China sets timetable for imported content

Nation to open market for H'wood movies, more by March 19

China has agreed to a timetable for opening its market to imported entertainment content, including Hollywood movies, saying that by March 19 it will comply with a World Trade Organization ruling handed down in December.

The MPA and Hollywood producers working in China hailed the commitment as a milestone in the decade-long fight to gain greater access to a movie industry scrambling to meet booming demand from a rapidly expanding exhibition sector that is adding about two screens per day.

Since China joined the WTO in 2001, Beijing has limited foreign films allowed to share in boxoffice receipts to 20 a year, arguing that entertainment content should be handled differently from other imports because of its impact on culture.

News of the timetable, agreed to by the U.S. and Chinese ambassadors to the WTO last week, was posted to the Geneva-based organization's website. No specifics were announced.

Janet Yang, the Hollywood producer of "Disney High School Musical: China," a co-production with Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Media not subject to the import cap and set for an Aug. 12 release in China, called China's commitment to a timetable "significant."

"China is making itself accountable. Once the government sets its mind to something, it really has strong follow-through," said Yang, a Chinese-American whose work taking Hollywood films to China dates to the early 1980s.

"We've been waiting a long time for China to reach global industry standards, but China has had other priorities. This is the time for media and entertainment to be in the spotlight," Yang added, saying she hopes Hollywood works as much on co-productions as on pure exports.

Not all industry watchers are convinced that a timetable will result in China's doors being flung open wide. Censorship, which is not covered in the WTO ruling, could be used to continue to limit the flow of imports. China does not have a film rating system, so government censors and their opaque criteria have immense power.

The Beijing Morning Post reported late last week that "China will keep the import rights of two state-run film companies to ensure the government's examination rights toward imported films."

The MPAA long has argued that China has locked up a duopoly controlled by the China Film Group and its state-run cousin, Huaxia Film Distribution. Hollywood complains that has robbed U.S. content owners of substantial sales, leaving the market to pirates.

Tom Garvin, a Hollywood lawyer who has been traveling to China for work since the late 1980s, said the Chinese audiovisual sector will not change overnight.

"I expect that China will substantially liberalize the distribution of content in stages, but it will be over a matter of years, not a matter of months," he said.

Beijing could allow companies owned and operated by Chinese to import and distribute films in competition with CFG and Huaxia. Candidates could include the Huayi Brothers, Shanghai Media Group, Bona International and Enlight Pictures.

Greg Frazier, chief policy officer of the MPAA, called the timetable "a reasonable schedule for China to meet given the complexity of this decision."

Hollywood is more keen than ever to get more into China, where films such as "2012," "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Avatar" have cleaned up at the boxoffice.
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