By Wang Wen and Nick Yates
JINAN, Oct. 17 (Xinhua) -- Just over 10 years since major Chinese reform gave private enterprises greater play in the arts industry, such companies are struggling to survive in a sector that they say is under-regulated and dominated by state-run troupes.
As the ongoing 10th China Arts Festival focuses attention on this field, private troupes are reporting that despite the industry's boom, lack of oversight is allowing unscrupulous operators to stage cheap, shoddy productions. These both make greater profits than quality shows and drive disappointed audiences away from the arts.
Undercut by their copycats, upmarket private arts enterprises are meanwhile finding it hard to compete against better-funded state-run groups.
"Performance management companies usually survive for no more than three years. That's even shorter for private troupes," says Li Xiaojie, general manager of Shenzhen-based Oriental Charm Culture-Transmitting Co., Ltd..
Li and her husband have run their private performance management firm for 10 years, a period in which its registered capital has been raised from 500,000 yuan (82,000 U.S. dollars) to 10 million yuan.
The company's development reflects China's decade-long cultural sector reform that began in 2002. At the 16th Communist Party of China National Congress in November 2002, non-profit cultural undertakings and the commercial cultural industry were separated.
The government initiated a reform of printing houses, film studios, newspapers, radio and TV stations as well as arts troupes, bringing those formerly government-affiliated agencies to the market.
The cultural industry has since become a new growth point for the country's economic development. In 2012, the industry's total output value exceeded 4 trillion yuan, with exports of cultural products amounting to 21.73 billion U.S. dollars.
While private players have rushed to take a slice of the pie, many have not found it as tasty as it appears on the surface.
"Lack of supervision on pricing and program quality has made it difficult for companies that really want to produce high-end programs to earn money," says Gong Maicheng, general manager of Yuyuan Cultural.
In Gong's experience, audiences usually think high prices mean high quality; but without market supervision, this is not always the case. When the audience is cheated once, they are unlikely to return to a theater again. In this way, the market loses customers, high-quality programming loses profits and only speculators get the money.
Each year, Gong's company produces one children's drama with more than a million yuan of investment. "But so many rivals make children's drama with only hundreds of thousands of yuan. They price their show the same as ours or even higher, and parents don't know which is better for their kids," he explains.
In second-and-third-tier cities, Gong and his team often discover copycat posters and products related to their work, but he can do nothing to stop the rip-off merchants.
Government-backed arts organizations, on the other hand, begin on a much stronger financial footing.
Ji Xiaolan, a singer and the president of the Shanghai Hailin Jazz Orchestra, says what bothers her and fellow presidents of private troupes is lacking government support.
"The country does not value private troupes, as it still puts so many resources into supporting state-run groups," according to Ji.
After six years of hard work, she and her orchestra have won loyal fans in Shanghai, but touring the country is still financially difficult.
"The government should increase subsidies so that private troupes can survive," she believes. But the singer adds that the government should also introduce an assessment system in order to rule out less-qualified operators and give more support to quality programs.
"The district government in Shanghai now gives each private troupe 20,000 yuan a year, no matter what programs they are offering. It's not helping development of private troupes, and it does no good to regulate the performing market," Ji says.
For Li Xiaojie and her competitors based in the southern city of Shenzhen, the government input they are calling for also includes the building of more theaters.
In 10 years, the number of performances staged annually in Shenzhen has increased from 20 to nearly 600, but the blossoming performance scene hasn't led to better venues.
"Theaters are state-run and performance schedules are easily disrupted when there are conferences and meetings to be held. In those cases, we lose money for sure," Li explains.
She adds that because local theaters are small, she has to raise ticket prices to make ends meet, but costly tickets may result in a decline in audience. "It's a vicious cycle."
There are signs of hope on the horizon. Provincial governments across the nation are building more theaters, music halls and libraries in order to offer better facilities for residents to enjoy their cultural life.
In east China's Shandong Province, the provincial government invested 7.7 billion yuan to build 13 new theaters and refurbish 22 in preparation for the 10th China Art Festival, which is being held in the province from Oct. 11 to Oct. 26.
The newly built and refurbished venues are expected to continue offering high-quality shows after the festival closes.
Meanwhile, private troupes and state-owned troupes are working together.
This arrangement can be seen in a sci-fi children's play named "Future Soldiers and Transformers" that Li Xiaojie produced this year and which is expected to tour China to give more than 100 performances.
Her company financed the production of the play, owns its copyright and has taken charge of advertisement while a state-run professional troupe is providing actors and actresses.
"It's a win-win situation, both companies can pay less and earn more," says Li.
In Shanghai, where private troupes are more established, troupes work together on performances.
Ji is planning to take her troupe to Canada, Japan, Korea and the United States in 2014 as she believes the overseas market is huge.
Li's ambition is similarly bold. "I was the survivor of the past decade, I want to be the winner of the next decade," she says, explaining that whenever she gets an opportunity, she will take China's plays, dramas and operas abroad.
"But leaving China is only the first step. I want to make "made-in-China" performances accepted and applauded by mainstream markets overseas," adds Li.