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‘Happyness’ gets China release date

State's decision seen as 'clever maneuver'

Chinese film authorities will allow the year-old Will Smith pic “The Pursuit of Happyness” to screen on Jan. 17 in what industry watchers say is a tactical move to refute the notion of a blanket ban on Hollywood fare introduced this month.

A Film Bureau spokesman said Sony’s “Pursuit” would be shown in digital cinemas only and said no other U.S. film had been given the greenlight.

Allowing “Pursuit” to squeak past China’s prolonged blackout period for foreign pics is seen as a clever maneuver by the authorities, who have denied that a ban was ever imposed.

The Hollywood studios’ Asian and Chinese arms have not been given any other release slots in the first two months of 2008, preventing Disney’s “Enchanted,” DreamWorks’ “Bee Movie,” Paramount’s “Stardust” and Warner’s “Beowulf” from reaching Chinese screens any time soon.

Smith recently promoted his latest pic, “I Am Legend,” in Hong Kong, where he met China Film Group topper Han Sanping and lobbied hard for “Legend” to be shown.

Industry sources said they believed that the decision to release “The Pursuit of Happyness” was unrelated.

“This has nothing to do with Will Smith. The Chinese want to show there is actually no ban. By releasing one American film, they can claim this. No other titles are yet confirmed for release,” said one studio exec.

“Pursuit” had been cleared by censors before the ban was introduced, which may also help explain why it has been approved now.

Digital screens account for only a small percentage of total exhibs in China.

The Chinese government often changes the blackout periods at short notice. Normally, the majors are given approval for films that qualify under the quota system, which permits 20 foreign films to be released per year on a revenue-sharing basis.

In China’s most drastic measure ever against Hollywood, it has appeared that the annual blackout would be extended beyond the usual month of December until at least the end of February — with some Chinese sources saying it could continue until May.

The central-government order is believed to have emanated from echelons higher up than the State Administration for Film Radio and Television or the Film Bureau, which normally handle movie industry policy — probably coming from within the Propaganda Ministry.

The ban has been cited as another example of the growing rift between China and the U.S. following the latter’s sale of weapons to Taiwan and Congress’ honoring of the Dalai Lama.

It may also be retaliation against the Motion Picture Assn.’s studio members for persuading the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to take action against China through the World Trade Organization over intellectual property protection and market access (Daily Variety, April 11).

Blackouts also help boost local films. Feng Xiaogang’s patriotic war pic “Assembly” bowed nationwide on Thursday while “Warlords” has seen boffo B.O. since its 900-print release this month.

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