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Regulators Keep Chinese Film Industry in Suspense

Regulators are supposed to be guiding hands, not dramatists. But just as Chinese film makers are increasingly exploring new genres, the country’s film regulators are introducing their own touch of suspense.

The main plot involves a changing of the guard at the Film Bureau and its oversight body, the State Administration for Press Publishing Radio Film & Television (SAPPRFT). The subplots involve censorship clearance, release scheduling, and international relations.

The back story takes the narrative back to March and China’s annual parliamentary session, where several mergers of administrative departments were announced. Among them was a shift that made the Film Bureau and SAPPRFT directly answerable to the Communist Party’s propaganda department.

The storyline got an update last month, when it was announced that long-serving propaganda department executive Wang Xiaohui had been appointed as new head of the Film Bureau. But since then the plot has gone cold.

Few people, it seems, have yet worked out what the Film Bureau/SAPPRFT shift to propaganda department will mean either in terms of policy direction, or in practical terms. Some seem to think that putting film closer to the country’s core decision makers could lead to more unified policy – for instance hastening already ongoing moves to give film, TV and online sectors the same censorship regime.

Others think that, as a result of the shift, film could be used more explicitly as an instrument of policy, to depict socialist values, promote patriotic sentiment, and increase cultural exports.

How well those things sit with on-screen creativity and world class story-telling was not a topic for discussion at this week’s Shanghai International Film Festival. At least not in public forums.

What was discussed in worried tones was the stasis induced by the transition period. According to multiple sources, there is a growing queue of films awaiting censorship clearance and release date confirmation. The new regulators seem to want to move cautiously, and are being careful not put a foot wrong.

Their hesitation affects Chinese films and foreign imports and leaves the releasing calendar for early autumn somewhat uncertain. The schedule of Chinese film releases to the end of August seems mostly in place, though the duration of the summer blackout period in which major foreign movies cannot be released, remains moot. At the moment, no Hollywood titles releasing on revenue sharing terms, have yet been scheduled in July or August.

The personnel and administrative changes are also affecting the renegotiation of the 2012 memorandum of understanding between China and the U.S. Trade Representative. The MoU discussions, which started up in Feb. 2017, had focused on expanding the terms of trade, film import quotas and revenue shares. But without a Chinese negotiating partner, talks have stalled since March.

Quite when China will pickup the narrative and write a new chapter remains unknown. Until then, the existing 2012 quota regime remains in place and plays on in endless repeat.

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