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Art-House Circuit Offers Alternate Route Into China for U.S. Films

Despite some censorship of its gay content, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has broken the box office record in China for a film imported by the country’s small but growing National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas. As of April 1, after just 10 days in theaters, the film has taken in RMB80.3 million ($11.1 million) in limited release. The movie has surpassed the alliance’s previous highest-grossing title — “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which took in $10.3 million — and drawn attention to a little-known route for foreign films attempting to get into China without being hampered by the official quota for overseas titles.

The world’s most populous country has only a handful of dedicated art-house cinemas. Though Chinese art films continue to garner top prizes abroad, their box office prospects at home have historically been pitiable — so much so that, in 2016, a video went viral of an elderly producer literally getting on his knees to beg exhibitors to allot his movie more screenings.

The NAAC, a public-private partnership led by the state-backed China Film Archive, was founded that year to address this problem. Participating theater chains,
which include Wanda Cinema Line and Hong Kong’s Broadway Circuit, put aside a designated portion of their screens for NAAC choices.

The alliance told Variety that it has grown from an initial 170 participating cinemas to 3,100, encompassing about 3,700 of China’s 60,000 screens. It selects both new works and classics, and has overseen the screening of about 80 films, including one-off festival titles.

So far, only five of the films have been imports: Oscar winners “Manchester by the Sea” and “Three Billboards” from the U.S., “Nise: The Heart of Madness” from Brazil, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s legal thriller “The Third Murder” from Japan and now “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Alliance films still go through a rigorous censorship process but don’t fall prey to China’s quota system, which limits the country to just 34 titles a year from abroad. Foreign titles brought in through the NAAC can be shown only in participating cinemas, though domestic art-house titles are allowed a simultaneous general release. There is no strict number of films that the NAAC can import, nor a defined breakdown of which countries they must originate from, though it seeks “diversity,” said the alliance’s Sun Xianghui.

The NAAC and 20th Century Fox began discussions about “Bohemian Rhapsody” last October, ahead of its U.S. release. The Freddie Mercury biopic might seem an unlikely choice because of its LGBT content, since the NAAC had previously described to Variety a policy of not working with such films. (Scenes of men kissing and dressed in drag, as well as the word “gay,” were cut.) However, the alliance said it did not regard the movie as gay-oriented but rather about music. That positioning has indeed struck a chord in karaoke-loving China, where sing-along screenings have been arranged.

Both organizers and participants say the NAAC is still finding its footing. Exhibitors express frustrations that programming has been too inconsistent and sparse for them to build up regular, loyal audiences, and that new titles have been unveiled with insufficient lead time for promotion. “We seem to always receive promotional materials at the last minute, no more than two weeks in advance,” one cinema operator complained.

Cao Liuying, a film producer and critic, said the NAAC was “not the first choice” as a distribution partner for her company’s inaugural feature film, because she feels the alliance doesn’t have the resources or manpower to properly promote her project. “It could be a Plan B, but if there’s a better option, we’ll go for that,” she said. “‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ might have done well, but their other films didn’t really get satisfying box office numbers.”

Plans are underway to address some of these problems. “We continue to study the art-house models of Western countries like the U.S. and France,” Sun said, “and very much hope to create a well mapped-out slate of programming, announcing a whole season three months in advance and giving people more of a choice.”

Director Wang Chao, whose 2018 “Looking for Rohmer” managed to secure a national release despite its gay themes, said the alliance would remain “rather fragile” as long as China lacked policies like those of Europe that specifically support art-house fare even when doing so is not lucrative.

“There are no strict obligations for Chinese cinemas to set aside screening times and theaters for art-house films when there are popular commercial ones competing,” he said. “Cinemas program good art-house films that can generate big box office numbers even without the alliance, but there’s no true protection for films with bad numbers.”

Still, Wang is optimistic. “This is just the beginning,” he said. “It’s better to have an art-house circuit than not to have one at all.” 

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