Live Academy Awards Broadcast Unseen by One of Hollywood's Biggest Markets: China

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Local viewers must make due with edited nighttime telecast or pirated Internet signals.

BEIJING – Chinese director Zhang Yimou probably smiled at Christian Bale’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar win.

While the prize could brighten the Chinese director’s decision to cast the English actor in his next picture -- a Nanjing Massacre drama the two were shooting together just days ago in China -- Bale’s win for The Fighter, which went unreleased here, was virtually unnoticed across the nation.

So, too, were the Oscars as a whole, since watching the 83rd Academy Awards half a world away from Hollywood proved a challenge even for cinephiles dedicated enough to try to glimpse a bit of the Oscar glamour via pirated TV or illegal website.

Star Movies Hong Kong’s licensed live coverage, replete with commentators speaking from what appeared to be a fancy brunch, reached luxury hotels in China, but average Chinese tuning in from home 16 hours ahead of L.A. could see only the red carpet festivities and no more, on Web portals and video sharing sites.

To see the awards ceremony, hosted by actors James Franco and Anne Hathaway -- both relative unknowns here – most Chinese viewers had to wait until 10:30pm for state-run China Central Television’s planned 90-minute edit, or turn to often unstable live Internet streams of U.S network ABC’s official all-English broadcast, pirated from all over as one Ohio storm warning during an illegal webcast revealed.

Although Hollywood movies on average grossed more per title in China in 2010 than their homegrown competitors, only two of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture screened here last year, due partly to government limits on film imports. Toy Story 3 was China’s 26th most successful film of the year and Inception rose to the No. 4 spot, selling tickets totaling $68.2 million.

No matter how much the business of Hollywood and China are intertwined these days – Avatar grossed $204 million here, more than anywhere else outside the U.S.– the lack of a widely available live Oscar broadcast here reflects the distance that remains between the two film cultures, one veteran and one upstart.

Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou told CCTV that the Academy is a decidedly U.S.-oriented institution that falls down in its international film selection process.

“The Oscars are not the Olympics of the film industry,” said Zhou, who allowed that just as the Academy’s mission seems too narrow, neither does China’s Film Bureau grasp the subtleties of the criteria for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination.

Only two citizens of the People's Republic of China have ever won Academy Awards, both composers. Su Cong shared with Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne for Best Original Score of The Last Emperor in 1987. Tan Dun won for the score of the 2000 Hong Kong-China co-production Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

“We’re either sending movies that are too commercial or too ideology-driven,” Zhou said. China’s 2010 submission, Aftershock, Feng Xiaogang’s blockbuster, was disliked by some American critics for appearing to try to pack too much message into a film about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. “The secret is to submit films that can be loved by the target audience, the Oscar voters,” Zhou said.

Meanwhile, many Chinese, like many Americans, seem more interested in the culture of celebrity surrounding the Oscars than they do in the filmmaking the awards are supposed to celebrate.

Chinese web portal Tencent partnered with L.A.-based Metan Entertainment to feature two segments of two to five minutes each day for a week in the run up to the Oscars, focusing on subjects such as Rodeo Drive shopping for Oscar Night fashions, and what celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck would cook for Academy guests.

Metan CEO Larry Namer, founder of E! Television, says that gauging who in Hollywood is famous in China proved an initial challenge for the producers of the weekly entertainment industry show called Hello Hollywood Metan now syndicates to 54 mostly second-tier cities across China.

“The people who get ignored in Hollywood on Oscar night, the TV people like Wentworth Miller, have huge value in China,” said Namer, referring to the star of Fox TV’s Prison Break, a widely pirated and wildly popular show here over the last several years. 

Miller’s famous enough in China to have driven a delayed Chinese theatrical release of Resident Evil: Afterlife to gross a respectable $21.9 million, more than the $17.8 million grossed by Toy Story 3’s own delayed release.

The one 2010 Oscar-nominated film made in China about a Chinese subject didn’t win. The Warriors of Qiugang was a short subject documentary by Ruby Yang, a Hong Kong-born Chinese, and American Thomas Lennon. The film about Chinese crusaders against environmental degradation apparently didn’t live up to the pair’s earlier China AIDS documentary, which won the Oscar in 2007.

That film, The Children of Yingzhou District, never screened widely in China, where censors are careful not to approve films deemed threatening to the stability of the one-party government. But Zhou said the Ministry of Health embraced Yang even if many media authorities did not. It remains to be seen if her latest work, three years in the making, will ever surface in theaters here.

Zhou said CCTV had abandoned efforts at live coverage of the Academy Awards ceremony last year with the nomination of China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, a short documentary about the 2008 earthquake.

Official Chinese news reports on the 2010 Oscars omitted mention of it and the two filmmakers, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, told The New York Times China refused to give them visas to return.