Hong Kong Filmart: Chinese Online Firms, Viewers Await New Censorship Rules

Helen Sloan/HBO
'Game of Thrones' could face censorship in China from April 1

New rules on digital content are due to be handed down April 1 and are most likely to affect overseas material.

Chinese audiences and streaming companies are waiting anxiously to assess the impact of a raft of tough new rules due to come into force next week that will require close censorship of feature films, TV shows and other digital content.

China is the world’s second-biggest film market and Hollywood studios have begun to reap significant profits by selling content to local sites such as Youku Tudou, Baidu’s iQiyi, Sohu.com and Tencent.

At Filmart forums, officials and industry leaders have hailed the dawning of a new era for streaming of content, but new rules due to come into effect on April 1 will give the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) more power to block movies and TV shows. Local companies were resigned to the tougher environment, but were also waiting to see how the rules would be implemented and enforced.

"The government regulations were made last year, we began to adapt to fit back then, so that when April 1 comes around, we'll be ready," said a spokesman for a large online streaming service who requested anonymity.

The new rules are most likely to affect overseas content. For several years, Chinese viewers have been able to watch foreign series such as The Good Wife and House of Cards online without having to worry about the censor. But under the changes, SAPPRFT must vet all foreign TV shows before they can be posted on video sites, while producers must present the whole season for approval before it can be screened, which could cause delays for shows such as Game of Thrones, The Newsroom and Band of Brothers. The rules have also reportedly been extended to include Hong Kong TV shows.

The new censorship laws have drawn criticism from online commentators.

Zhulian bihe wrote on the Sina Weibo microblog site: "The best way to stop people watching American TV dramas is to make domestic dramas better, instead of introducing restrictions."

Others have even suggested that the move could herald a return to the days of pirate DVD stores selling fake box sets of U.S. TV shows.

"Now it is time for the DVD stalls which have been silent for years to make a comeback," sad online commentator Shamo.

Meanwhile, one year after the announcement at Filmart in 2014 that China would award a new import license for foreign movies, there were questions about what had become of the planned liberalization.

Currently, the state-backed China Film Group and Huaxia Film Distribution are the only two companies allowed to handle theatrical distribution of foreign movies in China on a revenue-sharing basis.

Last year, the state-backed China National Culture & Art Corporation (CNCAC) announced that it was collaborating with the Hong Kong company iMarker and the Hong Kong-listed China National Culture Group on a new license at a launch in Hong Kong's Four Seasons hotel, but there were lingering questions about the plan. None of the companies involved could be reached for comment.

At the time, the move caused quite a stir in the industry in China, but SAPPRFT vice director Tong Gang and China Film Bureau chief Zhang Hongsen have both since denied there were any plans to issue more import licenses.

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