China media body gets new film boss

Zhang Pimin rises out of anonymity at SARFT

Zhang (photo by Patrick Frater)
BEIJING -- A little-known deputy film censor has been promoted to oversee China's rapidly growing movie industry, sources inside the State Administration of Radio Film and Television told The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday.

On June 25, Zhang Pimin was promoted to vice-director of SARFT, where he formerly was deputy director of the Film Bureau responsible for helping to cut out too much onscreen sex and violence and for erasing messages perceived as hurtful to China and its ruling Communist Party.

A little-known bureaucrat, the 56-year-old Zhang took up a recently vacated seat next to SARFT vice director Zhao Shi, long the highest-ranking Chinese official to engage the Hollywood studios in public on the issues of piracy and market access affecting the movie industry worldwide.

"The responsibility for China's film industry is shifting from Zhao to Zhang," said Liu Chun, deputy director for international cooperation at the Film Bureau at SARFT.

Zhang took the vice director seat vacated after the recent retirement of Lei Yuanliang, who was not involved in the oversight of the film industry, Liu said. "Zhao and Zhang will share some of the responsibilities previously managed by Lei," who reached the typical retirement age of 60 in December.

Four other official sources inside SARFT, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said Zhao would remain in her post for now but that she may soon be promoted herself.

SARFT -- which answers directly to the State Council, China's highest administrative authority -- is led by Director Wang Taihua, who was appointed to the job in 2004 and is likely to retire in a year or two. Wang seldom makes public statements.

Reached by phone, Zhang declined to be interviewed, referring a reporter to the SARFT publicity department. China's official media has not yet reported Zhang's promotion and a SARFT spokesman, Zhu Hong, declined a request for comment.

The SARFT executive shuffle leaves behind Film Bureau Director Tong Gang, to whom Zhang used to report. "The direction of power has reversed," one SARFT insider said.

Chinese film company sources queried about Zhang said his profile and his promotion were something of a surprise.

"Tong Gang and (Film Bureau deputy director) Zhang Hongsen were who we always dealt with and now it's clear they're not in a good mood. They're rejecting lots of films," said one Chinese film company source in Beijing. "Nobody really knows what Zhang (Pimin) is all about."

Zhang's rise at SARFT comes at a time when China's top leadership is pushing investment in cultural industries and supporting the creation of art, film and television that reflects the notion of the "harmonious society" said by President Hu Jintao to lead to the development of a strong middle-class society.

Zhang takes over as China's boxoffice is riding some of that new middle-class wealth. For five straight years the boxoffice has grown more than 25%, swelling 30% in 2008 to gross RMB4.3 billion ($635 million).

To protect this growth from Hollywood blockbusters, China limits to 20 each year the number of imported films allowed to share a small percentage of Chinese boxoffice revenues.

The Hollywood studios are hopeful that a pending against China at the World Trade Organization soon could break down barriers to market access.

The expected effect of Zhang's promotion was not clear. "He came up through the Film Bureau, so change is not that likely," one SARFT insider said. "It's very difficult to predict."

The latest SARFT reshuffle is the second major change in a year in the upper reaches of the country's state-controlled film industry.

Sometime in the first half of 2008, La Peikang, formerly the chief representative of the China Film Group's Paris office for nine years and then President of China Film Co-production Corp., was promoted to the China Film Group board of directors.

Given his overseas experience, many film professionals hoped that La might increase pressure on SARFT and the Film Bureau to work with foreign co-productions and the import of and export of films. "That was overly optimistic," a Beijing-based Chinese film company source said.