Studios fascinated by China changes

As Xi gains power, Hollywood takes temperature of Sino warming trend

Xi Jinping, the man poised to take over as China’s supreme leader, is a movie fan who apparently loves “Saving Private Ryan.” Whether that translates into a desire to help Hollywood is an open question.

Certainly Xi has been a friend to Hollywood recently, having overseen the February agreement to loosen China’s import restrictions on foreign films. And he’s likely to be tough on issues such as piracy and intellectual property rights protection as China seeks to clamp down on corruption, and innovate more, which is good news for Hollywood.

But the bigger question is what will happen during the Communist Party Congress, which kicked off Nov. 8 and is scheduled to last about a week. The huddles will announce a new government and handover of power, so showbizzers are eager to know what the once-in-a-decade leadership change in China means. Will Xi open up the world’s second-biggest movie market or continue to focus on boosting the domestic industry by keeping a lid on overseas content?

Han Sanping, topper of the China Film Group, which dominates all aspects of the biz, including importing and distribution, believes the fifth generation of leaders in China will be a reforming one, which would be a good thing for Hollywood.

“After the 18th Party Congress, reform and opening will continue,” Han told bizzers Oct. 30 at the U.S.-China Film Summit in Los Angeles, organized by the Asia Society of Southern California.

Still, the domestic film biz is central to the government’s goal of boosting Chinese influence overseas. And while Xi may want to allow more foreign product into China, the political pressure to focus on homegrown movies will be great.

Chinese filmmakers feel at a disadvantage vis-a-vis Hollywood due to the censorship rules Xi’s government oversees.

So far this year, the top three movies have been imports — the 3D reissue of “Titanic” (which took in $150 million), “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” ($109 million) and “The Avengers” ($90.5 million) — despite lengthy blackout periods for foreign movies. Measures such as releasing blockbusters like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” on the same day were meant to lessen those films’ B.O. impact, and it looks likely that “Skyfall” and “The Hobbit” will suffer the same fate.

The 18th Communist Party Congress marks a transition from a generation of technocrats who had overseen the past decade in China — all nine members of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo were engineers — to a new fifth generation of leaders who have mixed backgrounds.

Hundreds of overseas reporters have applied to cover the congress, and those accredited are given a baseball cap, a backpack and other goodies by a party that has discovered the importance of publicity and the appearance of openness.

For months, it has been assumed that Xi will be named General Secretary of the Communist Party at the congress, before assuming the presidency from Hu Jintao, and will take over the leadership of the army in the following months.

Xi faces difficult times. While the party will put on a unified face during the Congress, the past few weeks have seen fierce jostling for power between the ruling factions, and among the princelings and the cadres linked to the Communist Youth League that is President Hu’s power base.

The fifth generation of leaders will have a raft of knotty problems to deal with. They inherit the weakest economic growth since 1999, with expansion seen at 7.7% this year. They also will have to deal with rising unrest over land grabs and corruption, and the challenges of an aging population.

Amid all this, Chinese box office is hardly the top priority — but it is a priority, because, as Hollywood knows, the film business is about money and about global perception. B.O. has risen dramatically in the past few years, and is forecast to exceed $2.5 billion this year. It reached $1.95 billion at the three-quarter mark, according to data from biz watchdog the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV.

Xi’s easing of import restrictions, which allows entry into the country of 14 more 3D or large-format films per year on top of the 20 that are already imported, has helped. Foreign distribs also have seen a profit-sharing increase on those films to 25%, up from 13%.

Besides having to compete with more Hollywood movies, another disadvantage for locals is that many Chinese bizzers have had projects on hold for months, waiting for the power handover to be completed, and for the chain of command to become clear again.

A management consultant who asked for anonymity says getting decisions from senior management has been impossible since the start of the year.

“People don’t know if they will still be in jobs after the transition, because the new administration will bring its own people in, the cogs in the wheel will turn, and there will be different people in decision-making positions at many levels,” he says.

How the cogs align themselves will the true indicator of Hollywood’s fortunes in China.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Beforeigners

    'Beforeigners’' Anne Bjornstad on HBO's First Norwegian Original Series

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —  HBO Europe’s first Norwegian original series, which debuted Aug. 21 exclusively across HBO’s territories, has garnered rave reviews in the Norwegian press. It is also a perfect fit for HBO’s brand and goal to create bold, smart and author-driven shows. Produced by Endemol Shine’s Norwegian prodco Rubicon TV, “Beforeigners” is helmed by [...]

  • Refugees from the besieged Muslim enclave

    Sarajevo’s True Stories Market: Documenting the Atrocities of War

    Reconciliation and dealing with the tragedies of the Yugoslav Wars has been a major focus of the Sarajevo Film Festival and its CineLink Industry Days event in recent years. The True Stories Market, launched in 2016, aims to connect filmmakers with organizations that are researching and documenting the Yugoslav Wars that spanned 1991 to 2001 [...]

  • Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’

    Ena Sendijarevic’s ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ Wins Top Prize in Sarajevo

    “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević’s coming-of-age story about a teen raised in the Netherlands who returns to Bosnia to visit her ailing father, won the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival Thursday night, earning the Amsterdam-based helmer the coveted Heart of Sarajevo Award. The jury heralded the “beautifully photographed, acted, scripted [...]

  • Khadar Ahmed - BUFO - photo

    Bufo Sets Key Cast for Co-Production ‘The Gravedigger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —   Actor Omar Abdi, who starred in the Ahmed-scripted short “Citizens,” and actress Yasmin Warsame, who made her name as a Canadian model, will topline romantic-tragedy “The Gravedigger,” the latest big screen project from Bufo, the Helsinki-based outfit behind Berlinale winner “The Other Side of Hope.” The film follows a Djibouti gravedigger [...]

  • Jacobs Ladder Movie 2019

    Film Review: 'Jacob's Ladder'

    It’s understandable that someone would want to remake “Jacob’s Ladder,” Adrian Lyne’s 1990 head-trip thriller about a Vietnam veteran haunted by fragmentary nightmare visions. I was far from alone in finding the original to be an overwrought but rather thin “psychological” horror film that was more punishing than pleasurable. And it wasn’t exactly a hit, [...]

  • Fiddler A Miracle of Miracles

    Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

    Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success [...]

  • 'Weathering With You' Heads for $100

    'Weathering With You' Heads for $100 Million Box Office Haul

    Makoto Shinkai’s animated romantic drama “Weathering with You” passed the JPY10 billion ($94 million) mark in Japan on Wednesday, according to an announcement by distributor Toho. This makes it the tenth-highest earning Japanese film of all time. Since its release on July 19 on 448 screens in 359 complexes, the film has racked up 7.52 million admissions. The [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content