China distrib opens wider for H’w’d

Reps believe move is designed to cement Film Group as biz leader

Chinese authorities have approved at least seven U.S. films and one Gallic import for release on the mainland over the next five months — an unprecedented number of pics in such a short time span.

Just why is a matter of conjecture.

Without a doubt, the increase is in line with the government’s agreement to double from 10 to 20 the unofficial quota of foreign films released per year on a revenue-sharing basis — a concession designed to help woo U.S. support for China’s entry to the World Trade Organization.

But some U.S. reps believe the underlying reason is a not-so-subtle attempt by China Film Group to entrench its position before the agency loses its monopoly on distributing foreign films. China has signaled that up to six distrib licenses will be issued, covering all major regions, as part of the WTO reforms.

China Film is listed as the distrib of all eight films (see accompanying chart) but, perhaps significantly, “Jurassic Park III” is absent from its sked. The dinopic has passed censorship and is awaiting a release date — and a distrib. Several sources in Hollywood and even within China Film believe the action-adventure film could be the first pic handled by the Shanghai Film Group, which is widely seen as first in line for a distrib license.

“China Film is trying to get as many films as it can into the market to show that it can and does have the capacity and capability” before it faces competition, says the rep for one U.S. major.

However China Film sources contend there are pressing financial reasons for the upsurge of product that have nothing to do with the WTO issue or looming distrib reforms.

“The most important reason is the poor performance of the films released in the first half of this year,” says one China Film exec. “All distributors and subdistributors and exhibitors need to make a profit, otherwise the film market will collapse.”

While that may be true, two WWII epics have sparked a considerable turnaround for the Chinese B.O. in the past month or so. “Enemy at the Gates” has grossed an impressive $2.4 million in five weeks. And blockbuster “Pearl Harbor” has racked up $10.1 million in four weeks — already ranking as the third-highest grosser ever on the mainland behind “Titanic” and “True Lies.” Disney execs believe “Pearl” will have enough momentum to overtake “True Lies,” which made $12.3 million.

Looking further ahead, Fox reps are delighted with the year-end slot earmarked for “Moulin Rouge” and the January date (pre-Chinese New Year celebrations) secured for “Planet of the Apes.” Both are considered prime release periods for Western films.

Eleven U.S. titles and the Jackie Chan starrer “The Accidental Spy” have been released on rev-sharing terms in China thus far this year. If the films slated for the rest of the year go out as planned, that will bring the 2001 total to 18 — a record.

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