'Happyness' to break Chinese ban

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BEIJING -- China's blackout of Hollywood films has been broken by the Will Smith starrer "The Pursuit of Happyness," which Chinese film import officials now say will be released here in January.

The release of the Sony title about a father struggling to raise a child on his own in 1980s San Francisco would dispel recent talk of a three-month ban of Hollywood films from Chinese cinemas.

" 'Happiness Knocks at the Door' (the film's Chinese title) is coming in January. We are planning what day to release it," Yuan Wenqiang, China Film Group Import Export Co. deputy manager, said in a telephone interview.

The unofficial ban of imported films, earlier denied by China Film Group executives, was thought to have come down from on high in the Communist government, which long has moved to prevent what it calls "pollution" of domestic culture and to protect the struggling domestic film industry.

China's total 2006 boxoffice returns were 2.6 billion yuan ($352 million) in 2006, a fraction of the global boxoffice of $40 billion. This year, China's four top-earning boxoffice hits all emanated from Hollywood, led by "Transformers," which earned more than 100 million yuan ($13.5 million).

Talk of a ban emerged during an international movie industry conference in Macau in early December, when MPAA representatives and Hollywood executives leaked details of the so-called ban just prior to broader U.S.-China trade talks.

At the trade talks outside Beijing last week, U.S. trade officials said that their Chinese counterparts expressed displeasure at America's raising of a legal complaint at the World Trade Organization in April over China's efforts to protect intellectual property rights.

Film imports were not addressed in the terms of China's accession to the WTO in 2000.

Hollywood has been pressing China for better market access and for better protection from the widespread Chinese manufacture and sale of illegal copies of movies from around the world.

China long has granted domestic films free rein at the boxoffice during the peak December moviegoing period by refusing release dates to imported films. Only 20 imported films are allowed to earn money for their non-Chinese distributors at the boxoffice each year.

Chinese film scholars said the threat of extending the typical December blackout of imported films into the new year, real or unrealized, was a reaction to cultural differences with the U.S.

"In China, litigation means loss of face," Teng Jimeng, professor of film and American studies at Beijing's Foreign Studies University, said in an interview. "No brothers or partners would go to court to settle disputes. Litigation is the last resort, and they break relationship if litigation occurs. With China unable to break its trade relationship with the U.S. in reality, an unannounced ban is the choice, because it does not cost anything to return to the 'business as usual' state of affairs, say three months later."

Chinese theater owners and operators, who make the bulk of their money from imported films, expressed hope that the release of "Happyness" in January will signal that other imports would soon be allowed.

"I am happy about it, but so far it's the only one," said Wayne Zhang, general manager of the Xinyinglian cinema circuit's six-screen, 831-seat multiplex in downtown Beijing, operated jointly by EDKO of Hong Kong. "Hollywood films have done really well this year, so a lot of theater owners will be happy. Chinese or foreign, we're happy if the movies are good," Zhang told The Hollywood Reporter.

"Happyness" was submitted for import approval in the spring and was first granted a Dec. 30 release date, said a Hollywood studio executive who declined to be named.

The film now has been granted a Jan. 17 release date and will be shown on 350 to 380 screens in digital projection theaters.
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