China’s ‘rice bowl’ cracks

The so-called “iron rice bowl” that has nurtured and protected film producers for decades in the world’s most populous country has been shattered.

The 14th Party Congress approved measures in October to transform China gradually into a market economy, forcing state-run enterprises to respond to the needs of consumers rather than the dictates of central planners.

Sensing that the risk of losses could be as great, if not greater, than eventual profits, producers already are adopting measures to minimize their exposure: They are hiring out their actors to advertising companies to boost revenues and they are embarking on co-productions with foreign partners.

Until now producers have operated under the aegis of the state: Each year film quotas are set and production costs are provided and monitored. Once a film is made it is offered for sale to the China Film Distribution Co.–the sole agency to which films may be sold.

In the past, a producer would be able to ride out a bad year on government subsidies, knowing that new funds for films would automatically be available the following year.

Since the reform policies put the emphasis on financial accountability, production companies, like other state enterprises, are expected to assume responsibility for their profits and losses.

“The biggest problem facing a production company today is very low turnover,” said Yang Guoha, editor of Popular Cinema.

The transformation of the Chinese film industry comes at a difficult time: Inflated ticket prices– more than a tenfold increase in 10 years–have stymied filmgoers.

While there were 29 billion tickets sold throughout the country in 1979, only 16.2 billion were sold in 1990, the last year for which composite figures are available.

No doubt the figures for 1991 will be artificially boosted since state employees–of which there are a staggering 106 million in China–were obligated to see a spate of historical and propagandistic pix, including nine bios of Mao Zedong and some two dozen other tributes to the Communist Party on its 70th anniversary.

Audiences have continued to drop during 1992. Beijing wickets reported a 13% decline during last January and February, traditionally a peak moviegoing holiday period.

Cinemas in Tianjin, another of China’s largest cities, are currently attracting only 50 to 60 customers a night.

Many former moviegoers apparently are staying home in front of their TV sets, of which there are some 200 million, one for every six inhabitants. VCRs are much scarcer–approximately 1.8 million in 1992–but their numbers are expected to climb by some 40% each year for the foreseeable future.

To stem the defections from the movie houses, exhibitors are beginning to react by extending showtimes throughout the day (and night), upgrading their equipments, or turning their theaters into luxurious, multifunctional halls.

Despite the economic shakeup at home, Chinese films and their directors are fast gaining an international reputation. Helmers such as Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern,””The Story of Qiuju”) and Chen Kaige (“Yellow Earth,””Life on a String”) attest to the enormous creative talent within the industry.

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