copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

To work or not to work:
the dilemma of Hong Kong film labor
in the age of mainlandization

by Mirana M. Szeto and Yun-chung Chen

Due to Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy, since the early 1980s the Hong Kong manufacturing sector has moved north to mainland China.[1] [open endnotes in new window] In the early 2000s Hong Kong film production followed suit. Ten years into the mainlandization process, the debate on whether Hong Kong film production has entered a new phase of production is now settled. We define “mainlandization” as a survival tactic to save what is left of the Hong Kong film industry after its long decline since the early 1990s. This tactic involves increasing co-productions between Hong Kong and mainland filmmakers, targeting the Chinese market. Today cross-border film co-production has become the dominant mode of Hong Kong film production—a shift from “made in Hong Kong” to “made by Hong Kong,” as Peter Chan candidly puts it. The new question today, beyond whether to mainlandize or not, is how Hong Kong filmmakers can continue to make Hong Kong-style films in the present condition of film industry mainlandization and neoliberalization. We have coined the term “Hong Kong SAR New Wave” (SAR is the acronym for Special Administrative Region) to name the collective effort of local filmmakers who are keeping this “minor mode of production” surviving and kicking (Szeto and Chen, 2012).

This paper analyzes the working conditions of Hong Kong film labor amidst rapid mainlandization of film production. In fact, it is the latest round of production restructuring. Hong Kong film production in the post-WWII era began in the 1950s as a studio system. It transformed into a mixed system in the 1980s, a flexible independent system in the 1990s, and then extended into a co-production system in the 2000s. In this continuous restructuring process, Hong Kong film production reached its heyday in the early 1990s, producing nearly 250 feature films per year, employing over 15,000 people, with nearly eighty percent gross local market share. Production then steeply declined. Between 1992 and 1998 overseas revenue fell 85 percent. Local market share plummeted to 25 percent in 2008 (HKMPIA, 2010; HKCSD, 2010; Chan et al., 2010). The two-decades-long decline was blamed on assaults from copyright infringement, competition from Hollywood and other Asian countries, and investors’ preferring to park their money in more ludicrous real estate speculation than taking risks investing in film. These seem to be global explanations, but we also find more context specific and structural reasons. Our paper will focus on an ethnographic analysis of present film labor conditions, and a context-specific analysis of structural political-economy and geo-historical causes.

The shrinking of the market and the exodus of investors since the early 1990s has had a direct impact on the job market and learning-training opportunities for Hong Kong film labor. Production steeply declined to 50 films per year in 2007 (HKMPIA, 2010). Consequently, “a third of our labor was cut off!” director/producer Peter Chan exclaimed (Interview 1, 2008). Everyone’s career in the industry seemed vulnerable, both in terms of the pressures against quality production and the disappearance of jobs.

With fewer jobs, many film laborers have since left the industry or continue to make film on a part-time basis. Driving a taxi while waiting for the next phone call from a producer is not uncommon among below-the-line film laborers in Hong Kong. Not only have producers’ calls become more infrequent, but the pay for each project has also dropped drastically. Film-making for fresh graduates today is made possible mainly by shoe-string budgets and unpaid film festival hopping. Such low-budget Hong Kong films, even if they are made, need to fight Hollywood and co-production blockbuster films for commercial screens. And if they get publicly screened at all, they get allocated to unfavorable seasons and time-slots and find it hard to secure an entire screening cycle.

Changing production regimes:
from the studio system, to the mixed system
and then to the flexible independent system
with cross-border co-production

To understand the changing labor condition, we have to look at the changing production organization of the Hong Kong film industry in the last eighty years. Compared to Hollywood, it undergoes a similar process from Fordist to post-Fordist production, but in a much smaller scale. It also relies on a dense network of people instead of a dense network of firms.

Changing production systems

In Hollywood, major restructuring has gone on since the early 1950s. Over two decades, the industry transitioned from a predominantly Fordist mass production system to a post-Fordist flexible system. This was triggered primarily by two events (Christopherson and Storper, 1989). The first event was the anti-trust decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which forced production studios to divest themselves from their theatre chain businesses. The second event was the rapid diffusion of television in the 1950s, which challenged the movie industry’s monopoly as a dominant entertainment provider. As a result, the film market became more fragmented and highly uncertain. This triggered the studio system’s vertical disintegration as investors and producers sought a way to spread the cost of uncertainties over to numerous subcontractors in the new flexible specialization system. This restructuring process led to a broad extension of disintegrated, flexible production systems, and a radical shift in the role of major studios. Studios began to function more as fountainheads of financial and coordination services for independent producers, in combination with overall marketing and distribution activities (Scott, 2002; 2005).

Our research shows that the Hong Kong film industry did not undergo serious vertical disintegration. On the contrary, it followed a non-linear restructuring process quite different from that of Hollywood. Since the 1930s in both Shanghai and Hong Kong, small independent firms dominated this early stage of the film industry, until the 1950s, when the Shaw Brothers’ big studio led the industry toward a new mass-production system. Newly emergent independent firms gained popularity again after the 1980s, when the standard winning formula of big studios gradually wore out. Independents came out with more creative ways to make movies, resulting in the Hong Kong “new wave” cinema and subsequent “second wave” cinema. Together they recaptured the market in the 1980s and 1990s, and trumpeted a new contemporary Hong Kong identity in the global film awards and scholarship scenes. Yet, studios did not disintegrate. They still co-exist with the independents, but they no longer enjoy monopoly in the film-making supply chain.

In Hong Kong, the studio system lost its dominance after the emergence of the independent system in the 1980s. The Hong Kong studio system’s main transformation occurred with various collaborative production systems now based on different contractual arrangements with independents, pushing the scene into a “mixed system.” This “mixed system” includes satellite systems, director subcontracting, and major-minor relations that reflect different power relations between the studios and the independents (see Figure 1). After the Shaw Brothers stopped making films in 1972 and turned to monopolize television production, the studio system officially ceased. The mixed system dominated in the 1970s and 1980s, the hey-day of Hong Kong film, when it took precedence in most Asian and Sinophone markets. In the 1990s during the decline of Hong Kong film production, further “flexiblization” was required for survival reasons, and the mixed mode further gave way to the independent system.

In Hong Kong, the flexible independent system is characterized by highly networked individuals. Even though companies exist, these are often one-person companies or very small companies with less than ten staff. Networking allows them to organize around secured investment/funding in a very short period of time after a round of phone calls. Informal meetings among directors, producers, investors and scriptwriters are frequently held. No one knows which ideas will take off until an investor is on board. When the investors (usually more than one, due to increasing risks and budgets of film production) are on board, an executive producer is hired to line up the above-the-line crew, which includes the director, executive producer, key stars, cinematographer, scriptwriter, and art director. Then, a round of phone calls to all the below-the-line crews are made, and a whole team can be assembled in two weeks. Major above-the-line crews usually have their own reservoir of below-the-line people.

The labor condition in different modes of production


Studio system (1930-1970)

Mixed system

Flexible Independent system (1990s ), extended to cross-border pro-duction (2000s)*** 

Production organiza-tion


Studio highly controls supply chain. Studio controls capital, production and distribution. Studio-centered.

There are three variations:
1. Satellite system (Golden Harvest)
2. Director subcontracting  *
3. Major-minor **

Fragmented production chain. Independent filmmakers do not own production facilities. Production depends highly on flexible specialization networks. Director-centered.


Contract labor

Mixed mode (contract and non-contract labor)

Flexible, non-contracted labor



Shaw Brothers; Meiah Entertainment; Cathy Asia Films; Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB)

Golden Harvest; China Star Entertainment Limited; Universe International; The Sil-Metropole Organization Ltd.; The Golden Way Films Ltd.

The Wing-Scope Company; The In-Gear Film Production Co.; The Film Workshop Co.; The Seasonal Film Co.; Jet Tone Films; Media Asia Group

* Under the director subcontracting system, the studio subcontract film production to independent filmmakers. Apart from controlling the basic theme and the budget limit, studios remain hands-off, leaving hiring and other decision making to the director.

** Under the major-minor system, independent filmmakers are self-financed, but they depend on the mother company (studio) for distribution.

*** We will elaborate on cross-border co-production later.

Changing labor systems

Hong Kong film-labor practices follow a trend similar to labor relations in Hollywood. Even during the studio era, Hollywood studio production already pioneered a loose model of employment beloved by contemporary management, characterized by a shift from “company employees” to “freelance, franchised or casualized labor” (McRobbie, 2002:98).

The key difference is that Hollywood has horizontal unionization to protect workers from exploitation. Guilds and unions play an important role is defining employment relations (Paul and Kleingartner, 1994). In Hollywood’s studio-dominated era before the late 1950s, contracted employees backed up by the support of a union were the norm (a Fordist labor regime). The transformation into a post-Fordist system (flexible labor regime) has had great impact on the unions and guilds since the 1960s. There has been an increasing supply of new non-unionized labor because newcomers have been willing to break the rules set by unions and guilds to get ahead. The seniority system enjoyed by old union workers is seriously challenged (Miller et al., 2005). Moreover, smaller independent filmmakers and specialized suppliers are eager to hire non-union workers to lower cost. In addition, the increase in distance production, in which movie shooting is done outside Hollywood (especially in Canada), has created more pressure on unionized labor (Coe and Jennifer, 2004). Film craftspeople see their jobs replaced by Canadians, Mexicans and workers in Italy, the U.K., the Middle East, and even China and Thailand.

Despite the existence of guilds and unions, the Hollywood labor market remains highly uneven. Winner-take-all is the rule of the game. The stars, director, producer, scriptwriter and cinematographer (the “proactive” or “above-the line” workers) garner most of the profits, while workers such as make-up artists, carpenters, costumiers, set designers and electricians (the “reactive” or “below-the-line” workers) earn much less and are more vulnerable to distance production.

In Hong Kong, ninety-seven percent of the labor force works within service industries, and according to local government figures, the film industry lies within this broad “service industry” category. Scholars have shown that in this service sector, the labor regime in Hong Kong has become even more flexible after deindustrialization began in the 1980s (Chiu and So, 2004; Chiu, Tam and So, 2007). In the Hong Kong film industry, labor segmentation and the winner-take-all phenomenon is similar to, if not worse than their Hollywood counterpart. According to our empirical research, without strong unions and guilds, Hong Kong below-the-line film workers are more vulnerable than their U.S. counterparts. Roughly speaking, before the 1990s, below-the-line film workers in Hong Kong were less well-trained. They were mostly amateurs entering the industry through personal networks, except actors, for whom Shaw Studio and Television Broadcasts (TVB) provided training.

Film workers often do not get paid on time and are subject to unreasonably long working hours, and that’s long been accepted as a condition of the job. But previously they did not have to wait much in between projects. Since the era of decline in the 1990s, however, even though both below- and above-the-line crews are now better trained—mostly in vocational and college institutions, ironically their pay is worse due to serious cost-cutting in production budgets that dwindle from film to film. Projects are harder to come by and workers have to wait much longer in between projects, which further weaken their bargaining power. Tightening budgets lead to decline in labor welfare (detailed in the next section). Bad pay and bad working conditions erode the previous trust between film workers and employers. Lower trust and worker morale hurt the efficiency and delicacy of film-making, which may result in lower quality movies. The downward spiral hurts Hong Kong film production both in quantity and quality. This has been reflected in declining overseas demand.

Decline of the Hong Kong film market in the 1990s

When the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty was announced in 1984, the industry rushed to cash in before 1997, and at first production increased significantly. However, gradually, increased diversification of platforms (VHS, VCD, DVD, satellite and cable television) allowed distributors to make a lot more from rights than before, pushing up demand and prices for regional video presales (Curtin, 2007: 68-70). Frenzied opportunism encouraged companies to hyper-produce at the expense of quality, and to tailor casting and content to distributors’ formulaic preferences rather than to audience and artistic satisfaction. Profits attracted intensified triad involvement (Interview 2, 2009) [2] leading to poor production quality and conditions (Curtin, 2007: 70-4). Initial increase in production intensified competition for screens. The usual 120-130 film runs per year shot up to over 200, clogging the market with abundant poor quality films. The shorter runs made it hard for any good film to build reputation through word of mouth, and made it difficult for the audience to tell the good films from the bad. Frustrated theatergoers were pushed from cinemas and pulled by home distribution and rampant piracy, leading to box-office slumps for Hong Kong films—both local and regional (Curtin, 2007: 74-5, 79). The 1997 Asian economic crisis merely intensified and prolonged the decimation of regional markets (Curtin, 1999). Consequently, Hong Kong film production declined from an average of over 200 to 250 films per year in the 1980s and early 1990s to 50 per year in 2007 (HKMPIA, 2010). In fact, the actual figure, as an experienced producer and director told us, was only thirty-five (Interview 2, 2009).[3] According to available figures, the numbers remain approximately fifty to sixty films per year up until 2012 (HKTDC, 2012).

This sustained downturn has serious impact on the film labor market. With limited opportunities, most film workers change career and move to television and advertising. Those who stay in the film industry try to concentrate on post-production and distribution and stay away from pre-production and production, because of the relative job security at the back of the production chain. According to both above-the-line and below-the-line interviewees, the survivors among film labors are often more hirable and tend to maintain greater a passion for film, meaning they are willing to take wage cuts. They also tend to be team players (they can work with diverse groups of flexible laborers), and they have a good personality (bad temper and irresponsible behavior will guarantee no repeat hiring from producers in this declining market).[4] Thus, from the individual worker’s perspective only such “survivors” can get a job. And from a craft or organizing perspective, the majority of crews, especially below-the-line workers, have no bargaining power in joining any type of production team.

Although Hong Kong film history can be read as a constant process of restructuring in face of regional and global cultural, political and economic challenges, this wave of structural adjustments has happened in a specific political-economy and geo-historical context.

The contribution of neoliberalization and
coloniality to the decline of the Hong Kong Film market

Global neoliberalization of governance has also occured in Hong Kong and China, leading to the “lionization of free market,” “deregulation” of capital and labor protection, outsourcing, state withdrawal from providing welfare, “privatization of social resources,” and “private property” ownership buoyed by credit financing (Smith 2011; Harvey 2005), resulting in greater disparity here as it has everywhere else. However, neoliberalization in China and Hong Kong has taken extra colonial/postcolonial and Chinese turns, resulting in specific impacts on the film industry.

Neoliberalization as an important issue for the Hong Kong film industry is, however, not recognized as such locally. This is because Hong Kong’s colonial legacy has made recognizing neoliberalism as a problem more difficult. Colonial Hong Kong operated on a logic similar to neoliberalism after WWII. The Hong Kong colonial administration embraced “laissez faire” to give a non-democratic political system based in fact on “the partnership between colonialism and capitalism” a semblance of free competition and transparent market conditions necessary to attract global investments. The colonial “laissez faire” economic policy, then, allowed a “principle of non-intervention” to create a semblance of “boundaries between public and private interests” (Goodstadt, 2005:119, 13). Thus, while most Western democracies moved towards welfare-state policies after WWII, Hong Kong avoided Western welfare-state interventions and developmental state protectionism (Szeto and Chen, 2011: 241; Chen & Pun: 71). As a consequence, neoliberalization in postcolonial Hong Kong does not have many welfare-state policies to “roll-back.” It simply intensifies and rolls-forward pre-existing neoliberal-like policies. What is new in postcolonial neoliberalization is the “roll-out” (Peck and Tickell, 2002) of policies that actively assist in capital accumulation, which Mark Purcell candidly calls “aidez-faire” (Purcell 2008: 15).[5] Thus, a transition to neoliberal governance is less easily recognizable to Hong Kong people.

Moreover, so “successful was the colonial administration in making laissez faire and minimal economic and social intervention an integral part of the Hong Kong outlook,” no “political party in Hong Kong sought to challenge the legitimacy” of this set of doctrines before or after 1997 (Goodstadt, 2005: 122, 13). Thus, the legalization and institutionalization of monopolies and procedural injustices that are trademarks of euphemized colonial governance trickily continue in large measure after 1997, allowing a rather seamless transition from “colonial” to “global” neoliberal exploitation on discursive and practical levels. This allows institutional and business elite more clout to localize neoliberalism through already existing institutions and discourses. Thus neoliberalism, instead of being recognized as a structural consequence of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, ironically has been misrecognized as a cause for further intensification of market deregulation, state divestment, and fiscal austerity in Hong Kong, leading to heightened social polarization and market monopolization. Similarly, the increasing dominance of Hollywood and the Chinese film market has to do with the neoliberalization of their enormous local markets (Szeto and Chen, 2011; Kapur and Wagner, 2012).[6] But in Hong Kong this is misrecognized merely as resulting from greater Hollywood and Chinese business clout rather than from long-term policies.

We see a different picture. Hong Kong’s combined situation of coloniality and neoliberal governance actually intensified the decline of its film industry in the 1990s. Colonial cultural policy prioritized the interest of the departing colonial bureaucracy at the expense of local culture and cultural industries. The non-democratic colonial government insisted on laissez-faire non-intervention to protect itself from charges of state-business collusion. As a result it allowed Hong Kong’s most important cultural industry to dwindle unaided in the 1990s, forcing the industry to develop culturally unsustainable strategies for survival.

Moreover, since Deng Xiaoping, neoliberalism has become the steering ideology of Chinese market “reform and liberation” (Gaige kaifang) (Harvey 2005). The end of Martial Law in Taiwan was also due to pressures of neoliberalization and democratization. Since the 1980s, neoliberalization of the film market in China and Taiwan has unleashed regional competition that Hong Kong had so far been sheltered from. Severe censorship and state-controlled market conditions protecting Hong Kong film from regional competition were eroded. Moreover, neoliberal deregulation of the global film market allows increasing mergers and monopolization of film distribution and exhibition and the withdrawal of government protection for small national cinemas, causing bifurcation of the global film market into global blockbusters and small/medium productions from national cinemas. This has led to the collapse of art-house cinemas globally, making it difficult for Hong Kong’s type of independent, small filmmaking companies to access mainstream film screens, even with much critical/festival acclaim (Interview 1, 2008). As one young regional producer explains,

“Our market used to be twenty percent Korea, forty percent Taiwan, the seven million people in Malaysia was a steady base, Singapore too. Now Taiwan does not watch Hong Kong films anymore. … The other markets are all dwindling, except Malaysia” (Interview 3, 2010).

While other Asian national cinemas with sizeable local populations like Korea and India can rely on the national market to survive, Hong Kong’s small population makes foreign market appeal a necessity (Szeto and Chen, 2011: 254-5).

Mainlandization or co-production

Under such dire conditions, the Hong Kong film industry became desperate for ways to keep the industry alive. The Hong Kong–China co-production model is considered by most as a panacea.

The Hong Kong SAR government is prevented from exercising more effective protectionist policies on behalf of the film industry due to its laissez-faire, free market ideology. The solution is to defer this role to the national government in Beijing, which has such policies in place and can extend its jurisdiction to Hong Kong businesses in the form of the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), effective since January 2004. The target of China’s policy is to assist Hong Kong and Macau exclusively to access the widely expanding market in mainland China. Such a policy pertains to several industries.

With specific reference to film, CEPA offers a spectrum of preferential market liberalization measures extended only to Hong Kong and Macau but not to foreign countries:

These policies privileging cross-border co-productions, act as pull factors. The declining local and Asian markets act as push factors. Together, they resulted in the accelerated restructuring of the Hong Kong film industry towards mainlandization.

A new era of cross-border co-production between mainland China and Hong Kong film companies has ensued. This is what we call mainlandization, meaning that all film production segments, from pre-production, production, post-production to distribution, increasingly take place in mainland China. Hong Kong-China co-productions certainly have increased production opportunities, due to their ability to tap into the increasing number of deep-pocketed Chinese investors, who have made their first barrel of gold in other sectors of the booming Chinese economy and are now becoming interested in the glamour of film investment.

Cross-border co-production also involves co-financing and profit-sharing. According to CEPA, co-production faces no cap on the proportion of principal creative personnel from Hong Kong, so long as at least one-third of the main cast comes from China. This is extremely easy to achieve. By categorizing only three stars as principle leads, having one star from China already qualifies a film as a co-production. Listing one more executive producer or executive director from China in the crew list also works. Thus, since 2006, almost half of the 50 “Hong Kong” films made every year have been co-produced. However, this neoliberal policy with Chinese characteristics is defined by a paradoxical coupling of selective market liberalization with tight ideological censorship (Szeto and Chen, 2011). Thus, although CEPA co-production deregulates the film market to allow a flexible flow of capital between Hong Kong and China, it continues to regulate the flow of ideas and of labor.

Incentive is high for Hong Kong film investors and above-the-line film laborers to pursue Hong Kong-China co-production as a way out for the crumbling industry. A top corporate executive from Media Asia explains that before CEPA, Hong Kong film companies entering China “must go through state assigned distributors” and “cannot choose our own distributor.” Now with Hong Kong-China co-production status, a film gets “local treatment.” He says,

“We also have the right to distribute ourselves or choose our own local distribution partners. …This allows a company room to negotiate between a thirty percent to forty percent profit share, and the ten percent difference can be extremely significant for big budget films like Peter Chan’s The Warlords, which took in twenty million box-office in China … and … Lau Wai-Keung, Mak Siu-Fai’s Initial D and Confession of Pain … which numerically pulled in close to twenty million. Compared to the thirteen percent to fifteen percent profit share of import films, industry leaders increasing opt for co-production with China” (Interview 4, 2008).

The increasing significance of Hong Kong film having access to the formidable Chinese market is crystal clear. Moreover, China offers cheap locations and labor, along with a diversity of geographical locations for the selection of scenes and sites. Thus, big budgets pour into film-making in China and major talents all start exploring the possibility of mainlandization. Hong Kong investors and filmmakers suddenly find it imperative to capture the Chinese market. Ways in which the mainlandization of Hong Kong film production impacts on local film labor will be explored in detail in the following section.

To work or not to work

For Hong Kong film labor, this new and improved opportunity to return to film production has its dilemmas. To work or not to work in Hong Kong-China co-production films is often a struggle. We have documented these struggles below in more detail.

Censorship with budget versus freedom of expression without budget 

The most common compromise that Hong Kong producers and directors have to face in Hong Kong-China co-productions is State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) censorship. To qualify for Hong Kong-China co-production status, film scripts must pass SARFT censorship before shooting, and final cuts must pass censorship again to acquire screening permission. This implies that such films must tailor content to official SARFT parameters and even preemptively self-censor to avoid last minute cuts, bans and other release uncertainties. For example, a young Hong Kong director (Director A) tells us his dilemma in making a typical kungfu film under the co-production regime:

“First, [co-production films] cannot show an assembly of people that might mislead the audience into thinking of them as ‘gang members’. You cannot show one kungfu master and pupils enter another kungfu master’s hall to challenge the other, [the martial arts challenge being a typical kungfu genre motif] because that is considered the behavior of gangsters. In any case, no assembly of people, no group fights.”

“Second, [the Chinese authority] thinks that our film doesn’t have mainland elements, so they require us to shoot one-third of our film in mainland China. Moreover, we need to cut down on Hong Kong elements, so no Hong Kong police uniform should appear on the screen.”

“I rewrote the script many times [to pass censorship], and when I did the third rewrite submission, they [the Chinese authority] want me to change a dialogue that is very crucial to my film, which I did a lot of research on. That’s the most interesting point I want to make, which makes my film different from the other films in the same genre [kungfu films]. It’s a brand new language that I really want to introduce in my film. But the authority insists that I change, and their feedback reads, ‘In China, this is the rule all along [the authorities have the right to change dialogues]’. In the end, I reached a consensus with my producer that this is but a low budget film, and if we cannot even have this tiny little bit of freedom of creativity, why bother shooting the film at all? So, we decide not to go for co-production. But this decision will make us suffer a lot, because the budget will be halved [due to some withdrawal of investment]. We will have to shorten the actual shooting to around ten days. The crews will suffer because we cannot afford to hire stunt people… so on and so forth. 

“Then, we discover that if we partner with a local ‘left-wing film company’ [pro-Beijing film company] in Hong Kong, they can help us deal with all the paper work. Through changing the film title, they can help us file our project as a separate new application… and get the permission to film in a month! That’s a miracle, because even though on paper it is a co-production film, there is no mainland element in it” (Interview 5, 2010).

This is a lucky case, as Director A finds a “creative way” to both secure a reasonable—but still small—budget from Chinese investors in the name of co-production while also defying censorship through “creative paper work” with the help of a pro-Beijing film company. However, this case illustrates the dependence on mainland investment needed to make Hong Kong films nowadays. This new dependency forces most Hong Kong filmmakers, who insist on their freedom of expression and inclusion of Hong Kong cultural sensibilities and socio-political content, to go through similar struggles. From film labor’s standpoint, to not make such compromises results in losing a sizeable investment from China and thus having to produce a film on an unreasonably low budget. The latter option means everyone working on the film suffers tighter schedules and lower payments. This often means a compromise in quality as well. That is the dilemma for Hong Kong filmmakers today.

However, not every Hong Kong director “suffers.” Some simply see mainlandization and the emergence of talents and the film market in China as inevitable, a given and even a good thing for Hong Kong film. Peter Chan, a very famous and successful Hong Kong director and producer with many successful co-production films selling billions in RMB under his name once, told us:

“China has enough money enough talent and enough people to watch Chinese films, and with these three ‘enoughs’, it’s gonna become very strong… Then, Chinese film will become the alternative to Hollywood film.”

“The ten biggest cities in China account for populations of about 150 to 200 millions, that’s the population of Japan. … If you make Chinese language films with China as your base audience, you would be able to make films that continue the tradition of Hong Kong. There are still other ideas that ... you have not even dared to dream about ... in Hong Kong, because of location and budget. China is a big new arena. No matter where you make the film, it’s still a Hong Kong film” (Chan, H.S., Peter 2008).

Thus, Director A’s dilemma is Peter Chan’s opportunity. Chan insists that his identity is still a Hong Kong director and not a Chinese director. The only thing that changes for him is that the film is not “made in Hong Kong” but “made by Hong Kong” (Chan, H.S., Peter 2008).

Bifurcation in the labor market:
winner-take-all versus wage-benefit cuts

This co-production model allows experienced, above-the-line producers and directors to make it big beyond Hong Kong, often faring better in China. Their survival and success however, actually depends on sacrificing Hong Kong junior and below-the-line laborers as jobs migrate to China. This bifurcation between “above- and below-the-line crews” has exacerbated a “winner-take-all” phenomenon in the Hong Kong film industry. A gradual hollowing-out effect in the Hong Kong film-making community has resulted in the shrinking of the local labor market and the tarnished dream of upward mobility for young film graduates.

As in other industries in Hong Kong, the shift of parts of the production process up north to China, which is part of a large-scale trend in outsourcing in search of lower production costs, means that investment going north will bring with it only the irreplaceable chief creative talents and labor functions that film producers cannot find in China. As a result, Hong Kong jobs that can find cheaper and comparable labor in China will be lost. Thus, below-the-line workers will need to take pay cuts and travel north to compete, or they have to leave the industry all together. It is now harder to find work in Hong Kong as large budget co-productions have moved north and small budget productions are infrequent and badly paid.

Wage and benefit cuts for the section head  

A young production assistant remarks that many people have left the industry because companies begin to cut over-time pay, hire less people to do the same work and cut the daily per diem for jobs outside Hong Kong. Even when the head of each craft section was hired to go north, their wages and benefits have all been cut over the years, especially with increasing competition from their Chinese counterparts. Such cuts are rationalized by senior Hong Kong producers and filmmakers in the following manner, as John Shum explains: 

“Per-diem has been canceled for a very long time. Why? Because in the past, going out of Hong Kong to shoot is real [i.e. going to foreign countries other than mainland China]. Therefore, we have per-diem for that time. Today, we go to mainland China frequently, and if you ask for per-diem [every time you cross the border], then you are dead [because of the cost]. So, I’d rather not employ you [thinks the boss]. Then the person [Hong Kong film laborer] will have to choose to give up his/her per-diem, in exchange for continued work in mainland China” (Interview 6, 2010).

In another interview, a boom operator describes the predicament of sub-contracted labor. These days, such craftworkers are paid a flat amount for a unit of work: salary, equipment rental, equipment maintenance and insurance inclusive. Due to their work’s “contract manufacturing” nature, they have to bear all the risks of production. Sometimes companies refuse to wait for the processing time to import equipment properly from Hong Kong into China and would like the craftworkers to smuggle the gear in. These technicians would rather not take such risks. If caught, their equipment would be confiscated. If hired in a sub-contractor role, they would need to absorb the loss. In addition to taking the risk, their unit pay has been declining from HK$5000 per nine hours to per fourteen hours (Interview 7, 2009). 

Job replacement for technicians 

If the section heads suffer cuts when they get jobs in Hong Kong-China co-productions, then their subordinates fare worse. They have no chance of getting hired in the new regime of co-production. As a lighting master and gaffer with thirty years of experience in the industry explains:

“These days, when we compare the technicians from Hong Kong and from China, you can say that Hong Kong technicians are not as hard-working and not learning fast enough. Therefore, when Chinese technicians are willing to learn faster, and are much cheaper to employ, why would anyone want to hire any Hong Kong technicians [to shoot in mainland China]? … In the eyes of the bosses, if they can make you hire two [mainland] technicians for five thousand dollars, why would they spend thirty thousand to hire one Hong Kong technician? … [A quick follow-up question by us: ‘But the thirty thousand dollars Hong Kong technician has more experience, isn’t it?’]…Yes, he might have more experience, but the bosses won’t care about this. They just need to hire an experienced head [of lighting like the interviewee to lead the inexperienced Chinese technicians], and thus, the experienced [Hong Kong] technicians are considered dispensable” (Interview 8, 2009) .

Clearly, below-the-line Hong Kong film workers have limited chances in the co-production regime. They are lucky to get hired in co-production films at all. And they do get hired when it is actually a locally made film (with mainly Chinese investors), or it is part of a co-production film with shoots in Hong Kong, thus requiring a Hong Kong team B.

Family and lifestyle issues in cross-border jobs 

Many experienced film workers are aged thirty to fifty, and many section heads have just started a family. If they choose to spend more time with their newborn children and young families, then going north to work on co-production films becomes a challenge. When the production is in Hong Kong, they can at least go home everyday after long hours of shooting. But when production moves to China, and the whole production period extends from one month to even half a year, which is a common situation, this becomes a serious challenge for “family men and women,” especially those with infants and young children. With shrinking budgets and fewer films made in Hong Kong, how can such film careers survive without the film labor willing to work in the mainland?

An award winning art director explains:

“Because I want to be with my kid, so I reject a lot of big budget co-production films. ... If I take up a job, it often means half a year away from home.”

“Apart from film making, I also work [as an art director] in MV [music video] production, advertisement, theater and music concerts. As many filmmakers also cross-over to do other jobs in Hong Kong [as an alternative to filmmaking in mainland China], they will ask me to work with them [on their non-movie platforms]” (Interview 9, 2009).

For those who are single or those who have resolved family issues, working in China is still not an easy task. Cultural differences in language, craftwork conventions, food and lifestyle in general are not easy to cope with. Many local Cantonese-speaking film labors speak heavily-accented Putonghua. Thus, Hong Kong workers face difficulties communicating with mainland filmmakers and crews. Working abroad is difficult in general, requiring strong motivation and adaptability to cultural differences. To put it bluntly, the job and the pay have to be worth the pain. This is unlikely, except for the most passionate film lovers. As most young Hong Kong film graduates prefer relatively stable jobs and working in Hong Kong, many have moved into advertising, television or other media-related work. Since bifurcation in production organization is clearly disadvantageous for below-the-line crew, the Hong Kong film industry is facing severe succession and sustainability issues.

Weak unions with paternalistic overtones

The traditionally weak unions in the Hong Kong film industry further undermine labor rights in the midst of mainlandization. Most below-the-line interviewees know of or have experienced labor exploitation, and most agree that their unions are not doing much to protect their rights. An assistant director complains that their profession fails even to form a union due to their transitional status (aspiring eventually to become directors) and frequent change of employment (Interview 10, 2008). Neither has affiliation with the directors’ guild ever proved helpful in industrial bargaining. John Shum, an industry leader who has been active in championing film-worker rights concur that although the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers is already trying to encourage its ten member unions to act-up, film investors have many ways to deflect the pressure of union mediation and collective bargaining. Investors can offer job conditions in a “take-it-or-leave-it manner,” because they can hire people outside Hong Kong and cut costs in all sorts of ways (Interview 6, 2010). Experienced film workers all express preference for work with Hollywood or Canadian companies, for they have better work conventions and better labor terms.

Weak unions also contribute partly to the low status of scriptwriters in Hong Kong. Even award-winning scriptwriters cannot protect their script’s integrity from the butchering of directors, who often change the scripts as they please or according to producer or investor requests. Sometimes insistent big stars join in the script-butchering. Traditionally, the director-centered production system has dominated Hong Kong film production, making collective creativity difficult. The key function of a full and complete script is to act as an anchor to coordinate different parties during shooting. In Hong Kong, often everyone has to put away the script and listen to the director’s new instructions on the spot. Speaking to such circumstances, a boom operator explained to us the inherited weakness of the director-centered production system in which directors often direct without a script, thus increasing the cost of coordinating on the spot:

“I have worked in the industry for thirty years, and have witnessed the decline of Hong Kong film, not due to copyright infringement issues, but due to the problems with the script. [A lot of times,] there is no discussion between the director [and the actors and crew] until the last minute before filming, because the original script was fake [disregarded or non-existent, just made up to secure investment]. The actors have to decide what to say in the last ten seconds. As site recording artists and boom operators, we just have to stand-by and stand-still. For example, Tsui Hark was making a big film with big, costly sets in mainland China. When the American producer came and found that he has no script, the producer felt that the whole film was unprofessional and he would rather lose a ten million contract by refusing to make the film than doing it this way.”

“With a proper script, our job is much easier. Otherwise, we don’t even know where to put the microphone. The actor might suddenly decide to loosen his tie [due to last minute script change], then we will have to ask the director to stop the actor from doing that [as it will affect the recording quality of the microphone fixed near the tie]. The director will usually respond by saying, ‘Don’t interfere, let the actor perform naturally.’ But the film is a collective creation, our input is equally important. What if they finally decide to use that on-site recording and the quality is marred? Yet if the director insists, there will be many conflicts. … In the normal circumstance, the director should shout ‘roll the sound’ first, but nowadays, directors simply shout ‘roll.’ We don’t know what he really wants to roll [sound or film or both]. This will cause wastage of film negative. It [coordination through a full script] sounds like a simple task, and yet, since I entered the industry in the mid 1970s, sound coordination has not improved at all” (Interview 11, 2009).

However, if over time Hong Kong filmmakers’ competitive advantage does not derive from improving skills and coordination, then “cost” becomes the crucial element when competing with mainland production teams. Hong Kong’s director-centered production system overwhelmingly concentrates power in the hands of a few and so it actually weakens the collective innovation capabilities of Hong Kong film-making as a whole. Only a few creative talents “in commanding positions” remain competitive within mainlandization, i.e. their skills are still in demand in the co-production regime. In our interviews with production crews above and below the line, there is a consensus that only four types of creative talents— producers, directors, art directors and cinematographers—from Hong Kong have market value in the co-production regime. All the rest, including scriptwriters are dispensable in the new co-production system.

Compared to Hollywood, we assume that a stronger scriptwriters’ union advocating for better protection of scriptwriters’ rights is one of the important factors that could “counter-balance” the director’s power. With better protection, pay and respect for scriptwriting, then perhaps, more local talent would join the scriptwriting sector. The rebirth of Hong Kong film relies on having more creative scripts with local sensibilities and cultural content. Today, compared to the position of scriptwriters in Korea and Taiwan, scriptwriters in Hong Kong continue to be outrageously underpaid, legally exploited, and subordinated in the creative process.

Unions in Hong Kong are still legally not granted the right to “collective” bargaining, an outrageous result of the postcolonial government’s reverting to an older colonial law after 1997, and union protection of film labor rights is still weak. Nevertheless, our interviews show that the film labor unions still play a critical role in protecting the rights of members, although in a paternalistic and individualistic way. When we asked the Executive Secretary of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers on the issue of the lack of copyright protection for original scripts, he rebutted:

“You register your script, and if a person steals your idea, … you can come to me to complain. I use my position to talk to the influential big brothers, and they will remind the person who wants to steal the idea that the script has been registered with the union, and it is suicidal to go against the union … and invasion of human right is not right. … The original creator has to register the film title, and if the person wants to use the title without the original creator’s endorsement, meaning the original creator is not being paid yet, then I will not let this happen. I will remind this person that he took the ideas from a registered script and he better think twice” (Interview 6, 2010).

Relying on his own reputation, influence and status in the industry, the secretary of the federation can settle disputes individually and privately. Since filmmaking is a shrinking industry, inevitably unions become weaker. Although these paternalistic and informal ways of resolving disputes is not ideal, it nevertheless provides a last resort to uphold limited justice for creative labors.  


Mainlandization—the emerging Hong Kong-Mainland China co-production regime targeting the Chinese market—provides Hong Kong filmmakers a double-edged sword. It provides badly needed capital and market for the revival of Hong Kong film, but it also turns Hong Kong film inside out. In some extreme cases, the only marker that can be used to claim a co-production as a Hong Kong film is that the director is from Hong Kong.

In terms of censorship, content-wise, large budget co-production films need to be sanitized and censored to eliminate any hint or implication that might be taken to imply criticisms about the Chinese communist party and its institutions. Portrayal of the police and all uniformed personnel must be positive. Historical accuracy is dangerous since history can be easily read allegorically to imply suggestions about modern, contemporary, and present conditions of Chinese Communist rule. Ghost films and related genres are by default prohibited as they contain materials that promote superstition. Triad and violent films are banned or such contents are minimized as such content or style violates the central government’s policy leitmotif of “harmonious society.” All these censored genres and themes are in fact major genres and themes of Hong Kong film and have both local and global audience appeal. In contrast, sanitized Hong Kong-China co-productions find it hard to appeal to Hong Kong, Asian and global audiences. So long as censorship remains, one would likely have to make the difficult choice between the Chinese market and the rest.

Even among the limited themes allowed by SARFT, the mainstream taste of audiences in mainland China and Hong Kong differ. Thus, mainstream blockbuster co-production films that target the Chinese market often do poorly in Hong Kong and overseas. However, with a heavily controlled quota for foreign films, the Chinese audience oftentimes has not much choice but to stick to visually spectacular co-production films. Ironically, the near monopoly of Hong Kong-China co-production films in the domestic Chinese market generates super profits and so continues to lure more Hong Kong directors into this mode of production. Like Hollywood, which is basically a local film industry catering to U.S tastes that just so happens to be capable of globalization due to U.S. cultural, economic and political clout, co-production films can survive terribly well as a local film industry catering to mainland Chinese audiences.  

Finally, the “big budget for big market” mentality is also squeezing out the space for middle-budget films, which since the 1980s used to be the dominant mode of production in Hong Kong film. The disappearing of middle-range budget films means the golden opportunities to train new filmmakers also diminish. These days, uncompromised Hong Kong filmmakers have to struggle with small budget films targeting the competitive international film festival market. Chances of success are made increasingly slim.

With the changing ecology of the Hong Kong film landscape, not only veterans but also college-trained newbies face the “to work or not to work” dilemma. Either one works on very small budget local films, or becomes reconciled to play a small or compromised role in big budget co-productions targeting the mainland market.  

However, crises often come with opportunities. Reform-minded filmmakers are getting organized and starting to find third ways for Hong Kong film. A Hong Kong producer with nearly forty years of experience explains how her third way works in promoting Hong Kong local films:  

“If you make big budget films, you have to guarantee that it will make huge profits [in the Chinese market]. Then, you can use the profit to subsidize many small budget films. On average, we make ten movies per year, one film makes big money, three films break even, and six films lose money. The key is to make sure that it is the small budget films that lost money. In this way, you can nurture a bunch of behind the scene and in the lime-light film labors, and also nurture a good relationship with emerging talents and markets. … Sometimes, small films do become the next big thing. … As a producer, one wants to nurture the chances of discovering new talents and inventing new markets and trends” (Interview 12, 2010).  

More precisely, she said she sets apart one million U.S. dollars (7.8 million HKD) to support small budget films per year. She also assigns a more experienced producer to help the inexperienced filmmakers from Hong Kong. Using her personal influence to pull in resource and stars who are willing to join such projects for very low pay (as a way to show support for Hong Kong film), even these small budget local film productions can acquire more solid commercial grounds. Ivy Ho’s Crossing Hennessey (2010) starring Jacky Cheung and Tang Wei is an example.

In fact, many successful actors like Andy Lau and Eric Tsang are famous for investing their own money to support younger and/or alternative filmmakers on small-and-medium budget films with no censorship compromises. In this way, quite a few award-winning small budget films were made. For example, two small budget films directed by Ann Hui, The Way We Are (2009) and A Simple Life (2012) have won best director (2009) and best picture (2012) respectively in the Hong Kong Film Awards. Young Hong Kong SAR New Wave directors also won best pictures in the Hong Kong Film Awards with such funding sources, such as Gallants (2010) by Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng, and Cold War (2012) by first time directors Longman Leung and Sunny Luk. We believe this creative financing and idealism is the backbone behind the Hong Kong SAR New Wave.[7]

All in all, while providing winner-take-all opportunities for stars, producers, directors and investors, mainlandization also destroys the diverse film-making ecology of the Hong Kong film industry, forcing films with local sensibilities and cultural content to struggle for survival on shoe-string budgets. At the same time, this crisis also calls forth a new rethinking about commercial-oriented film making in Hong Kong, and can stimulate a new wave of film-making that is more experimental and genuinely new (the Hong Kong SAR New Wave). This new trend will be a major focus of examination in the coming years and we will report on our industry evaluations again in the next ten years.


1. We thank the Hong Kong Research Grant Council for funding our research (GRF 640708, 2009–2011), “The production networks of the Hong Kong film industry: Flexible specialization, labor market and creative cluster. [return to text]

2. Triad involvement is not unique to Hong Kong film. Typical triad activities include money laundering, forcing famous stars and artists to play major roles in films, or as one informant noted, after being paid their due fees, stars find themselves harassed by “crew” members constantly borrowing money from them that were never repaid…etc. In this research, interviewee anonymity is maintained throughout unless permission is obtained for the disclosure of identity.

3. He said: “It should be less than thirty-five. Some films were publicly released for only one to two days, just in order to push up the price of DVD rights. … These cannot be counted as real releases.” This informant is a famous director and producer who works across different media and performance-exhibition channels and has been in the industry for over thirty-eight years (see Interview 2, 2009).

4. Among the over 70 interviewees we have encountered, none has bad, ego-centric personalities – the stereotypical image of filmmakers. We later realize that due to limited work opportunity since the 1990s, even if you are talented, you will not get a phone call if you are hard to work with (with the exception of big stars). Thus, through the evolution process, the remaining people are often “nicer” comparatively.

5. This refers to pro-market policies such as indirect subsidies to assist capital accumulation (Harvey, 1989). The HK$100 million Film Development Fund (FDF), HK$50 million Film Guarantee Fund (FGF) and the Film Development Council (FDC) established to advice the government on spending HK$300 million to revitalize the film industry are some examples (Chan et al, 2010: 26-7).

6. In 2013, China became the world’s largest film market outside the US. Its box office is “set to pass the US in seven years” (Pulver, 2013).

7. For more on the Hong Kong SAR New Wave, read Szeto and Chen, 2012.


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Interview 2, by Mirana Szeto and Yun-chung Chen, 10 December 2009. This informant is a famous director-cum-producer who crosses-over from film to include theater production. He has been in the industry for over 38 years, working across different media and performance-exhibition channels.

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Interview 4, by Mirana Szeto, 23 September 2008. This informant is a top corporate executive from Media Asia. Media Asia is the most powerful Asian regional film investment company. Its business covers the entire range of media production, distribution and marketing. It also owns a formidable library of titles.

Interview 5, by Yun-chung Chen, 28 Sept. 2010. This informant is a young, important, award-winning Hong Kong SAR New Wave director.

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Interview 7, by Mirana Szeto and Yun-chung Chen, 29 October 2009. This informant is a self-employed, sub-contracting boom operator and recording artist who has joined the industry in 2001.

Interview 8, by Mirana Szeto and Yun-chung Chen, 17 February 2009. This informant is a lighting master and gaffer with thirty years of experience in the industry.

Interview 9, by Mirana Szeto and Yun-chung Chen, 25 May 2009. This informant is a multiple award winning art director with a young family.

Interview 10, by Mirana Szeto and Yun-chung Chen, 2 October 2008. This informant is an assistant director with fifteen years of experience in the industry.

Interview 11, by Mirana Szeto and Yun-chung Chen, 29 October 2009. This informant is a location sound recording artist and boom operator who has worked in the industry for thirty years.

Interview 12, by Mirana Szeto and Yun-chung Chen, 9 April 2010. This informant is an experienced producer with nearly forty years of experience in local and international film production, pre and post-production, marketing and distribution.

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