High celebrity payments a tax on ignorance

By Berlin Fang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, March 15, 2017
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Chinese media is fuming over the rapid rise in celebrities' incomes. In 2016 Actress Zhou Xun netted an astounding 95 million yuan ($13.77 million) for a leading role in the TV series Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace. Sun Li, Zhao Wei and Wu Yifan were also paid tens of millions of yuan. Celebrities' payments are growing faster than housing prices.

What are we supposed to make of this? Not much really. There is little point arguing whether actors deserve the astronomical payments.

This is not a fair world to start with. Celebrity payment, though absurd, is governed by the laws of demand. Where there is a demand, there is a market. If the balance tilts, the invisible hands of the market will adjust it.

If it provides any comfort to those who get mad about such issues, celebrities elsewhere are also paid huge amounts of money. And for the most part, people are fine with it.

For whatever reason, movie and sports stars seem to have the license to earn obscene amounts of money. They are charming. They bring sparks of joy in the dull existence of many people. According to Oscar Wilde, we are all in the gutter, "but some of us are looking at the stars". With smog hiding our starry nights, some of us can at least look at stars on the screen.

As celebrity payments rise, producers start to complain that such payments squeeze the budget and leave little money for post-production, which in turn hurts the overall quality of their works. But this is a non-issue. The producers are aware that celebrities can bring returns that far surpass the payments they get. If they have not done such shrewd cost-benefit analysis, they will not seek out celebrities. If they sign up celebrities for such roles, they should face the consequences.

Besides, astronomical celebrity payments do not lower the quality of artistic productions. Lack of creativity does. If producers do not jump on the celebrity bandwagon for quick cash, if they dare to take risks with newer faces or fresh, creative scripts, they could change the ecology of the entertainment industry. They may claim that they are helpless in the midst of market forces, but there are choices they can make. They can take the roads less traveled and choose to broaden our artistic horizon. These producers may be trapped in the very problems they complain about. They choose to gamble on the pull of celebrities, not artistic expression, when creativity, not celebrity, should be the core of their works.

Fans also contribute to the demand for highly paid celebrities. They tend to settle for mediocre productions as long as their favorite stars are playing roles. It does not have to be that way. Stars create tunnel vision for fans who tend to ignore everything else in artistic works. Celebrities can also become "idols". Fans travel long distances to airports and wait patiently just to have a glimpse of a celebrity.

At the end of the day, producers don't pay for the celebrities. Fans do. They choose not to read. They choose not to think. And they choose to allow their minds to decay into a state of uselessness.

While producers and actors clash over who gets a bigger slice of the pie, I am more worried that most people nowadays eat just pies and ignore the real food-those small but sincere productions by aspiring new directors, those thought-provoking books, and those original soul-stirring music, plays and fine arts. We should pay attention to them, treat their creators well, pay a fair compensation for their work. Not for a moment should we allow some celebrities to numb our senses. We have to remember that the rising celebrity payments are probably a tax for stupidity.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

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