China Sends Mixed Messages On Foreign Films

Despite Welcoming Environment At Beijing International Film Festival, Obstacles Remain For Foreign Filmmakers

American-Canadian actor Keanu Reeves, centre, presents the best actress award to Chinese actress Yan Bingyan, left, as Hong Kong director John Woo, right, looks on during the award ceremony for the Beijing Film Festival in Beijing Tuesday April 23, 2013.

American-Canadian actor Keanu Reeves presents the best actress award to Chinese actress Yan Bingyan as Hong Kong director John Woo looks on during the award ceremony for the Beijing Film Festival in Beijing on April 23, 2013.

A warm sense of cooperation between foreign and Chinese film companies permeated the events of this weekend’s third annual Beijing International Film Festival, an event designed to demonstrate China’s increasing openness to the international film market. This sentiment was especially strong at the festival’s Sino-Foreign Film Co-production Forum, where actor Keanu Reeves joined in festivities that included the symbolic signing of a French-Chinese co-production deal and an artist handprint ceremony. Meanwhile, a Chinese TV network used the festival to publicly cast Chinese roles for the upcoming Hollywood film Transformers 4, which is likely to apply for the coveted position of a Hollywood-China co-production.

However, the status of foreign films in China seemed markedly different less than two weeks earlier, when the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained was abruptly yanked from theaters before it could begin its run as one of the 34 annual films approved for the Chinese box office.

These two events demonstrate the erratic way in which Chinese officials are grappling with management of the country’s booming film market, where the government hopes to protect its domestic film companies while cautiously cracking the door open for foreigners. The Django incident was only the latest difficulty of a foreign company striving for access to Chinese audiences, as many creators over the past few years have struggled with gaining co-production status in order to overstep the tight quota.

Even if films make it to the Chinese big screen, they still face challenges from a government that is wary of letting Hollywood’s large-budget productions take over profits from domestic films.  A recent New York Times article described the ways in which Chinese film regulators provide incentives to theater owners who bring in more profits for domestic films and alter premiere schedules to avoid direct competition between Chinese and foreign blockbusters.

Stars Andy Lau and Lin Chi-ling appear on the blue carpet at the 2013 Beijing International Film Festival.

Stars Andy Lau and Lin Chi-ling appear on the blue carpet at the 2013 Beijing International Film Festival.

So far, the response of foreign companies has been to step up their efforts in playing by China’s rules. The creators of Transformers 4 appear to have learned lessons from Iron Man 3, which decided it wasn’t up to co-production standards despite its soon-to-premiere made-for-China version featuring actress Fan Bingbing. Most recently, DreamWorks courted controversy when it announced that its Chinese film division would be making a movie based on a series of thriller novels about Tibet written by a Han Chinese author, a film that is likely to glide past Chinese censors despite the focus on such a politically-sensitive region. Even films that have no intention of tapping the Chinese box office have altered plot lines to cut out Chinese villains because distributors are increasingly wary of doing anything that would put them in a bad light in the eyes of China’s film regulators.

This year’s film festival also featured its inaugural Tiantan Award, which demonstrated that China’s domestic movies aren’t the only competition for U.S. filmmakers. The award nominated 15 films in total — none of which were American. Out of the field, which included films from Iran, Argentina, and Mexico, the choice of top prize was possibly prophetic, as it went to Back to 1942 — a Chinese film.

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