MPAA Chief Chris Dodd: Fortunes of China, U.S. Film Markets Are "Inextricably Linked"

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Chris Dodd

At the Beijing Film Festival, the former senator subtly made the case for more market access for American movies in China, while predicting that the Chinese box office will rebound to double-digit growth this year.

Motion Picture Association of America chairman and former senator Chris Dodd brought some Washington-style statesmanship to the Beijing International Film Festival on Monday.

In a forceful, but carefully calibrated speech to an audience comprising Chinese government officials and film professionals from around the world, Dodd emphasized the mutual benefit of deeper collaboration between the U.S. and Chinese film industries, while subtly making the case for market access for the U.S. film studios in China. 

Dodd began his address by recounting the remarkable period of growth the Chinese box office has undergone in recent years. "Such growth is beneficial to both the Chinese and American film markets," he said. "The fortunes of these two dynamic sectors are inextricably linked, one to the other."

From 2009 to 2016, the Chinese box office expanded 663 percent from RMB 6 billion to RMB 45.7 billion. As Dodd rattled off these figures, the mostly Chinese audience in Beijing erupted into applause.

"Yes, let's have a round of applause for that," he encouraged the audience. "It's good news."

In 2016, China's box office decelerated dramatically, with growth falling to 3.7 percent from 48 percent in 2015. Dodd acknowledged the slump, but said his organization expected a rebound this year.

"The film market here is expected to build on early box-office momentum to achieve double-digit growth for the year 2017," he said. "Estimates suggest the Chinese box office will reach 50 billion RMB, or $7.2 billion, and may even surpass North America in the next two years."

Dodd's visit to Beijing comes as the two nations gear up for high-stakes renegotiations over the U.S. film studios' terms of doing business in China. Under the conditions of a state-level trade deal reached in 2012, China caps foreign film imports to 34 titles each year and limits the revenue share allotted to overseas studios at 25 percent (more foreign films can be imported for a flat fee, but major studios much prefer to have a slice of revenue, as it is vastly more lucrative for hit movies).

Dodd and U.S. trade officials are understood to have begun the process of negotiating a new agreement with their Chinese counterparts, with a new deal expected to be hammered out by year's end. Many analysts believe the Chinese might be willing to allow more films into the market, while the studios would prefer a greater share of revenue and more direct control over when and how their movies are released in China. 

Dodd didn't address the coming quota negotiations directly, but he made the case for American market access in an oblique way during his concluding remarks.

"The Chinese are a sophisticated audience — they appreciate great diversity in films," he said. "They welcome the opportunity to have a variety of products come to their country, to challenge their thinking, to inspire and stimulate them as an audience."

Added Dodd: "So for those of us who do not come from China, we welcome the opportunity to be in China and to bring our productions to this country, so that the people of this nation can appreciate great filmmaking." 

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