Hollywood seeks China clarity

Reported ban on films still cloudy

UPDATED 11:00 a.m. PT Dec. 12, 2007
UPDATED 7:20 p.m. PT Dec. 6, 2007

MACAU -- Hollywood executives were scratching their heads Thursday over an apparent policy shift in China that would impose a ban on U.S. movies for the next three months.

"I'm trying to find out myself what's going on," said Mark Zucker, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Releasing International. "You usually hear these things from the grapevine, and we've heard nothing official."

The plan to bar U.S. films until February, if true, would be the harshest protectionist measure yet put in place by state media regulators, American film studio executives said. The period from now until February includes China's peak moviegoing season.

U.S. and Chinese government officials are scheduled to hold high-level economic talks next week in China. The ban would come as China faces increasing pressure from the world community to open its markets under World Trade Organization rules -- rules that do not clearly govern imported films.

"If an official or unofficial block on the exhibition of American films in China has been taken, or is in the process of being taken, that would represent a huge backward step in terms of China's efforts to develop a strong film exhibition and distribution market," Michael Ellis, senior vp and Asia regional director at the MPAA, said on the sidelines of exhibitor conference CineAsia in Macau.

Meanwhile, at least one Western news agency, the Canadian Press, was reporting Thursday that high-level film officials have denied the reports.

Zhang Pimin, deputy director general of China's Film Bureau, and Xiao Ping, vp import and export business at state-run China Film Group, both said in phone interviews Thursday that the report is untrue.

"We haven't received instructions like that, and we haven't set policies like that," the agency quoted Zhang as saying.

"We're continually going through Hollywood movies. We haven't stopped," Xiao said.

For years, China's Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has denied the nation's most lucrative release dates to the 20 imported films allowed to share annual domestic boxoffice revenue. The peak moviegoing periods are in December and around the Lunar New Year in January or February.

This year, four Hollywood films already have topped 100 million yuan ($13.5 million) at the Chinese boxoffice. DreamWorks/Paramount's "Transformers" leads the pack, earning 276 million yuan ($37.2 million), to become the second-highest-grossing import of all time after "Titanic" (1997), It far out-earned the most successful Chinese-language films of the year.

This month, China Film Group will release the Chinese civil war movie "Assembly" from Feng Xiaogang, long one of the country's most commercially successful directors. Set to premiere Dec. 18, it is expected to enjoy broad nationwide distribution.

Hollywood executives said a ban could hurt Chinese exhibitors more than anybody else. Three local exhibitors gathered at CineAsia declined comment on the matter. One said the four films exhibitors hoped to screen in China in early 2008 are Warner Bros.' "Beowulf," Disney's "Enchanted," Paramount's "Stardust" and DreamWorks' "Bee Movie."

Sony's Zucker said he had e-mailed his China office to find out when Sony could reset the release dates on upcoming films. "Hopefully, we'll get a response. It's always a challenge," he said.

One senior Hollywood distributor said that under a ban, studios could refuse to submit films to the Film Bureau for the standard censorship process.

"The trouble with import bans is that there seldom is any formal announcement, so it's impossible to plan," one senior Hollywood distributor said. "There's no accountability in China, and that's bad."

Hy Hollinger in Los Angeles contributed to this report.