China raises movie quota; Hollywood on best behavior

China raises movie quota; Hollywood on best behavior

One deliverable from Xi Jinping’s trip to America seems to be a new deal to allow more U.S. films — at least 3-D ones — to be distributed in China. The Guardian reports:

China currently permits only 20 big foreign films a year to be released there, to the frustration of US studios. The pact allows in an extra 14 films each year, provided they are in Imax or 3D formats.

It also allows foreign film-makers to keep a bigger share of box office takings: they will receive 25% instead of 13%.

"This is a very big deal," said Chris Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America.

"The industry has been living with the numbers in terms of percentages and quotas for 20 years … it begged for a conclusion."

Though the Hollywood films released in China are few in number, they account for about 40% of the country’s box office takings.

This is obviously a big deal for Hollywood’s bottom line. But as a recent article in the Diplomat pointed out, China’s growing importance as a market for Hollywood could affect the kinds of films that studios make: 

Critics claim that studios will be pressured to produce works that depict China in a sympathetic light, a fear prompted by China’s strict controls over film importation, distribution and production, along with the rebuffing of recent WTO rulings to allow foreign distribution and expand a 20-a-year cap on foreign movies.

“They made it very clear in their last congress meeting that the overriding theme would be projecting an image overseas that they want projected, while Hollywood’s No.1 concern has always been the bottom line,” says Michael Berry, a lecturer of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“U.S. producers are taking an ultra-conservative route, and self-censorship is happening at a very early stage. In concept development there’s already an understanding of what will fly in China, and that gets concentrated by the time it gets to a screenplay.”

And what flies in China today isn’t very much.

Beijing’s thumbscrew restrictions include: No sex, religion, time travel, the occult, or “anything that could threaten public morality or portray criminal behavior.”

All film scripts have to be signed off by a government censor and anything that depicts Tibet, Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, Uyghur separatists or Taiwan favorably is typically banned.

In the late 1990s, Tibet was the cause of choice for Hollywood stars. The world’s biggest bands were playing the Beastie Boys-organized Tibetan Freedom Concerts, studios were releasing films like Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun and magazines were running earnest headlines like "Can Hollywood Save Tibet."

Richard Gere may still be a dogged advocate for Tibetan independence, but for the most part, Hollywood seems to have moved on and its hard not to imagine that the potential Chinese market has something to do with it. As the Diplomat recalls, the fallout over Kundun put Disney on Beijing’s blacklist for years. The company had to go as far as to hire Henry Kissinger to smooth things out.  Today, studios seem a bit more cautious, even completely re-dubbing a planned Red Dawn remake to change the bad guys from Chinese to North Korean. 

Given the experience of actors like Brad Pitt, who is reportedly still banned from entering China, 15 years after Seven Years in Tibet came out, I doubt any more Dalai Lama-themed stories will be coming to a screen near you in the next few years.