China film law won't be ready for March

Compliance with WTO ruling still up in the air

BEIJING – China’s draft movie law will not be ready by March when the world’s fastest-growing film market must open to further overseas participation if Beijing wishes to comply with a World Trade Organization ruling.

Although the long-awaited draft of the China Movie Industry Promotion Law and the Dec. 2009 WTO ruling are not formally linked, the draft’s delay in the highest levels of China’s one-party government signals its cabinet’s continued central role in how Chinese and visiting filmmakers are to be allowed to make money in the movie business here.

“The film law cannot come as fast as March,” La Peikang, deputy director general of the Film Bureau, said. La, answering questions on Wednesday in a forum about internationalizing
China’s film business, was referring to the time next spring when the cabinet, or State Council, might be expected to pass the draft to China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress.

La said the State Council, which oversees the State Administration of Radio Film and Television -- of which his Film Bureau is a part -- is reviewing the draft movie law carefully before handing it down to the NPC.

“We will do it as soon as possible in our long process of lawmaking,” said La, a chief author of the draft.

If passed, the draft would be the first law governing the film business in China. La said it would address barriers to market entry, industry administration, movie promotion and the protection of the domestic film industry.

In the absence of a law, China’s soaring ticket sales, its cinema construction boom, its increasingly lucrative movie imports and its maturing distribution networks are governed by circulars and regulations that exist as guidance from Beijing and fall outside the jurisdiction of the country’s courts.

These vaguely-worded documents have long left the power to determine what films get made, where they are shown and by whom firmly in the central government's hands.

In what appeared to some to signal a loosening, SARFT in July published a circular that said provincial level media regulators now can grant permits to filmmakers, La said.

Previously, producers had to seek Beijing’s stamp of approval for their film’s content if they hoped to see it screen in China.

La said SARFT officials meant the July circular to reduce the time it takes private companies to start filming, speeding the growth of the industry, where ticket sales were already up more than 80% from Jan. to June.

As China’s wealth spreads – its economy is now the world’s second largest – 500 films will be made this year, up from 80 or fewer in 2002.

While some in the industry have wondered aloud if the July SARFT circular might be a loosening of Beijing’s reins, La told the audience at the annual Beijing Screenings, “Those films of great importance and on important topics will still come to the Film Bureau in Beijing.”

SARFT has rebuffed film ratings common in the West and Hong Kong, and its censors routinely offer “feedback” or reject scripts outright on vague grounds that their content bucks Beijing’s notion of a “harmonious society.”

“SARFT’s Film Bureau realizes we must make great efforts to fulfill the requirements of the State Council,” La said. “Quality is the greatest concern.”

When asked by a Chinese director in the forum audience about a connection between film censorship and the country’s lack of a ratings system, La said: “We do not need a ratings system to solve the sex and violence problem.”

La’s questioner, director Feng Ke, is an NYU Film School Graduate whose independently produced debut feature “Letters from Death Row” follows a small-time crook as he records the last wishes of death row inmates. Although it was not shown in China, it was an official selection of the San Sebastian International Film Festival in 2008.

Trying to engage La in discussion, Feng was interrupted repeatedly by forum moderator Zhou Tiedong, president of China Film Promotion International, the sales arm of the state-run China Film Group.  In front of at least three reporters for overseas media organizations, Zhou invited Feng to contact La privately.

Also in attendance was Mike Ellis, the Motion Picture Assn.’s Asia managing director. Hong Kong-based Ellis said the MPA respects each country’s right to regulate its own film industry, but he questioned if censorship in the place of ratings was good for business.

"Is that type of control that allows the artistic freedom to reach your audience? That’s a business decision and I’m very encouraged that there are now more Chinese film studios looking at this as a business with risks and returns.”

Ellis declined to offer the MPA’s views on China’s progress toward compliance with the WTO ruling, which gives China until March to open its market to overseas greater participation in the distribution of copyrighted filmed entertainment.