Scandal has filmmakers playing wait-and-see on big productions

BEIJING — The run-up to the Communist Party congress in autumn, when a once-in-a-decade leadership transition is to take place as president Hu Jintao hands over the reins of power to vice president Xi Jinping, is generally a time for calm reassessment and caution in China. But this year the nation has been shaken by elements straight out of a classic Hollywood murder mystery.

At the center of the maelstrom is the purging of Bo Xilai, party leader in the huge city of Chongqing and a rising star in the Communist firmament, in the wake of his wife, Gu Kailai, being suspected of involvement in the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

While it’s unlikely the scandal will change the liberalizations brought about under China’s recent cultural initiative, the climate of instability — there were even rumors of a coup at one point — means that the Film Bureau is unlikely to be approving projects seen to be even slightly in question until the transition starts to look like a done deal, which might not be early next year.

Most of the big Chinese productions will be cooling their heels until then, and many say they are waiting until the period just before Chinese New Year in early February to release their products, and then market them quickly.

Once the new leadership is in place, the question becomes whether Xi is a reformer or if he merely will continue the policies of his predecessor. If he falls into the former category, there could be a relaxation of censorship, and an easing of rules for foreign ownership in the Chinese biz — although few are holding their breath.

Moreover, the handover isn’t just at the level of president. Premier Wen Jiabao will also pass responsibility over to Li Keqiang. The president role in China is the most powerful, and is usually allied with leadership of the military and the top role in the Communist Party. The premier is the second-most powerful executive position.

Still, the appointment of Xi probably augurs well for Hollywood, given that he oversaw the February agreement to loosen China’s restrictions on foreign films, which allows entry into the country of 14 more 3D or large-format films per year, and a profit-sharing increase on those films to 25%, up from 13%, for foreign film companies.

A fan of WWII-era Hollywood movies, Xi took in a Los Angeles Lakers game during a February visit to the U.S. that seemed to demonstrate China’s use of “soft power” when wooing overseas allies.

Gao Jun, general manager of Sheng Shi New Film Distribution, says that ultimately, whoever become the next leaders in China will carry on the nation’s initiative to prioritize development of economic sectors that include the film biz.

“Efforts to drive the economy through the culture industry, and to export Chinese culture to foreign countries, will be continued,” Gao says. “This is a growing industry in China.”

World Report: China 2012
Filmmakers play by China rulebook | H’wood takes censorship in stride | Real estate boom brings movies to the masses | Studios, exhibs get China boost | Regime change carries warning signs | TV a tiny share of China market | H’wood needs no introduction | Top mainland mavens own inside scoop

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