Film Industry Promotion Law Gets Mixed Reviews at AFM, China Co-Pro Events

New law could help grow the Chinese film industry, and create some challenges, say film market attendees.

Owltainment Company Founders Mingda Dong (Left) and Yuanyaun Chen (Right).

Owltainment Company Founders Mingda Dong (Left) and Yuanyaun Chen (Right).

China-Hollywood enthusiasts gathered earlier this month in the Los Angeles area, where the American Film Market, the US-China Film Summit and the 6th Annual International Co-Productions Screenings were buzzing about the impact of a new Film Industry Promotion Law that will be taking effect in March. Since the law is complex and deals with issues of censorship as well as incentives for production and abuses by exhibitors, opinions varied about whether it will make things better or worse, depending on which segment of the industry one is involved in.

As we reported, the law indicates a decrease in oversight from state censors, which would spur industry growth and make it easier to get new film projects off the ground, according to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).

This aspect of the law means in effect a simplified approval process for new productions. Only an outline of a film’s plot will be necessary for a green light by SAPPRFT before filming can begin, whereas filmmakers currently must submit the entire script prior to production. Provincial radio, film and television departments will presumably authorize films following national guidelines, although it is not yet clear how the provincial and national governments will divide censorship responsibilities. The law also hints at the establishment of a film rating system, but does not really spell out what that would look like or what the stipulation that movies must “serve the people and socialism” means.

The filmmaker on the street was generally upbeat about the law’s implications for independent cinema and prospects for co-productions. CEO of Starry Entertainment Group Jon Chiew, who previously served as International Cooperation and Production Director of Huace Pictures, sees the law as a good sign. “As the film industry becomes more regulated and organized,” he said, “this will help in the development of the industry. The recent crackdown on box office manipulation is a good step in the right direction for better transparency and professionalism which have long-term benefits for the sector.”

Jonathan Lim, whose Crimson Forest Films is based in Los Angeles and Shanghai, is producer-director of the romantic mystery thriller Pali Road, which bows theatrically in China Nov. 25 and on VOD in North America December 1. Lim sees the film law’s effect as beneficial to co-production. His film, he says, is the first-ever Chinese-Hawaiian co-production with “an internationally diverse cast that would resonate not only in the Chinese market but for audiences on a global scale. It will be more and more important for filmmakers to have a cross-cultural view and sensitivity to how to tell stories that resonate with both Chinese and foreign audiences. Creatively, it’s extremely challenging but it can be done and the reward is a wider potential audience hungry for new original content” in the new environment heralded by the new film law, he said.

Dong Mingda is the co-founder of New York-based Owltainment Company, a production company which also organizes film festivals both in the U.S. and China, whose mission statement seeks “to introduce American film scholars to China, while dually hosting lectures and seminars for Chinese students and filmmakers.” He believes the new law can only benefit the burgeoning Chinese film industry and assist companies who produce independent films. Owltainment partnered with Tencent and Deadwood Studio (based in Nanjing, Jiangsu province) to help produce Generals of the Yang Family, a historical romance set in the Song Dynasty, which will be distributed exclusively through the Tencent platform.

The new law, Dong said, “can only be good for the Chinese film industry. Before this new law came out, there were only regulations, but not law. The filmmakers, writers and their intellectual property will be well protected by the law. And the law recognizes that the film industry is one of the pillar industries in the national economy.”

As to the regulation issues dealt with by the law, he says, previously, “some content was forbidden – harms national unity, exposes national secrets, harms Chinese security, etc. But compared to previous regulations, we feel that boundaries will become more relaxed and not as strict as before in other areas.” Even though the law has not taken effect yet, he said “the film Operation Mekong is a good example of how a film that shows drugs, crime and other ‘negative’ elements can get approval. Moreover, the process of content approval is not as complicated as before. With decentralization, other departments and local governments can approve the content based on their demand and special conditions. In this case, there would be more space and flexibility for filmmakers and writers to create exciting content.”

He would have liked SAPPRFT to come through with a film rating system, he said, like the one in the U.S. “We are a little bit disappointed that we have not seen a film rating system like PG-13, R. We were expecting that before the new law came out – it would be very clear what content goes where, and it would help the audience to choose the right film.”

From Owltainment’s point of view, he said, the area of the legislation that deals with film festivals is “challenging. The law’s 14th clause specifies that foreign organizations or individuals are not allowed to do film production indecently in China. It demonstrates that the ability of foreign organizations and individuals to produce films in China will be heavily restricted, especially for foreign independent filmmakers. Moreover, some regulations may actually jeopardize the development and globalization of the Chinese film industry. The new law emphasizes that films cannot be distributed through any channels before they get a ‘License for Public Projection of Films,’ and before they go overseas or exhibit at a film festival, they should have the license as well. In the past, not all films obtained the license first before going overseas. For example, when director Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madame Bovary won the Best Film at Festival International de Cine de San Sebastian this year, it did not have the license. But after the new law, this phenomenon will not occur. This will inhibit the globalization of Chinese film in some way.

“From our own perspective, the law could affect our project Generals of the Yang Family even though when we were developing it, we were trying to avoid political risks and observed the old regulations. Ours is a historical culture story that does not defame the people’s excellent cultural traditions. However, after the new law, our previous strategy, which was to submit this film to film festivals may need to be reconsidered.”

The new film law is discussed in Part 5 of the CFI Guide to Film Production in China which was posted on the official AFM site throughout the Market here. The CFI Guide is also prominently displayed on the Bridging the Dragon website here.