In the U.S., MCA has sometimes been accused (by actor James Garner, among others) of covering its own costs at the expense of profit participants in its TV shows and movies. Now the shoe is on the other foot. MCA officials say they will probably not see a profit in China until the 1990s. Sighed Yang, "When you're sitting there struggling with China Film like we have been about ('Love Story') rental fees, most people would just walk away and say, 'I can't deal with this.' "
But the stakes are too high. The Chinese population represents the world's largest audience. "You can't ignore 1.2 billion people," says Skip Paul.
Even by Chinese income standards ($600 a year), it is incredibly cheap to go to the movies in China. Moviegoing is a government-subsidized activity.
According to China Film, it has 500,000 employees to work at distributing movies in China's 32,000 movie theaters. Only 3,100 of the theaters charge money for admission, it is said, bringing the average ticket price down to about 5 cents.
On a tour of Chinese movie theaters in 1985, MCA's Paul came upon a theater in a farm community that, he said, operated like this: "It was just an open field with a sheet (for the screen) strung between two sticks and a guy peddling a bicycle generator to get the electricity going for the movie." The people lined up to see the film were carrying pieces of brick to sit on, he said, and an egg or an ear of corn to "pay" for admission.
But--even there, people \o7 were \f7 lined up. To Hollywood executives, China has moviegoing statistics to swoon over, 25-billion admissions last year, according to China Film. By comparison, 1.01 billion movie tickets were sold in the U.S. in 1986.
For the studios, the opportunities in China are unique, especially if China's price structure (ticket prices and the like) can be eased upward.
As a lure to help the People's Republic justify higher ticket prices, several major American companies, including Warner Bros., MCA, Columbia Pictures and its parent company, Coca-Cola, have offered to build or upgrade theaters in China.
"China is the last remaining place in the world that we can do this to," said Michael Solomon, "because I don't think that Russia will ever be as liberal as China. We (Hollywood distributors) will be responsible for contributing to a change of ideas in Chinese society over a period of time."
On the other hand, Solomon said, "Sometimes you might say that ignorance is bliss. I don't know how good it is to see an episode of 'Miami Vice' and to see the problems with drugs. . . . I'll be responsible for exposing some of those Western ideas, but then again, if I don't do it, someone else will."