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China's Film Industry Rankles as Spiderman's Web Snares Cinemas
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Spiderman may be a hero to many, but his total conquest of China's cinema screens has raised ire in the nation's film industry.

During the week-long May Day holiday, the Shanghai Wanyu Cinema showed Spiderman 3 on all six screens after it opened on March 2.

The cinema manager surnamed Yan said the cinema always decided its "now showing list" according to audience demand.

"Most people like Hollywood blockbusters, so we decided to show Spiderman 3 on our screens all the time," Yan said, adding that cinemas were "under financial pressure" to do so.

"Spiderman 3" is already the most lucrative movie in the Chinese market this year, with box office takings 103.65 million yuan (US$13.5 million) by Sunday, according to main distributor Huaxia Film Distribution and the China Film Group Corporation, the other local distributor.

But many in the domestic film industry attribute its success to its saturation coverage, which has triggered a debate on the state of Chinese film and the efficiency of protection measures.

Chinese-born Hollywood actress Vivian Wu, who found fame in The Last Emperor, described the blanket penetration of the US blockbuster as a "colonisation" of China's cinemas.

"If Chinese cinemas are occupied by foreign big-budget films, no one will dare to invest in Chinese films," said Wu, who debuted her Chinese-language Shanghai Red in Beijing last month. The film was co-produced by Shanghai Film Group Corporation and Vivian Wu and her husband's company.

She and writer-director husband Oscar L. Costo had anticipated a robust box office, but found Chinese audiences had almost no access to Chinese films.

"We feel sad and wonder why Chinese don't watch their own movies," said Wu. "It's unreasonable that almost all screens in all cinemas show 'Spiderman 3 '."

"Shanghai Red," which opened on April 29 and is expected to be on show for up to two months, had by Wednesday taken 2.2 million yuan, much less than "Spiderman 3," but already better than other Chinese films showing simultaneously, such as "Ming Ming" and "Kung Fu Fighter."

"In the United States, cinemas usually devote only half of their screens to big-budget films, and leave the other half for other types of films," Wu said.

Han Jie, of the Beijing Forbidden City Film Company, the distributor of "Shanghai Red" in Beijing, said, "A mutual understanding between film distributors and cinemas is urgently needed.

"As a distributor of small-budget domestic films, we do hope cinemas give more screen time to domestic films. But it's quite understandable for us that they allocate prime time slots, especially during May Day holiday, to big-budget films, as they face financial pressures. Hopefully, cinemas can understand our difficulties and prolong the showing time of small-budget domestic films from one month to two months. I think it's a feasible solution to increase revenue for homemade small-budget films."

Chinese director Jia Zhangke, who won the Golden Lion Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival with Still Life, echoed Wu's concerns.

"Cinema managers always say the market and audience decide what they show, but it's not true," Jia said.

"The truth is cinema managers speculate on which films might be profitable and which are not. They make feature lists based on their assumptions and let audiences follow, which results in domestic small-budget films always being shown at the worst times."

Jia said China should learn from South Korea and establish a protection mechanism for its domestic films, requiring cinemas to guarantee a set proportion of days for domestic films to nurture audience interest.

Every cinema in South Korea was required to show homemade films for at least 146 days a year from 1996. The strict quota system led to a boom in the country's film industry and increased influence in Asia and the world.

However, in April the US government complained to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that China's market access restrictions on films, books and audio-visual products had lead to rampant piracy.

Chinese officials have refuted the accusations, saying they "do not bear serious scrutiny."

The Chinese government promised to import 20 foreign movies when it entered the WTO in 2001, but the real number of imported foreign movies far exceeded that figure, said Wang Ziqiang, spokesman of China's National Copyright Administration (NCA).

From 2000 to 2004, China imported 4,332 films, 40 to 50 percent of them from the United States, statistics from the Ministry of Culture showed.

Zhang Weiping, one of China's leading film producers and a collaborator with director Zhang Yimou on many films, including Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, said Chinese film-makers should strive to improve the quality of films and promotion strategies rather than only relying on government support.
(Xinhua News Agency May 16, 2007)

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