Films await Chinese censors

All foreign titles need SARFT approval

BEIJING — Caps in hand, Hollywood studios and other foreign filmmakers have begun their annual trek to the door of China’s film bureau, seeking approval from the censors for their various offerings.

While China’s opaque censorship system and tight rein on foreign product makes working in the country problematic for both domestic and foreign filmmakers, boffo B.O. for pics such as “The Da Vinci Code” and other big movies means the studios are keen to make more of the China market, despite the hassles.

Last year, 20 quota films, mostly action pics including major productions such as “King Kong” and “Miami Vice,” generated $102 million at the Chinese box office.

Sony is planning a day-and-date release for “Spider-Man 3” in early May, and is not expecting a problem, given that the other two titles in the franchise were approved without incident. The pics went on to earn nearly $13 million B.O. in China.

All foreign pics are submitted to the all-powerful SARFT (State Administration of Radio Film & Television), China’s main film bureau and censor, before approval.

This year, censors will peer closely at “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” — as popular a franchise in China as it is everywhere else; “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” was banned because of cannibal scenes, but the first installment, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” chalked up $3.4 million in B.O. in China.

China’s movie theaters took in 30% more in revenues last year than the previous year, and although foreign players are having a nightmare time trying to gain a foothold in the tricky market, the cinemas are slowly becoming more important when it comes to exhibiting product in China.

In 2006, “The Da Vinci Code” pulled in nearly $20 million after a glitzy day-and-date launch in Beijing, before it was suddenly removed before finishing its run. Some bizzers reckon it was pulled because it was too successful and threatened some big Chinese films, although others say the pic was yanked due to pressure from religious groups.

“Mission: Impossible III” was slated for a day-and-date release, but ended up hitting Chinese theaters months after its U.S. release. At first the pic was banned because it was ruled that laundry on a Shanghai washing line painted a poor image of the city. Despite this, “MI3” took in $10.4 million for the year, making it one of the top three earners.

Toons are generally a shoo-in for release. However, efforts to promote the domestic animation biz may put pressure on foreign competitors when it comes to gaining approval.

“The Restless,” “16 Blocks” and “Night at the Museum” are due during February’s crucial Chinese New Year period, when auds cram the movie theaters.

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