Chinese Cinemas Ordered to Give Heavy Play to State Propaganda Film

The Founding of an Army Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Media Asia

Beijing regulators have ordered cinemas to give 45 percent screen share to the Friday opening of a lavish propaganda film celebrating the People’s Liberation Army.

Chinese moviegoers will have abundant opportunity to see their country's latest big-budget propaganda movie this weekend — regardless of whether anyone actually wants it.

Beijing's state media regulators have ordered cinemas across the country to give heavy play Friday to the opening of The Founding of an Army, a lavishly produced propaganda piece commemorating the 90th anniversary of the establishment of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Last week, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a directive to local cinema chains large and small requiring them to ensure that the movie opens on at least 45 percent of all Chinese screens. Senior management of the largest chains also were called into a meeting at the Film Bureau in Beijing last week for a discussion of the order, sources tell THR.

"We have been trying to negotiate a lower screen share, because 45 percent will be very difficult to reach and could seriously hurt our revenue for the weekend," says a manager of a nationwide chain who was present at the meeting (the individual asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of speaking out against government propaganda policy).

"We're hoping to get down to at least 40 percent," the manager said, adding that the process did not look hopeful.

The Founding of an Army is the third installment in the "Founding of New China” trilogy, a series that celebrates landmarks in the establishment of the Communist Party of China. The first two films in the propaganda series were co-directed by Han Sanping, former head of the state-backed China Film Group, and mainland director Huang Jianxin; but the new installment is helmed by Hong Kong film legend Andrew Lau, best known for Infernal Affairs, which was remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed. The film is packed with celebrity cameos — from veterans like Andy Lau to hot young stars like Jing Boran — and billed as a war epic with "youthful revolutionary elements."

The heavy-handed screening order won't immediately cut into Hollywood revenue, since China has already blocked popular U.S. movies — such as Spider-Man Homecoming and Dunkirk — from the market during the late-summer blockbuster season (part of the usual summer blackout policy designed to boost the local industry). But state screening orders have been known to cause all kinds of problems within Chinese cinemas. In August 2015, cinemas were caught stealing revenue from Paramount's Terminator: Genisys in order to reach government-mandated quotas for a propaganda movie released in parallel. 

Washington and Beijing trade officials are currently engaged in a high-stakes renegotiation of the U.S. film industry's terms of doing business in China. With the urging of the Motion Picture Association of America, the United States Trade Representative office is understood to be pushing hard for China to give up its many policies of protectionism and market manipulation. This week's order is the latest indication that Beijing has little intention of doing so.