EFM navigates censorship, piracy issues

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BERLIN - The censorship row surrounding Li Yu's competition title "Lost in Beijing," which screens uncut for buyers at the risk of incensing Chinese censors, may be wunderbar for the film's market buzz.

But what message does it send out about the world's most populous yet still largely impenetrable marketplace?

The word from both buyers and sellers at the EFM is that China continues to emerge as a market, but that issues of censorship and piracy still weigh heavily on business.

"There's some movement. People are always saying China's on the brink of becoming a big market, but it's not yet tipped over," said Roman Kopelevich, vp worldwide sales at Los Angeles-based Bleiberg Entertainment, which recently sold "One Last Dance" to ERG Media for China.

First Look International president Stuart Ford says the opportunity to sell to China is growing. "Chinese buyers are coming to these markets, they are coming in greater numbers and there are deals to be done," Ford said. "But the theatrical marketplace is very restricted and when you do a deal on a film there has to be a feeling of letting the balloon go."

Said Stelios Ziannis, head of world sales at Germany's Kinowelt International: "The censorship is a big issue because the authorities keep changing the rules. One year it will be 10 films from Europe that are allowed a theatrical release, a month later it will be five." Barely 50 foreign titles find their way onto Chinese screens annually.

"Getting paid can be a problem. But that's getting better. Things are getting more professional in terms of partners fulfilling contracts," Ziannis added. "You need a middleman to work with the distributors directly. It's almost impossible to go directly to the TV stations or the theater owners."

Sellers say prices paid for Chinese rights are still meager -- from $3,000-$15,000 for art house titles up to a maximumof $30,000-$40,000 for big Hollywood pictures. "In terms of prices, China is still a small market, smaller even than Taiwan. But the prices are going up -- slowly. More buyers are coming every year and the competition is helping," said Andrew Chang, sales and acquisitions executive for German sales group Media Luna. "Nothing controversial sells. You know that going in. We have a lot of gay titles but we don't even offer them. The only thing they want is family entertainment."

Piracy is so rampant in the country, according to one seller, that the minute the film lands on Chinese shores, it becomes available all over Asia within days. "The piracy issue is massive. It's why the prices paid for distribution rights there are so small," one seller said. "The problem is finding someone you can trust. It's so undeveloped you have to be very careful who you deal with," echoed another.

The answer at present seems to be -- get your film out as quickly as possible -- which means getting it past the censor, a process that can take up to six months. Chinese distributor Domo Media recently scored a huge hit with Luc Besson's fantasy adventure "Arthur and the Invisibles" using this method. The movie is on track to gross about $2 million in China, making it the fourth-biggest animation film of all time in the territory.

"I managed to secure a video copy of the film very early from Europa Corp. and pushed hard for it gain approval in one month," said Domo co-chief Paul Delbecq, a Frenchman based in Beijing.

Wily dealers will make sure they have clauses in contracts that allow for refunds on down payments if a film eventually finds itself blocked. But others occasionally lose their money.

The other big problem is that, despite its vast population, theater infrastructure just isn't there yet. "That will improve over the next few years," Ford predicted. "But it will take time." Some 200-300 screens are coming on tap every year, boosting the potential market.

Meanwhile, the ultimate fate of "Lost in Beijing" and its director and producer is still in the hands of the censor. Sales company Films Distribution is pushing ahead with today's market premiere before a final decision on which version will screen to the festival audience Friday. "The print of the director's is being subtitled tonight (Friday) in English and German," said Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, co-head of Films Distribution. "We still don't know for the festival screening. It's (producer) Fang Li's decision."

As for the ramifications for Li and Fang of today's screening, Brigaud-Robert said it remains uncertain. "They decided to bear whatever trouble comes from the market screening," he said.

Brigaud-Robert describes the Chinese situation as "a perfect paradox," but says the authorities are much more tolerant of imported films than those the Chinese make about themselves. "There's the totalitarian system in opposition to the capitalistic pressure to import luxury goods," he said.

Stuart Kemp contributed to this story.
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