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Domestic Movies: Under the Shadow of Hollywood?
If the past few years are any example, imported blockbusters, or dapian in Chinese, are expected to dominate China's cinemas this year, analysts predict.

Encountering tremendous pressure from Hollywood movies, domestic movie makers and critics have continued their debate on how to develop the home film industry.

The past Spring Festival season saw the huge success of the year's first imported blockbuster - "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

The magical Hollywood flick thrilled millions of young Chinese audiences as it did in other parts of the world.

In the first week after its China premiere in late January, the Warner Brothers production earned about 18 million yuan (US$2.2 million).

So far, the film has reaped national box-office receipts of about 56.8 million yuan (US$6.87 million), according to Zhou Tiedong, manager of the import department at the China Film Group Corporation.

Following in the footsteps of Harry Potter is "The Lord of the Rings," which will be shown nationwide soon.

There are signs that the Oscar-winning film will attract huge crowds.

These films are only recent examples of how imported blockbusters will play a leading role on Chinese markets this year, local film critics say.

Hollywood influences seem to be omnipresent.

"I love watching Hollywood blockbusters. They gave me audio and visual enjoyment which domestic films cannot provide," said 26-year-old Chen Qiang who works at a Beijing joint venture.

The film buff watched "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" twice and in 1995, he watched "Titanic" three times.

He is eagerly awaiting the screening of "The Lord of the Rings."

Chen buy film magazines every month, his favourite magazine is "Movie View Biweekly," a popular magazine published in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, introducing the latest Hollywood films and stars.

There are other film publications with a similar market orientation, and most sell well.

Imported hits in China

China began importing blockbusters in 1994.

The first was the revenue-sharing film "The Fugitive" which was shown in six major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou.

Among the first batch of imported revenue-sharing movies, there were three Jackie Chan works and seven others from Hollywood, including "The Fugitive," "The Lion King," "Speed," "Forrest Gump" and "True Lies."

Combined, the 10 films occupied 70 per cent of the market that year, leaving the remaining 30 per cent for 100-odd home-grown feature films.

With handsome market returns, Hollywood has planted its dominance in Chinese film market, as it has done in most countries.

Before then, there were also foreign movies shown at cinemas, but they were mostly low cost, older productions which had been shown about five to 10 years earlier in other countries.

Hollywood's success has been reflected in surveys on audience preferences, too.

A random survey conducted in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in 1998 showed that as much as 35 per cent of the 1,500 18-year-old respondents chose "Titanic" as their most favourite film.

The popularity of Hollywood blockbusters has brought an upgrading of cinemas.

Since most Hollywood films require state of the art audio and visual facilities, big cinemas have been generous in upgrading themselves while vying for expanded market share.

Smaller cinemas that failed to do so lost out.

In the early 1990s, there were about 15,000 cinemas in China. In 2000, fewer than 4,000 of them are still in operation.

Meanwhile, the debate over the success of Hollywood films and the demise of domestic films has begun, an indication that this issue will influence the future development of home films, industry analysts say.

Impact on home market

Parallel to the success of Hollywood films is the failure of home-grown films.

For many years, the local industry has been struggling on the verge of life and death.

In 2001, the total national box-office income was 800 million yuan (US$96 million), 20 per cent less than in 2000.

Only 10 per cent of 100 domestic films made profits; another 10 per cent barely struck a balance; and the remaining 80 per cent simply lost money.

Examples of good performing domestic films in the market are rare, with the exception of "The Painted Woman," "In the Heat of the Sun," "The Red Cherry," and "Shanghai Triad," in 1995 as well as renowned commercial film director Feng Xiaogang's "Happy-New-Year comic flicks" between 1997 and 2001, local media have reported.

This year, Feng's "Big Shot's Funeral," was a big hit, with box-office receipts of 25 million yuan (US$3 million).

Ironically, "Big Shot" was funded by Columbia Pictures, not domestic investors.

"The reality is, the domestic film industry is shrinking into non-existence," said Dai Jinhua, a professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Peking University.

Dai attributed this to the "invasion of Hollywood blockbusters."

While Warner Brothers, Touchstone Pictures and other Hollywood entertainment giants are far from satisfied with their limited access to the Chinese market, Dai argued that the market's door has opened too wide.

Dai said, in 1995, in order to give way to Hollywood movies, more than 70 domestic Chinese films were shelved, without any chance of being shown in theaters.

"Hollywood movies have dealt a destructive blow to the home film industry," Dai said anxiously.

In many countries where Hollywood dominates the screen, local productions have almost ceased to exist. That is one of the reasons why, in these countries, such as South Korea and France, Hollywood movies are severely opposed by industry insiders.

But in China, many film experts, critics and other insiders are optimistic.

Du Qingchun, a teacher from the Beijing Film Academy, admits that some protection measures are necessary but he insists that it is unnecessary to fuss over Hollywood.

"Competition is a good thing. In the long run, it will benefit the local film industry," said Du.

The Chinese film industry has not been beaten down by Hollywood. The 1930s was a time when Hollywood movies flooded into Chinese market and was also a golden period for the Chinese film industry, he adds.

"Anyway, moviegoers do not blindly follow blockbusters," said Du. "Even if we had not imported any blockbusters, it is highly possible that the local industry will not get any better now."

Du believes the real obstacles to domestic films do not come from competition but arise from the home film industry itself.

"Strictly speaking, there is no film business in China," said Li Xiaofeng, a film freelancer who is studying in Belgium.

In Li's view, there is much to learn from overseas filmmakers before the home film industry becomes a real business in areas ranging from distribution to advertising and cinema administration.

He cites the example of distribution. For years, the China Film Group (CFG) has had a monopoly in film distribution.

Chinese film authorities are now setting out to establish a new company to distribute foreign films, however CFG will maintain its monopoly on importing films.

As far as film-making is concerned, each year the central government allocates about 100 million yuan (US$12 million) to aid film production, according to Du.

The majority of the money is spent on shooting movies which usually feature major social and political events or figures in China. Many of those films portray protagonists talking in social and political jargon too stereotypical for the common audiences' liking, and thus have not fared too well.

Meanwhile, the investors have neglected talented young film directors whose ideas may break away from stereotypes and draw more young audiences into the cinemas.

Before the domestic filmmakers have time to improve and make a comeback in box offices, some experts caution that the dominance of Hollywood movies could harm home audiences culturally.

"We should be more aware of Hollywood's 'cultural invasion'," said Zhu Jingjiang, a film director at China Central Television's movie channel.

Zhu compared Hollywood megaproductions to Western fast food, which he says, "has no nutritional value at all."

Dai Jinhua worried that films that are mere commodities instead of works of art could dull the imagination.

"Films are not only industrial products but also cultural products," said Dai. "Only when they are diversified can a culture demonstrate its glamour and bear significance."

(China Daily April 8, 2002)

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