BEIJING — Chinese authorities declared October as Golden Autumn Excellent Domestic Film Exhibition Month in a government-led campaign to promote the premieres of patriotic films.
All month long, theaters across China have been urged to favor titles such as “My Long March,” a paean to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic.
The campaign delayed the premiere of Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” and Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” until November.
Film executives said that the campaign is in keeping with a speech made by President Hu Jintao last December to mark the centenary of Chinese cinema. Hu, who has overseen a general crackdown on media freedoms here this year, called for film workers “to stick to the correct political direction at all times.”
Executives and China scholars say that Beijing’s intervention in the film business is discouraging to young filmmakers in an industry struggling to gain a footing in the increasingly global marketplace.
“It has a profound effect on the canny younger people who have to play both sides to make a name, a dulling and soul-destroying process,” says Geremie Barme, a professor of modern Chinese culture at the Australian National University. “Occasionally, a nice film is made, but imagine what might happen if there was no such Faustian pact between the creators and their rulers?”
While imported film blackouts have occurred annually at the Lunar New Year and summertime holidays, the addition of an October blackout around the 70th anniversary of the Long March has had the unintended effect of showing protectionist policymakers that they are out of step with audience desires.
What it appears the audience really wants is a blockbuster. A three-month delay and heavy censorship failed to stop “Mission: Impossible 3” from leading China’s ticket sales this year.
The story of “My Long March” details the turning point in Mao’s fight against the nationalists, who would eventually flee to Taiwan. In it, a Red Army soldier honors Mao’s care for his proto-People’s Liberation Army by retracing the grueling 5,000-mile retreat made from 1934-36.
Made by August 1 Film Studio — named for the founding date of the PLA — “March” tells a story taught in school to every Chinese teen.
But few will see the version now in cinemas, at least not under their own steam. “There is no commercial audience potential for this film,” says Gao Jun, spokesman for Xinyinglian, Beijing’s biggest cinema chain.
In its opening week beginning Oct. 16 on 260 prints nationwide, “My Long March” sold just 10,000 tickets in Beijing. Gao says most moviegoers were in their 40s and 50s, old enough to be the grandchildren of Long March survivors.
Many cinemas paid a flat fee for the film and get to keep the boxoffice, Gao says. But Xinyinglian must share its take with state-run distributor China Film Group. The audiences, Gao says, came in groups arranged by propaganda departments from various government offices around the capital.
With no guarantee the groups would come and tickets selling well to such popular fare as Sony’s animated “Open Season” and Hong Kong’s “Rob-B-Hood,” starring Jackie Chan, a handwritten sign taped to a “My Long March” poster in front of a downtown multiplex tells its own story: “Group bookings only.”
“This is the only way to sell tickets” to these sorts of films, says a cautious overseas film company executive, citing the sign as just one way increasingly competitive exhibitors skirt blackouts to continue to fill screens with popular films released before the blackout. It is, the executive says, a good example of the mandarin colloquialism that translates as “policy from above, counter-strategy from below” and can be interpreted to mean, “I’ll continue to do things my own way no matter what you say.”