China’s distrib door opens slightly

Lords starrer 'Epicenter' picks Golden Harvest

China will allow a non-mainland company to distribute a movie in its tightly controlled market for the first time, but the news is unlikely to excite Hollywood execs itching to gain a toehold in the territory.

State-controlled China Film Group said Thursday that it has sold the rights to U.S.-made “Epicenter” to Shanghai Golden Harvest Media Management, which is partly owned by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studio.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region under Chinese control, but its companies are often treated as foreign entities. Even so, the deal does not mean China is opening its door to Hollywood majors itching to exploit the developing nation of 1.3 billion people.

Shanghai Golden Harvest will sell “Epicenter,” a B-movie detective yarn starring Traci Lords, to local distributors in Shanghai and other cities in May and June.

Neither company would disclose how much Shanghai Golden Harvest paid for distrib rights. However, the income is likely to be peanuts given that blockbuster “Jurassic Park III” grossed just $1.5 million in the territory this year — which is probably why China Film passed on the “Epicenter” rights.

China Film will lose its distribution monopoly in the coming months after the government announced that a second distrib would be set up this year.

The Shanghai Film Group, which distributed “Jurassic Park III” outside of China Film’s monopoly, is set to be the major shareholder in the new entity. China’s Film Bureau gave the “Jurassic” rights to the Group to test its ability to release films nationally.

China has tightly restricted the number of foreign films it lets in to maintain control of political content and protect domestic studios. Under this arrangement, the U.S. studios and China Film split the box office earnings. A larger number of lesser-known films like “Epicenter” are also allowed. For these, the foreign production studios receive only a small, flat fee.

But as part of its entry into the World Trade Organization, Beijing has promised to open its doors.

The State Administration of Radio, Film & Television has ruled that China Film and the new distrib will each handle 10 foreign and 20 domestic films in the first year.

(Don Groves in Sydney and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)