China movie contracts
Photo by George Baird

Over the past couple weeks, the Chinese Internet has been abuzz with chatter about how Chinese movie stars allegedly underreport income via a dual-contract system in which only one contract is disclosed to the tax authorities.

The ruckus started when television personality Cui Yongyuan uploaded a redacted actor employment contract apparently for Chinese A-list actress Fan Bingbing’s work on the upcoming Bruce Willis film Unbreakable Spirit. (Initial reports stated, incorrectly, that the contract was for Fan’s work on the upcoming Feng Xiaogang film Cell Phone 2.)

Cui complained that Fan was massively overpaid – nearly $1.6M for only four days’ work – and her contract was bad for the Chinese film industry. The contract also detailed some of Fan’s allegedly egocentric contractual demands: screenplay rewrites, her own hairstylist and voice artist, luxury car service, a $200+ daily food allowance, and a requirement that the studio also hire her personal makeup artist at more than $12,000/month. Here in the United States, The Smoking Gun and other websites have posted so many celebrity contracts that we are inured to such terms, but Chinese netizens went berserk. Some penned impassioned defenses of Fan; others bemoaned the country’s skewed priorities.

Cui was just getting started. The next day he published a second redacted contract, this one for $7.8M, and intimated that the two contracts were so-called “yin-yang contracts” for Fan Bingbing: a form of tax evasion under which the smaller contract is reported to the tax authorities as income, and the other is unreported and therefore tax-free income.

At this point the Chinese tax authorities got involved and announced they would be investigating various Chinese film companies and also Fan Bingbing’s own production company. Shares in most of China’s major film companies promptly took a dive, presumably on the assumption that accounting flim-flam was rampant.

Meanwhile, the supposed evidence of Fan’s financial misdeeds unraveled nearly from the beginning. Cui conceded that the second contract had no connection to Fan Bingbing and in fact he had no evidence of any tax evasion on her part. Fan has vehemently denied the allegations of a second contract, and has threatened to sue Cui for damage to her reputation. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Actor compensation is an increasingly touchy subject in China, as the government more control over the film industry while also wanting to exert “soft power” through its cultural exports. With the possible exception of Olympic champions, movie stars probably represent China’s most bankable and least controversial form of soft power. But if the stars shine too brightly (or get paid too much), then the optics start to look bad, especially internally. For this reason, last fall the China Alliance of Radio Film and Television passed guidelines (almost certainly at the behest of the Chinese government) seeking to limit actors’ pay in two ways: capping acting fees at 40% of a project’s budget, and capping any one actor’s fee at 70% of the casting budget.

At this point the only thing that seems (relatively) clear is that Fan Bingbing received $1.6M for four days’ work on Unbreakable Spirit. But let’s imagine for a moment that Fan did receive a separate, larger payment via a second contract. There’s no proof this occurred, but even if it did there’s nothing illegal about it, unless the recipient never reported it. Indeed, all of the criticisms leveled against Fan thus far are similarly uncompelling. Consider:

  1. Fan is being paid too much for her acting services. It’s not difficult to muster a convincing argument that as a policy matter celebrities should not be paid more than, say, teachers or scientists. But the producers of Unbreakable Spirit are the ones who have to pay Fan, not the public, and they have obviously made the calculation that Fan is worth it. She is one of the most popular actresses in China, and they’re not running a charity. Why shouldn’t Fan get as much money as possible for her role? Fame (and the attendant paychecks) can be fleeting, and it’s hard to begrudge anyone who demands to be paid what the market says they’re worth. Especially a female actor, in this age of #metoo. If Unbreakable Spirit were an American film no one would think twice about Fan’s compensation.
  2. The contract is with Fan’s company, not her personally. The vast majority of actors in Hollywood are hired through their own companies, usually LLCs called loanout companies. The main reasons for this are to limit liability and to gain preferential tax treatment. The situation in China is similar. Nothing illegal about it.
  3. Fan (might have) signed two contracts for the same film. Fan has her own production company and it’s quite common for big stars to work as actual or de facto producers on a film. That is: they use their fame, connections, and/or money to help get the film financed, made, and distributed. If someone not  an actor did that, they’d be paid as a producer. Nothing illegal or even unusual about having a second contract for different services.
  4. If she signed two contracts, Fan was paid much more for producing than for acting. Actors take lower fees all the time for various reasons. Maybe they love the movie and take less just to get the movie made. Maybe they believe in the movie and will take less upfront for a piece of the profits (or even revenues, as pioneered by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman). Maybe they’re also directing and producing the film and effectively want to invest their sweat equity in the film. It’s also possible Chinese filmmakers may also be trying to avoid the 2017 rule limiting actor compensation. Such a workaround is arguably a gray area but seems difficult to police, especially with talent that legitimately provides more than just acting services. Who should decide the actual value of their acting services?
  5. Fan’s contract requests are outrageous. By Hollywood standards, Fan’s requests for Unbreakable Spirit are neither outrageous nor particularly diva-like; I’ve received bigger, less rational asks from actors who are much less famous. It’s almost expected for an actor (or their agent) to push the envelope and see how much they can get, not least because it establishes a benchmark for the actor’s next picture. And sometimes a seemingly outrageous request has a legitimate purpose, as most famously embodied by Van Halen’s prohibition of brown M&Ms.

Even if Fan Bingbing hasn’t done a single thing wrong (which is very possible), it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that tax evasion is rampant in the film business. Tax evasion is like a national sport in China. Mainland factories regularly misreport income by having payments go to a Hong Kong or Taiwanese holding company. So-called “independent contractors” in China rarely report their income because they and their foreign employer are both operating illegally. And the billion-dollar daigou business is profitable largely through tax and customs fraud.

But if Chinese celebrities are committing tax evasion through two contracts, it’s because they’re not reporting income, not because there’s anything wrong with the two-contract model.