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China closing curtains on U.S. movies

December 12, 2007|Don Lee and Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writers

SHANGHAI — China's government has been blocking American movies from its cinemas, U.S. and Chinese movie industry executives and analysts said Tuesday.

Although China has not announced any policy change, in recent weeks U.S. studios have stopped receiving approvals to show films in China, said Dan Glickman, chief executive of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

"Indications are very strong that if not a formal, then essentially an informal blockade of our product is beginning to take place," said Glickman, who expects it to last at least through the first few months of next year.

Karl Hu, general manager of Hengdian Group's Mandarin Film & Television Post-Production Co., a large studio in Zhejiang province south of Shanghai, said much the same thing. "At least for the first half of next year, I don't see any Hollywood movies" in China, he said.

Wen Li, a deputy manager at the distribution arm of Beijing-based China Film Group Corp., the only firm responsible for importing movies for showing in China, said quite a few foreign titles had been approved for coming months. "But we haven't seen any U.S. films being arranged for early next year," he said.

In Shanghai, China's commercial and cosmopolitan center, most major cinemas are currently showing no U.S. titles.

Hu and other industry experts speculated that China's action may be aimed at protecting the domestic film industry. But they said it could also be retaliation for Washington's increasingly assertive moves to push Beijing to do more to stop counterfeiting of movies, music, software and books.

This year, the Bush administration has filed two complaints with the World Trade Organization, moves that were denounced by Chinese officials.

In April, U.S. trade officials alleged that China had failed to protect copyrights and trademarks on intellectual property. In October, China was accused of erecting unfair trade barriers against U.S. firms trying to sell such products in China.

The MPAA has complained about the apparent ban on American films to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, who is in Beijing this week for trade talks. A spokesman for Schwab said that she was aware of the issue and that it had been raised with Chinese officials, but had no more information.

A staff member at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which regulates China's film industry, said he was unaware of any change in the treatment of American movies.

China routinely restricts foreign films during holidays and school vacation periods, such as the ongoing winter break, when students flock to theaters, said Stanley Rosen, director of USC's East Asian Study Center.

"The Chinese government wants a market to boost Chinese films, not just the Hollywood product," Rosen said.

Chinese officials have said they want domestic film companies to get at least 50% of China's box-office receipts. But in the first half of 2007, revenue for foreign films totaled almost $100 million, with domestic players taking about $40 million. In June 2006, officials yanked "The Da Vinci Code" without giving a reason after it drew large audiences for three weeks.

David Wolf, a media analyst in Beijing, said the apparent ban smacked of a tit-for-tat trade spat, and said pulling U.S. films from China's approximately 3,000 cinemas wouldn't benefit the domestic industry much.

"American blockbusters pull [audiences] in, and that helps Chinese filmmakers," he said.

For years, China has allowed only as many as 20 foreign films to be shown in its cinemas annually, subject to review by government censors. Last week, actor Will Smith told reporters in Hong Kong that he was disappointed his new film, "I Am Legend," would not be shown in China.

"We struggled very, very hard to try to get it to work out, but there are only a certain amount of foreign films" let in, he said.

Even if the barrier lasts just a few months, Hollywood studios are concerned. "We intend to do everything possible to try to counter this," MPAA's Glickman said.

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

don.lee@latimes.com

Puzzanghera reported from Washington and Lee from Shanghai.

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