China’s Supporting Actors Want Jobs
For the past 20 years, Liu Jin has performed in dozens of movies. But these days, the 45-year-old can be found selling tea eggs on the streets of Zhuozhou, Hebei province, struggling to make ends meet after failing to find any acting-related jobs in 2022.
Even with a few notable movies under his belt, including a supporting role in the hit comedy “Goodbye Mr. Loser,” the award-winning actor only shot for five days last year, forcing him to seek other options. Every morning, in the northern Chinese city that houses a major film studio, Liu and his wife now rush to sell breakfast to the crowds heading for work.
“I can’t wait any longer for a struggling industry that has suffered from the combined impacts of the state’s restrictions on the movie and television industry and COVID-19 prevention measures over the past four years,” the actor told Sixth Tone.
China’s entertainment sector has been one of the biggest losers in the country’s war against COVID, as productions slowed and theaters shut due to strict virus control measures. Box-office revenues were at an 11-year low in November, while the number of new releases was down by 38% compared with 2021 as of October.
Meanwhile, the television sector has also been struggling. Only 317 TV dramas were released in the first eight months of 2022, slightly lower than 2021 and around one-third of the number in 2018 when the industry was at its peak.
The decline in production and ultimately jobs has led to those working in China’s showbiz, including actors, to either take part-time work or switch career trajectory. While some high-profile actors have capitalized on their fame and started doing livestream sales, lesser-known actors in supporting roles have ended up working as couriers, vegetable vendors, and farmers, according to Liu.
Shanghai-based Shao Yifan left her consultant job to join the entertainment industry four years ago when it was in its heyday, acting in a dozen movies and TV series. But the pandemic and monthslong lockdown in the city greatly affected the work she got — last year, she only made one-third of what she earned in 2021 from acting and started working by selling ads online for additional income.
“If we compare the market to a circle, its diameter has shrunk to only two meters now compared with 10 meters in 2018,” said Shao, who acted in the popular TV drama “I Will Find You a Better Home.” “A-list stars, or those sitting at the center of the circle are not affected, but those at the edge of the circle are left jobless.”
Actors Sixth Tone spoke with also said that the government’s tightening of the approval process and vague guidelines for films and TV dramas have added to their woes. This has led to investors funneling money into safer genres, including shorter TV dramas or patriotic and romantic comedy TV series, which Shao said has significantly reduced the number of productions and work and affected their quality.
The outlook for the country’s entertainment industry was so bad in 2022 that analysts have called it the “most difficult year for the Chinese film market,” adding that the sector was “in urgent need of money.”
The cash crunch and untimely payments have had an impact on some actors keeping up with their personal finances. Li Jiaming, who worked as a supporting actor in several TV series, told Sixth Tone he struggled to pay the medical bills for his father’s cancer treatment and had to take out loans.
“With the exception of celebrities, acting jobs don’t make big bucks,” said 39-year-old Li, adding it was more difficult for middle-aged actors to get jobs. “You either get the money for playing a mediocre role or you get a good role for less pay.”
Li said he has shifted his focus toward making funny videos for social media and joining livestream battles in the hope of receiving tips or promoting certain products to his followers. The actor said the move has worked so far, and he has been able to repay his debts.
Liu also said that his breakfast stand has helped him acquire much-needed cash and made him less anxious about finding acting jobs. Though the income he earns isn’t as much as from films, he makes around 100 yuan to 200 yuan ($15-$30) a day, enough to cover daily living expenses.
“I feel like I have my feet on the ground. There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he said, referring to people who pity the actor’s new streetside gig.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Actors are filmed during a scene in Jilin, Jilin province, Feb. 20, 2022. VCG)