Deng Xiaoping on his visit to Southern China in 1992, in which he famously asserted that “development is the absolute principle.”

Local Hong Kong artist Ho Siu Nam’s Made in Xianggang, with its ironic articulation of “Hong Kong” in the Chinese Pinyin system as “Xianggang.”

Jacky Chan and then Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger collaborating in an anti-piracy commercial commissioned by the Intellectual Property Department of HKSAR. From the late 1990s to 2000s, much resource has been devoted to combating film piracy in Hong Kong.

Director/producer Peter Chan, whose transition from local Hong Kong production to pan-Asian co-production has brought him extensive commercial success.

The Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 effectively ended the vertical integration of movie studios and theatres, forcing production studios to divest themselves from their theatre chain business.

By the 1950s television became a common form of entertainment, which effectively put an end to the dominating status of the movie industry.

Golden Harvest, an example of mixed mode production.

The Wing-Scope Company, an example of flexible production.

Meiah Entertainment, an example of contract labor production.

Students at the Hong Kong Film Institute receiving vocational training.

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.

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