SHANGHAI — Nanfang Carrefour, just outside Shanghai’s inner ring road, was thronged with customers several weeks ago with families stocking up on food and fun for the Chinese New Year celebrations.
The French-Chinese joint-venture superstore chain is the biggest foreign retailer in China, with close to 50 outlets nationwide. The Nanfang store offers tens of thousands of products spread over thousands of square meters, with a large entertainment section crammed with films, TV series and music.
“We sell much more over the Spring Festival than over any other period during the year,” says an assistant in the entertainment section. “Families spend more time together then, eating and watching films at home.”
DVDs of foreign films at Carrefour cost 22 yuan ($2.50), and there is a reasonable range.
A Warner Bros. stand displays the latest imports, “Troy” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” alongside classics like “All the President’s Men” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” Just around the corner are racks of older foreign DVD titles like “Empire of the Sun.” “Mission Impossible II” — on special offer at 17 yuan ($20) — is playing on a monitor in the corner.
Most of these DVDs have multiple language options, including English and Mandarin, as well as Chinese subtitles. VCDs, a lower-grade format, tend to be dubbed into Mandarin.
Imports of foreign DVDs in China fall outside the unofficial annual quota of 20 foreign films released theatrically on a revenue-sharing basis, meaning there is a lot more to choose from here than at the cinema upstairs. Even Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle,” released just a month or so ago on the bigscreen, is available for $1.50.
And yet, despite the crowds buying up copies of local TV series on DVD and VCD, almost no one stops to browse the film section.
“I don’t buy films here,” laughs a teenager checking out the latest music CDs. “They are expensive and most of them are really old.”
Why she — and apparently most people in China — hold this opinion is clear almost as soon as you step outside the store. Within five minutes’ walk of Carrefour there is an alternative source, selling pirated copies of movies that are still playing in cinemas in the West, and for less than a buck.
Nicole Kidman starrer “Birth,” “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” “Ocean’s Twelve” and Christian Bale in “The Machinist” are just 7 yuan (85¢) in this bright little corner shop, bustling with customers holding shopping bags from Carrefour.
Also available: “The Bicycle Thief,” a selection of French New Wave classics and favorite local pix like Zhang Yuan’s “East Palace, West Palace” and Jia Zhangke’s “Unknown Pleasures.”
Most of them are relatively high quality laserdisc or DVD copies. Some of the newer discs were clearly filmed on camcorders at cinema screenings.
The storeowner is a jovial woman in her 40s who runs her shop like a legitimate business. Poor-quality copies (including those shot on camcorders in cinemas) can be returned or swapped; there’s a discount for bulk buys; and if you are not sure what to buy, she can tell you the merits and faults of virtually every one of the thousands of films she stocks.
There are stores like this on most major streets across China. They are usually well-run and customer-friendly. They are not hassled by local police, and many of them hold legitimate business licenses. Occasionally they are shut down for a few days (during antipiracy crackdowns), or move on to a new address. But most of them stay put, and do excellent business.
Despite increased efforts to control piracy by the State Administration of Radio, Film & Television, encouraged by the Motion Picture Assn., the pirate film industry remains strong here.
Spurred on by estimated losses to piracy of $900 million a year in the Asia-Pacific region, the MPA launched Operation Eradicate back in December.
But until China — and the West — come to terms with the complex chain of supply, and the massive demand for films that otherwise are not released here, piracy will continue to thrive under the nose of the official industry.