Still smarting from recent studio pics depicting its human rights transgressions in Tibet, the Chinese government remains resistant to increasing the number of U.S. films to be shown within its borders.
That was the finding of Motion Picture Assn. of America chairman Jack Valenti, who returned Friday from a four-day visit to China.
During the trip, which came just six weeks before a planned Beijing visit by President Clinton, Valenti lobbied government officials to allow MPAA members greater access to China’s potentially lucrative theatrical market.
Currently, the U.S. majors are allowed to bring in only about 10 films per year. The films are selected by the culture ministry and Chinafilm, the state-run distribution entity.
Valenti met separately with the minister of culture, Sun Jia Zheng, and the minister of film, radio and television, Tian Cong Ming.
Both men voiced complaints about three recent U.S. films which were considered to be “offensive to the Chinese people”: Buena Vista’s “Kundun,” Mandalay and Sony’s “Seven Years in Tibet” and MGM’s “Red Corner.”
“I pointed out that of the nearly 900 films which were made in the U.S. over the last two years, only three were considered objectionable, ” Valenti told Daily Variety. “I also told them that just as I and my colleagues have to try to understand Chinese culture, they have to understand that in America we honor freedom of expression to such a degree that it is part of our Constitution.”
While Valenti gained no specific concessions from the officials, he was hopeful that a follow-up visit he plans for next fall might yield results.
Valenti said he also touched briefly on the matter of enforcement of intellectual property laws.
Piracy has lessened considerably in China since a trade agreement was signed two years ago, according to Valenti. Factories in southern China, which once churned out as many as 75 million bootleg laserdiscs per year, have been shut down.
But some of the counterfeiters have moved to Macao, from where they are importing unauthorized digital videodiscs back to the mainland. “The government there is in disarray with no enforcement of anti-piracy laws,” said Valenti. For instance, “Titanic” is now widely available on DVD in China.
Nonetheless, the James Cameron-helmed disaster pic continues to pack theaters all over the country. Easily the highest-grossing foreign film ever in China, “Titanic” has picked up $28 million in just five weeks. The previous top-grosser was Cameron’s previous helming outing “True Lies,” which collected $12 million.
That’s particularly impressive given the fact that ticket prices in China range from $1.50 to $6 and the average per capita income among urban Chinese is about $62 per month.
U.S. studios typically get 50% of box office revenues, but that amount is reduced dramatically by taxes levied by the Chinese government. “By the time we pay taxes, the 50% turns into about 10% or 15%,” said Valenti. “I hoped we might discuss the reduction of these very high, onerous taxes.”