In a move that sits uneasily with China's recent claims to market economy status, authorities ordered Spiderman and other Hollywood heroes off the nation's screens for a month to give struggling homemade fare a break at the box office – just as kids were leaving school for the summer break. The villain in this drama, from Spiderman's perspective, is the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. But it insisted it was only acting on behalf of Chinese film distributors who apparently need the ban to get domestically-made films more screen time.
One might think they had all the screen time they needed. Only a small number of foreign films are allowed on Chinese screens, certainly nothing like the number of new-release counterfeit DVDs available on any street corner in any Chinese city or town.
In 2002, only 30 of 110 new films officially released for cinema screening in China were foreign, according to Screen Digest, less than a third of the total. But statistics indicate that foreign films took more than half the box office that year. The reason is simple – foreign movies have much bigger budgets and more of the action which attracts kids to visit the big screen.
China's total box office is minuscule – only US$120 million last year, according to Screen Digest, compared to a US box office of US$9.5 billion. That's 80 times more than China, even though China has a population four times the size of the US. Even Australia, with a population (20 million) marginally larger than the city of Shanghai last year, has box office several times greater than China.
China started to allow first-run Western films into the cinemas again around a decade ago, after long decades when the Chinese masses had to put up with low quality homegrown propaganda movies or else flicks from socialist brother states such as Yugoslavia and Albania.
In early 2002, authorities increased the number of films as a condition of WTO entry, but the US has been pushing for even better access to mainland screens. Trade Representative Josette Shiner asked China to reconsider the scheduled ban on foreign films back in May, arguing as the Motion Picture Association of America does that it would only encourage moviegoers to buy pirate DVDs to see films they were barred from seeing in cinemas.
Los Angeles entertainment industry attorney Li T Wang observed before China entered the WTO that many countries put up barriers to US films. They can range from import quotas, high duties, discriminatory taxes, foreign remittance restrictions, local ownership requirements and screen-time restrictions to local film industries.
"Motivations for imposing these restrictions vary from the government's desire for profits from the activity, to a decision to subsidize the local film industry, to cultural protectionism," Wang said. "Moreover, a foreign distributor may have to distribute Chinese films outside of China as a quid pro quo for releasing films in China."
But the Spiderman ban is not necessarily going to help the Chinese film industry all that much. Apart from the boost to DVD sales that is likely to result, Chinese consumers now have a much greater range of choices to fall back on for entertainment – Playstation, TV, and Internet surfing among them.