sector, theater is far less profitable and away from the spotlight. It has been two years since Li graduated from Shanghai Theater Academy (STA), and as a stage actor, he has chosen a different path from his classmates who went into film and television.  

Li started at STA in 2015. That year, Hunan Television produced a reality show called Grade One Freshman, featuring the campus life of some freshmen at STA. Li and his classmates landed spots on the show, where every bit of their lives would be on camera.  

When the show was broadcast, these youths understood there was enormous interest in them both from the public and the market. As each episode focused on one student, they instantly gained a large social media following and were chased by agencies seeking to mold them into influencers who could drive traffic.  

Since the early 2010s, online video-sharing giants such as Youku, Tencent and iQiyi used the influx of hot money to start their own content creation. They churned out films and television series. The “popular IP + traffic stars” model is widely seen as the metric of market success.  

IP, or intellectual property in China’s entertainment industry, refers to a story or a concept that has the potential to be adapted into a film or a TV show. Most IP works are adapted from online fiction and games, many with an already bankable large fanbase. Traffic stars, mostly good-looking youngsters with huge online fanbases, wield significant influence in social network marketing by easily mobilizing vast fandoms to create a high volume of social buzz and digital traffic.  

“The production process for TV shows has completely changed,” screenwriter Wang Hailin told NewsChina. “The primary thing for producers is no longer finding good stories themselves but asking video platforms what they want first. Platforms check the most popular genres according to its streaming data, such as cheesy romance, fantasy and BL (boy’s love). The platforms not only determine the genre and tastes but also the actors. They have a list of traffic stars and promise the producers to buy the series if it involves certain traffic stars.”  

The “popular IP + traffic stars” combo is common practice. The standard of casting has changed, no longer depending on the actor’s skills and suitability for a character, but on their fanbase and the digital traffic they create.  

The irony lies in that traffic stars, who are often not the best actors, command huge fees which account for most of the production cost, and as a result, not much is left to make a quality production. Sometimes too much popularity is a bad thing. Actress Zheng Shuang, who became embroiled in a surrogacy scandal with her ex, received 160 million yuan (US$24.7m) for 77 days’ work on TV series A Chinese Ghost Story in 2019, Shanghai Tax Service revealed in August, before slapping her with a huge fine of US$46 million for tax evasion. Her acting credits have been erased and her online presence deleted.  

Still, the rush to find the next best thing has infected the industry. “The younger, the better” has become a mantra that drives talent scouts to seek “younger and fresher meat.” Middle schools and colleges have become major talent pools for potential idols.  

Li told our reporter that scouts try everything to watch student performances at drama schools and even sneak into the acting exams. “They only want young good-looking ones. During those years [2015-2018], they only paid attention to the youngsters born after 1995, even 1998. Nowadays, by their standards, those born in 2000 are ‘old’ now,” Li told NewsChina.  

Li was already 22 when he arrived at STA, older than most of his classmates. Before that, he studied acting for three years at an art college in Shandong Province. Having had rockier experiences than his peers, Li cherished his chance to learn at the famous drama school, and maintained a calmer attitude toward the increasingly frivolous environment, though he admits he was affected despite himself. “Being in such an environment, it’s easy to get that itch,” Li said.  

In 2018, the year Li graduated, he witnessed the welcome ceremony STA held for the new students. Li was surprised by how they postured for this campus event: wearing haute couture, they posed like Zoolander for personal photography teams that trailed them. “I felt they were more like commodities rather than real people,” Li said.  

Actress Bai Baihe in monologue drama Hear Her

A still from Devil and Angel

Wrestling Match 
Liu Tianchi admits the influencer frenzy has already affected admissions into China’s drama schools. Beijing’s CAD, one of the country’s top two drama schools, is known for its strict selection.  

“We insist that the admission standard for CAD is to enroll those with the best potential and talent who can hold their own in [famous Chinese play] Thunderstorm. That means we need students of variety to fit different character roles,” Liu told NewsChina.  

“But these days, some teachers claim the school is supposed to enroll more students than the current market needs. So concerning admissions, we teachers fight about it now and then,” she said.  

For students, it seems more and more impossible to concentrate on class. It feels like a long wrestling match between agencies and schools for the four years they train. Many students sign with agencies in their first year, and spend the last three mostly working.  

“Back in my student years at CAD, I performed more than 200 roles in acting classes, but now when I ask some graduates the same question, they often say 10 or 12,” Liu said.  

During her college years in the early 1990s, she recalled, the most popular films were award-winning and critically acclaimed works of realism, including Farewell My Concubine (1993), The Story of Qiu-Ju (1992) and To Live (1994). Nowadays, Liu said, the most popular films and television series are fantasy, romance, thrillers, costume dramas and xianxia (a subset of martial arts genre influenced by Daoism and Buddhism).  

“These works are a million miles from real life. So many students may wonder what the point is in training to observe life? Sometimes even I think that maybe next semester we should teach our students to play the characters in [ancient mythical work] the Classic of Mountains and Seas,” Liu said.  

“In the past, our teachers always said ‘actors should be a chameleon in life that turns invisible when put into the crowd.’ But nowadays for young actors the most important thing is to be visible, worshipped and followed by the crowd wherever possible,” Liu said.  

“Actors who trained in the past were those who interacted closely with life, but actors today are usually completely detached from life,” she added.  

Reality Bites 
Just like with drama schools, the forces of the market also encroach on theaters.  

At Beijing People’s Art Theater, one of China’s top theaters, actors compromise their stage acting as they are offered too many filming jobs. Even during a play’s run, many ask for understudies to cover them so they can go to other jobs whenever they want.  

“It’s ridiculous. They just leave on a whim with no notice,” said the renowned actor Feng Yuanzheng, who has worked at Beijing People’s Art Theater since 1985 and is the theater’s deputy manager.  

But things have changed since Feng was put in charge of the actors in 2017. This mild-looking actor showed his iron fist by instituting the theater’s first written backstage management policy, with a strict attendance policy. In the subsequent four years, many actors quit or were fired. “I don’t regret seeing them leave. The theater won’t give in to any actor,” Feng said.  

Feng is known as a character actor in plays, films and television. He became a household name in 2001 with his convincing portrayal of abusive husband An Jiahe in the television series Don’t Respond to Strangers. After the show received acclaim, Feng received more than two dozen high-paying offers to play similar characters, and he declined them all, as he believed none was better.  

“If a character were written better than An Jiahe, if he were more layered and even more abnormal and moved me, I’d play that character,” Feng told NewsChina. “But I won’t ruin my career just for money.”  

Feng said many actors shoot to fame only to become typecast, although they do not seem to care. They enjoy the identity and lifestyle of a celebrity rather than their profession as an actor. “Celebrities are not needed to make any change. Their fans don’t want them to change. They don’t want to see their idols play a bad guy. It’s an actor’s duty to create a good character, while a celebrity is supposed to create buzz,” the actor said.  

Nevertheless, for young actors, a lack of clicks and likes means they have little chance of getting the good roles they want.  

With the rise of variety shows in the 2010s, many actors saw them as major platforms to increase media exposure and popularity. But this approach has drawbacks.  

Actor Jin Dong told media about his reluctance to go on reality shows. “Once you are labeled ‘hilarious, amusing and funny’ on variety shows, it’s likely that audiences won’t believe in your acting anymore, because whenever they see your face, your comic escapades on reality shows will pop into their minds.”  

Zhao Zhengyang, associate researcher at the China Film Art Research Center, told NewsChina that seeking too much public exposure and digital traffic will deprive actors of the aura of mystery, which is an essential quality of this profession.  

“The performing arts need to create ‘another world’ that bears subtle connections with the real world we are living in, instead of purely showing reality. Actors, either in variety shows or in other forms of exposure, have to expose too much of their real ‘self’ to the public, familiarizing audiences with the actor’s ‘self,’ which has nothing to do with the art of acting,” Zhao said. 
Liu Tianchi feels helpless watching actors wrestle with the traffic economy. “Everything went topsy-turvy. Both the young and the old in the industry are completely lost. No one knows what the future will be like,” she told NewsChina. 

Students line up for a college admission examination at the Central Academy of Drama, February 18, 2019