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New Film Law Casts Shadow Over Giant Chinese Market

Vague clauses in the country's newly minted regulations hint at possible political interference over media

There was a high degree of confusion when China released its Film Industry Promotion Law on March 1.

It was never seriously doubted that new regulations were needed given the Chinese film industry’s astonishing rise and the fact that its state-controlled governing body understandably had struggled to keep pace.

Estimated box-office returns have been on average rising by around 30% each year. China taking over as the world’s leading film market long ago stopped being a matter of if but of when.

There have been high-profile stumbles along the way over the past decade that have highlighted the need for more controls. For example, cases of box-office fraud made headlines around world and were widely being seen as the instigator of the new law. What raised eyebrows, though, back in March, was not so much that this law was being introduced but the way other parts of it had been framed, with opaque language that seemed to leave many matters open to considerable interpretation.

“(Films must) serve the people and socialism,” according to the law, which also demands that filmmakers have “self-discipline.”

Further, the law stipulates penalties on foreign filmmakers for “damaging China’s national dignity, honor and interests, or harming social stability or hurting national feelings.”

Other aspects of the law are far clearer, such as the bans and fines for filmmakers who choose to have their productions screened at overseas festivals without official clearance.

Little wonder, then, that these developments have been a talking point at festivals across the globe. While international industry insiders have been reluctant to go on the record for fear their opinions might damage any future business relationship with China, that hasn’t stopped them from explaining the lay of the land as they see it, from outside China looking in.

“The main concern is that no one really knows for certain what will be accepted and what won’t,” says one producer who has worked on Hollywood-China co-productions. “Doing business in China can be tricky at the best of times, but with the attention the film industry has been getting— and with all its successes — the worry is that if the possibility is there for even more government control than we’ve been used to, and just when we thought thing were loosening up to a degree.”

“We will be focusing more clearly on not being in blind pursuit of revenue, instead focusing more on the quality of output.”
James Wang Zhonglei

Those putting together international film festivals share similar concerns. “The worry for both festival and especially for emerging independent Chinese filmmakers is that the films we want to screen, and that they want to make, simply won’t appear,” says one veteran international festival programmer. “The fear of bans and big fines will be too much. It hasn’t been for some in the past, but now it is like a line has been drawn in the sand.”

Chinese filmmakers have of course been faced with the issue wherever they have travelled since March. Everyone wants to know how they see the new law might change the landscape of the business back home.

James Wang Zhonglei, co-chief of giant Chinese studio Huayi Bros., travelled about as far from Beijing as you can get when arriving at April’s Far East Film Festival in Udine, northern Italy. But once the interviews started he knew the film law issue would be coming up.

“This law has mostly exerted two significant influences on the industry,” explained Wang, when asked to frame the law’s impact. “The first influence is that we have seen major progress in terms of protecting the film industry. The most significant influence of this is that government has now legalized the regulations the industry has been governed by.”

He went on: “The second influence is that of course [the law] may exert some restraint in terms of exploring new genres but on the other side we see the rights of filmmakers and their films have been protected as well.”
Wang claimed the law has had an immediate effect. He also noted that while nearly 800 films are produced in China per year, only around 70% to 80% of them receive approval for public screening.

“We have clearer regulations in the law governing the industry and, for example, in the first quarter of this year we have seen that maybe between 100 and 200 film companies have been disbarred because they have broken the regulations and the rules,” he said. “So there are opportunities for new players. Mature companies like Huayi have better chance of seeing the opportunities and the threats more clearly. We will be focusing more clearly on not being in blind pursuit of revenue, instead focusing more on the quality of output.”

With that in mind it was fitting that Wang was at FEFF with long-time Huayi stable director Feng Xiaogang, who was on hand to accept the festival’s Golden Mulberry lifetime achievement award. Feng is seen as a trend-setter of China film genres, especially the ones that might make serious money. He was among the first to try rom-coms with the 2008 box office smash “If You Are the One,” moved into blockbusters with actioners “Aftershock” (2010) and “Back to 1942” (2012), and most recently has dabbled in more socially aware concerns with the black dramedy “I Am Not Madame Bovary,” a critical hit with a $70 million box office on a limited budget. Not in the same league as some of Feng’s previous billion-yuan efforts but, Wang claimed, an indication that China was expanding its cinematic outlook.

“The Chinese film market has seen a series of changes in recent years,” said Wang. “There are a lot of young directors nowadays and they have started making sci-fi films. Also a lot of the big studios and directors have started making franchises. Young directors are also making films that are focused on self-expression. These changes are offering new opportunities.”

(Pictured above: Feng Xiaogang’s 2016 “I Am Not Madame Bovary,” critical of government bureaucracy. The film used round frames for some scenes.)

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