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Mr. Dodd Goes to China

The MPAA chief plans to schmooze with Chinese officials during an upcoming trip next month, helping U.S. studios enter the market. That could be good … and not so good

Former U.S. Senator Christopher J. Dodd, who is now chief of the Motion Pictures Association of America, will fly to China this month for talks with Chinese officials there about increasing the number of Hollywood movies allowed to be shown inside the communist behometh.

Dodd is seeking to elevate the association’s profile in Washington, and he has made opening doors in China one of his top priorities since assuming the job in March.

While visiting the Shanghai International Film Festival this month for a week in mid-June, Dodd hopes to schmooze with motion-picture bureuacrats in China in an effort to build relations with film officials there.

But will China open up its vast movie theater audiences to more Hollywood product that the current quotas allow, or as Time magazine recently put it in a candid headdline: "Can Hollywood Afford to Make Films China Doesn’t Like?"

The answers to both questions will be telling, and while Time didn't answer the question its headline posed, time will tell.

Most likely, China will not open up to Hollywood any more than it has to, according to World Trade Organization regulations. And while Hollywood would love to crack the China market for its overseas releases — in addition to its gold mines in Japan and Taiwan — the people who run Hollywood's studios and distribution groups have little patience for comnunist dictators and censorship.

Then again, money talks.
 
At the moment, China allows only about 20 popular Western films into the communist country each year.

But under a new set-up being discussed with Hollywood movers and shakers, Beijing would allow in as many 40 foreign films per year, according to sources in the film industry.

And if all goes as planned under this more generous plan, Beijing would agree to provide greater market access to Hollywood by allowing an additional company to distribute foreign films.

Currently, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled China Film Group dominates the
import of foreign movies into China.

Dodd hopes to up the ante and bring some good news back to Los Angeles and Washington after he concludes his visit to Shanghai and Beijing.
 
It's true that China’s growing influence is reaching Hollywood, and Dodd is aware of this.

American producers and directors are now factoring in the China market when making movies, just as they did when they eyed the lucrative Japanese market earlier this century.

But while Japan did not censor Western films and allowed anything to be shown there, as befits a democratic country, China has other issues with Hollywood and the West.

Censorship and Western film quotas are still the rule inside China proper, although Hong Kong and Macao are still allowed some semblance of freedom when it comes to screening Hollywood and European flicks.
 
China is another story.

However, since the film market in China is so huge, some changes might be in store, some good and some bad, according to sources in the film industry.

China is now the fifth largest market for Hollywood films, and Hollywood producers would like to crack that market bigtime, and the sooner the better.

So if China's movie handlers tell Hollywood not to export films that champion freedom or themes of the underdog or the little guy, studio executives just might go along.
 
Look at the bottom line: Did you know that China was the second highest earnings market for James Cameron's blocklbuster "Avatar," just behind the North American market and higher than Japan or Taiwan? Yes, according to Artisan Gateway, a Beijing entertainment-business consultant firm.

Some Hollywood insiders are now saying that China's box office will overtake the U.S. market within the next 10 years.

That means that by 2020, China might be Hollywood's most important overseas market, and films might be tailor-made (read: self-censored) for viewers and motion picture propaganda chiefs in China.

It won't be a pretty picture if that happens.

China does not have a film-rating system, and all movies — both domestic and foreign — must secure approval from government censors before being shown commercially. Hollywood movies about Tibet or Tiananmen Square won't pass muster, of course.

When Brad Pitt made the 1997 film ''Seven Years in Tibet,'' playing a character who crosses the border that separates India from Tibet and thus making a Hollywood connection with the Dalai Lama, China's propaganda chiefs were not amused.

They have banned Pitt from ever settting foot in China again. 

The Chinese mindcontrollers didn't like Hollywood's sympathetic portrait of the Dalai Lama, and they surely won't let in any new Richard Gere movies in any time soon, either.

In the end, I don't think liberal Hollywood will give in to communist China's movie theme demands. But there will be pressure to do so.

Just ask Christopher Dodd.

BIO

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Asia since 1991. During a five-year stint in Tokyo, he covered the triumphs (and occasional failures) of Hollywood movies in Japan and interviewed American actors passing through Tokyo on film promotion tours, including Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Kevin Costner.