Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang Push Beijing for Piracy Crackdown

Prof. says China needs film law, not ratings, to ban rape and murder on-screen.

BEIJING -- Leading Chinese filmmakers are calling for an end to movie theft and the depiction of on-screen murder, rape and violence.

First, Zhang Yimou, now directing Oscar-winner Christian Bale in 13 Flowers of Nanjing, and Feng Xiaogang, director of IMAX’s first non-English title, Aftershock, joined the head of the Beijing Film Academy in demanding that the Chinese government crack down on film piracy.

Movie theft is still “rampant,” director Zhang told the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Monday -- this despite box office growth of 64% to $1.5 billion in 2010, making the country the world’s No. 6 market in annual ticket sales.

Zhang spoke at the CPPCC, the annual gathering of hundreds of citizen experts who offer advice to the National People’s Congress, now underway in Beijing, and preparing to accept the five-year plan laid out by the central leadership of China’s one-party government. 

"Boosting copyright protection is key to the healthy development of film industry and the prosperity of [the] cultural market," said director Zhang, the designer of the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, according to Xinhua.

Because of the wide availability in China of pirated DVDs often costing less than 15 yuan ($2.25) within days of a film’s debut, or because of easy-to-find and free illegal Internet downloads, Zhang said some Chinese movies are forced to close at cinemas after just two weeks.

Losses to piracy hurt now more than ever as film budgets rise into the tens of millions of dollars with the aim of competing with the Hollywood imports that, though limited to 20 per year, generate more than twice the sales than their Chinese counterparts on an average per-title basis.

Director Yin Li, another signatory to the proposal that Beijing step up protection of intellectual property, called on the government to fund technological research and modernization to prevent piracy. Many of China’s cinemas do not yet use the advanced and often-digital projection systems prevalent in the U.S., where presently all prints carry watermarks that make it easier to catch thieves.

Prof. Zhang Huiping, head of the Beijing Film Academy, said one way to fight piracy is to support a continuation of the cinema-building boom that has doubled the nation’s screen count to 6,200 in four years and whet the film going appetite of the growing middle class whose members now can afford more than one movie ticket per year. Zhang also called for the restoration and modernization of cinemas in China’s hundreds of second- and third-tier cities.

Although Chinese authorities regularly conduct anti-piracy raids, shutting down web sites and arresting illegal DVD distributors, the punishment the government hands down often is absorbed by the criminals as a cost of doing business, leaving their trade to pop up again when the police turn to other matters.

Professor Zhang, whose state-run school boasts Zhang the director as its most famous graduate, also submitted a proposal to ban the depiction of murder, rape and violence from China’s silver screens, which already play a far tamer line-up of titles than is available in the West.

"China needs a film law more than a classification system," Zhang told Xinhua.

The professor’s proposal to govern screen violence with a film law is counter to the occasional push for a film ratings system by, most notably, the actress Gong Li, who director Zhang first made famous in Red Sorghum in 1987.

Gong, who most recently starred in a remake of the Mel Gibson movie What Women Want, told The Hollywood Reporter in New York in December, that a film ratings system was a good idea for China, putting the power to decide what to see at the movies in the hands of the consumer.

But a film ratings system and clearer legal guidelines for the booming industry are not likely to be adopted any time soon if public statements by high-ranking officials in the closely controlled film establishment are any indication.

In September, La Peikang, the Film Bureau’s deputy director general, said that the film law he had been helping to draft for several years would not be ready in time for this year’s NPC nor for the March 19 deadline by which China is supposed to have moved to open its film distribution market to greater foreign participation.

Then, in October, Madame Zhao Shi, vice minister of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, said the idea of a ratings system, proposed by actress Gong and others at past sessions of the CPPCC, was a non-starter because the Film Bureau under SARFT and its board of censors were best able to determine what was right for the Chinese viewing public.

As if to reiterate these views, another government official signaled Monday to Xinhua the state’s continued unwillingness to submit the process of film censorship to the test of transparency without which China’s censors can ban films without giving a clear reason.

Li Qiankuan, head of the China Film Association, said that to “balance violence and art in a movie is a test of one's conscience and a social responsibility for all filmmakers” – an echo of the longstanding call to artists to self-censor and avoid political, sexual, violent or religious material or themes.