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How Do You Say 'Boffo' in Chinese? 'The Fugitive' : Movies: The first recent Hollywood blockbuster to be shown in China in years has given a boost to the country's faltering movie theaters.

November 29, 1994|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — In the central Chinese city Chongqing, the movie theater manager said that audiences love the scene when Harrison Ford, cornered by Tommy Lee Jones, jumps several hundred feet into a roaring river.

"Some people have even come back to see the film three, four or five times," said Fu Diaqi.

In Shanghai, Zhang Yongliang, manager of the Guotai Cinema, said that viewers were thrilled by the film's sound effects and "strong sensory stimulation."

Reports from other cities were the same.

For the first time in 40-plus years, a recently produced American movie, Warner Bros.' "The Fugitive," is being shown in Chinese theaters in general release. Except for a minor glitch here in the capital city, where the film became ensnared in a political rivalry and was pulled after only one week's release, "The Fugitive" is a runaway hit.

"A great success in major Chinese cities," reported the official New China News Agency.

In Shanghai alone, according to Li Guoxing, manager of the Shanghai Film Distribution Co., more than 700,000 people are expected to see the film in 36 theaters where it is showing this month. Scalpers outside the packed theaters, Li said, were getting double the $1.25 ticket price.

All of this is good news to Warners, which took a significantly smaller-than-usual cut of the proceeds to be the first major studio to bring one of its recent releases into China.

Until now, the foreign movie fare here has consisted of decades-old American films such as "Spartacus" and "Love Story," limited releases of U.S. films as well as extremely popular Hong Kong comedies and martial arts action movies. American movie executives see this breakthrough as an important opening to the world's biggest potential entertainment market: China's population of 1.2 billion.

The opportunity came earlier this year when the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television revised its longstanding limitations on foreign imports and agreed to allow "the 10 best foreign movies" into China each year.

Promoted as a cultural opening, it is more like a desperate cry for help to Hollywood from the beleaguered Chinese cinema industry. The traditionally conservative ministry changed the rules in response to the steep decline in attendance at Chinese movie theaters. According to the New China News Agency, cinema ticket sales dropped to just 9.5 billion in 1993 from 23.9 billion in 1979.

The overseas successes of famous Chinese film directors such as Chen Kaige, whose "Farewell My Concubine" won international acclaim, have no meaning here. Most of their films are banned in China for political reasons and are not popular with mass audiences who, like audiences everywhere, generally prefer action movies laden with special effects.

Rather, the decline in movie attendance is directly linked to the explosion of alternative public entertainment--television, karaoke, video rental and private video showing rooms--that has changed the face of China in recent years.

The pace of the development of the new entertainment industry is staggering.

Only 15 years ago, there was just one "cabaret" in China, at the Dongfang Hotel in Guangzhou. Today, according to the People's Daily newspaper, there are hundreds of cabarets as well as at least 200,000 karaoke bars and 60,000 "video viewing rooms"--private rooms that can be rented to watch movies on videocassettes and laser discs.

With so many choices available today, China's filmgoing legions quickly abandoned the dreary menu of propaganda films produced by state-run studios. The thriving rental market in pirated videos only hastened the decline in the Chinese industry.

Piracy is so widespread here that U.S. film executives touring a laser-disc factory in southern China discovered a unit manufacturing laser discs of Disney's "The Lion King" even before the video has been released in the United States.

Despite the competition from other sources, however, the arrival of a recent American film this month was enough to perk up business in theaters in the six Chinese cities where "The Fugitive" was shown.

"In our cinema," said Li Yangeng, manager of the Da Guangming Cinema in Shanghai, "we have 1,554 seats and showed the film four or five times a day for eight days. More than 50,000 people saw the film here. Most people said they hadn't seen a film like this for a long, long time. They enjoyed every minute."

But not everything went perfectly.

Here in Beijing, two rival film distribution units got into a row over the rights to proceeds from "The Fugitive." According to sources, representatives on the losing faction, the Beijing Film Distribution Co., took the matter to the Central Propaganda Department, claiming that the film violated Chinese political mores.

Reportedly, the losers told propaganda officials that showing the film was the equivalent of "using socialist money to fatten the capitalist pig." The propaganda ministry dutifully canceled the film midway in its scheduled two-week run.

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