By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
February 19, 2012 from Shanghai, China
I would have liked to put the headline for this story in giant, screaming, 48-point font. To be the first to inform you of ground-breaking news.
I would have liked to present you with the scoop that China has increased its movie import quota from the previous 20 films to the new level of 34 each year, and that it has raised the revenue share it will remit to foreign producers from 13-17 percent of box office takings to a more generous 25 percent in future.
But you already knew all that.
Here in Beijing, there’s been scant mention of any of this in the media. The government has been keeping a tight lid on a story that it apparently prefers to keep quiet in the PRC. In a day full of meetings on Saturday with film distributors, producers, and even the powerful head of China Film Group’s production division, not one person I spoke with was even remotely aware of the news. I only found out about it because a handful of friends back home in the USA were kind enough to email me stories from Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.
In fact, the front page headlines in Sunday’s China Daily (and all the pages that followed) have nothing to do with movies. Instead, the lead story reports—somewhat ironically—about Vice President Xi’s insistence that Washington loosen up its own trade restrictions that limit exports of American technology to China. China badly wants to access American innovations in such areas as civil aviation, integrated circuits, machine tools and other products. American movies and TV, not so much.
In fact the timing of the film quota announcement was rather awkward for the Chinese Communist Party, given that it came on the heels of a week of tough talk in Beijing about eliminating foreign TV programs from Chinese prime time broadcasts, and a general mood of xenophobic aversion to western cultural imports. The silence here about the shift in film import policy is deafening.
The policy shift was not exactly what Hollywood and the MPAA were asking for, but it is nevertheless big news, and I expect my producer and distributor friends back home are in a jubilant mood today. As Vice President Biden put it, “The agreement with China will make it easier than ever before for U.S. studios and independent filmmakers to reach the fast growing Chinese audience, supporting thousands of American jobs in and around the film industry.”
Specifically, the new agreement will allow, in addition to the previously authorized 20 foreign films per year, another 14 “enhanced” films, such as those made in 3D or IMAX formats. This last point is interesting, as it allows the Chinese government a bit of face-saving. The loosening of the quota might appear to folks in the PRC as capitulation by Beijing to US pressure, but the “enhanced” film requirement allows the Chinese to characterize the agreement as a ‘technological advance.’
After some investigation with studio and government connections in Beijing I’ve learned that there are important additional elements to the agreement which would smooth the process for mounting China-US co-productions, and also make it easier for US companies to set up joint ventures in China. But there are undoubtedly countless details to sort out before the new agreement can be implemented, and China could well drag its feet in putting the new policies in place. None of the U.S. press articles I saw mentioned any implementation timetable.
Of course, if you’re an attentive reader of this blog you know that film-related announcements from China are often overblown, exaggerative, and sometimes just plain false. Everyone got it wrong—myself included—in speculating that Jeffrey Katzenberg had arranged for Vice President Xi Jinping to announce a $2 billion joint venture between Shanghai Media, China Media Capital and Dreamworks Animation. Instead Jeffrey made the announcement himself regarding a far more modest $330 million deal.
Even former MPAA chief Jack Valenti got egg on his face back in 1994 when he proclaimed that he had negotiated a contract to lift all Chinese quotas and completely open up the Chinese entertainment market to Hollywood content. He later learned to his disappointment that he had negotiated the deal with a CCP apparatchik who lacked any decision-making authority.
If and when the new quota rules do get implemented, the biggest winners won’t be American studios, independents, or filmmakers. The biggest winners will be China Film Group and the PRC’s theater operators. With 14 additional Hollywood films to release each year, they’ll collectively rake in some $600 million or $700 million in incremental box office during the first year alone, with much more in subsequent years. 75 percent of that amount will stay in their pockets, making them the real beneficiaries of China’s ‘conciliatory’ moves.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at email@example.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.