Key Pol absent as H’wood asks for distrib answer

Reps unable to talk to Chinese official

Reps from the U.S. majors left Beijing late last week none the wiser about the Chinese government’s intentions on reform of the film distribution system — and just as frustrated with inefficiencies at incumbent distrib China Film.

Turns out the key decision-making official, Zhao Shi, whom the Hollywood execs most wanted to see, wasn’t in town. The vice minister of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, Zhao was traveling after leading the Chinese delegation to Mipcom and isn’t due back until Oct. 23.

Zhao has been entrusted with implementing China’s undertaking to introduce competition among distribs of U.S. and other foreign films, ending China Film’s monopoly.

U.S. execs fear the government intends to preserve a large measure of state control by splitting China Film into two: the existing distrib division, and a new joint venture between provincial distribs and China Film as the controlling shareholder.

Their fears may be realized. In Zhao’s absence, the U.S. delegation couldn’t glean anything new about the direction of the government’s new film policy or even when it will be unveiled — beyond China Film officials’ contention they believe the dual distrib model will proceed.

The U.S. reps’ semi-annual gathering in Beijing, which coincided with the annual Beijing Screenings where China Film showcases the latest Chinese films to potential overseas buyers, attracted interest from the Beijing media. In interviews with China Central Television, execs stress that as China is joining the World Trade Organization, reform of the distribution system will benefit the local film industry.

Meetings with China Film to discuss how the agency is modernizing its antiquated systems left some U.S. reps dispirited.

“No one had a computer that can play CD-ROMS, their fax machines are old and they can’t email files of B.O. reports,” one exasperated exec says.

However, the visitors were pleased by the enthusiastic public response to “The Mummy Returns,” which grossed a healthy $1.2 million in its first four days on 172 screens. That was 48% bigger than “Mission: Impossible 2’s” bow, 71% ahead of “Gladiator” and 24% better than “Enemy at the Gates.”

Also, “Pearl Harbor” was re-released on the same day, following the month-long blackout on foreign films, and its cume advanced to $12.1 million. It’s likely to overtake “True Lies” (which made $12.3 million) to rank as the second-highest grosser ever in China, behind “Titanic.”

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