China Adopts New Film Law, Will Impact Imports and Co-Productions

China’s new film law surprises few, focusing more on official codification of existing regulations, and maintaining the status quo towards foreign film producers.


China’s top legislative body on Monday adopted its long-expected film law, which may further restrict foreign film players whose other work includes themes sensitive in China such as Tibetan independence.

With China’s box office growth down significantly this year and the annual quota on imported films seemingly relaxed for now, both cinema operators and foreign filmmakers will be pleased to see the law does not reduce the amount of foreign content that can appear in China’s movie theaters, as was feared as recently as September. That number is currently set at 34, but more than that number of films being distributed on a revenue-sharing basis have already been approved for release by the end of the year.

Foreign film production companies must still partner with Chinese companies in order to work in China. The law is also aimed at restricting  foreign companies “engaged in harming national honor and interests of the country, endangering social stability and hurting the feelings of the country,” a broad phrase that generally refers to negative portrayals of China, depiction of historical events at odds with official People’s Republic of China accounts accounts of history and material relating to Taiwan or Tibetan independence.

The upshot of that could be Hollywood studios avoiding such subjects not only in films with a China focus, but in movies throughout their slate. This appears to be the case with newly-released Doctor Strange, which stars big-in-China Benedict Cumberbatch. In the film adaptation of the Marvel comic, a Tibetan sage in the original was changed via casting to a Celtic mystic played by Tilda Swinton.

However, while now incorporated into the law, China’s film regulators have taken a slightly softer line towards such issues of late. Brad Pitt, who earned himself and his films an unofficial ban for almost 20 years after he appeared in Seven Years in Tibet, is expected to promote his upcoming Allied in person in Shanghai November 13-16.

The “guiding principle and ideology” of the law is “to serve the people and socialism…and achieve social and economic unity.”

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the law in order to to create a more official framework to govern China’s expanding film industry. Implementation of the law will still be done by the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). The law will take effect on March 1, 2017.

In November 2015 a draft of the law was published for public comment. The film law has been in development since at least 2011.