If you judge by headlines, it's been the greatest few weeks for east-west cultural relations since Kurt Russell scoffed chow mein in Big Trouble in Little China. The snappily named Harvest Seven Stars Media Private Equity Fund and the China Mainstream Media National Film Capital Hollywood Group have both been busy strutting around Los Angeles, flashing big cash at film-makers. Dreamworks Animation announced a Chinese division. NBA basketball star Yao Ming was rumoured to be getting the showbiz itch. But all this was the gift-proffering and lute-strumming before the main event in mid-February, the visit to America of Chinese heir apparent and Saving Private Ryan fan Xi Jinping, who finally gave Hollywood what it had been wanting all this time: a relaxation of the "great wall" film quota that had restricted its films to 20 a year.
The quota has now been expanded to 14 more films in Imax and other large formats, and leaves foreign film producers with a larger share (25%, up from 13%) of the profits. Chris Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) hailed it as "a very big deal" for a US industry eager for a bigger bite of China's box office, but some commentators were more cautious. "Foreign film screenings will remain limited by other means," said the China Copyright and Media blog, "The two Chinese state-owned film distributors will probably remain in charge of foreign-film distribution. Hence, at present, there's no reason to believe that foreign films will be treated better than before, when Avatar was famously pulled to make way for the main-melody biopic Confucius."
ChinaFilmBiz's authoritative Robert Cain noted the telling silence about the quota in the Chinese media. The press focused instead on Xi's efforts to get the US to lift its own restrictions on technology exports, which China badly wants. As for the deep-dish movie feast coming its way, Cain identifies the true winners: China Film Group and the theatre operators. "With 14 additional Hollywood films to release each year, they'll collectively rake in some $600m or $700m in incremental box office during the first year alone. Seventy-five per cent of that amount will stay in their pockets, making them the real beneficiaries of China's 'conciliatory' moves."
But Hollywood can console itself with how much appetite China has for its films; even under the previous quota arrangements, it had a 50% share of the market. Which, for me, begs the question: do film quotas actually work at all? It doesn't look that way in China's case; maybe the free-trade mantra that it is filmgoers, not governments, who should decide what ends up in cinemas actually has some weight here. That argument usually seems self-serving when the US puts pressure on a country over quota arrangements, as it did in Mexico in 1994 and South Korea in 2007: Hollywood's armoured divisions are invariably on high alert to move in (and they virtually destroyed the 90s Mexican industry). But the Chinese audience, defying measures more draconian than almost anywhere in the world, can't stop giving Hollywood the glad-eye anyway.
Quotas seem to work best when they are not simply keeping foreign films out, but actively promoting the domestic industry. That's how South Korea, with a quota that guaranteed that local offerings would play in cinemas 146 days of the year, had one of the strongest booms of the noughties, nurturing distinctive commercial prospects like Bong Joon-ho and a fistful of modern classics like Old Boy. This was cut back to 73 days in 2007, as part of a wider trade agreement and a slump began.
Spain has maintained some of the highest levels of European film output under a system that sees one day of local films played for every three days of dubbed films. Critics always spit out the P-word – "protectionism" – but surely quotas are just levelling the playing field for smaller industries that can't compete with Hollywood's marketing dollar? It's equivalent to the anti-trust legislation the US uses to prevent monopolies inside its own borders.
But there has to be a domestic industry to protect, with a healthy supply of films, for these safety nets to work. Britain was the first country in 1927, to get prickly about the American influx; at its height, its quota demanded that 45% of all screen time be devoted to British films. But it never had the magic-bullet effect on our film industry, because of the diluting effect of the "quota quickies" produced to make up the numbers. (Many of which, interestingly, were US-funded.)
China also has a quota ensuring that its own films play in theatres two-thirds of the time. The country doesn't do quickies, as far as I know, but there are rumours that it fiddles its statistics for annual film production (officially 526 in 2010, but probably much lower). It's a sign that its homegrown cinema, too, is brittle – the real reason why it struggles to lay claim to its own audiences and why its "great wall" has been more of a bead curtain. Recent Chinese big hitters, such as Aftershock or Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, show that their film-makers are capable of competing with Hollywood in terms of CGI spectacle.
But China still struggles to produce 20 films of the kind of stature that can match the American imports, and far too many plough the dry historical furrow that the Communist party seems to prefer.
No wonder Tom Cruise, currently suction-cupped to the top of the Chinese box office with the latest Mission Impossible, is more attractive. Last October, leader Hu Jintao denounced the forces seeking the cultural "westernisation" of his country, but the controlling mindset that devised the quota is also, through pervasive censorship, cramping the style of the only people who can keep things east-side: its film-makers. That's the real issue, not the quota. All its big directorial names are hangovers from the Hong Kong scene; it will never get its own Michael Bays and Brett Ratners, let alone its Ridley Scotts and its Steven Spielbergs, until it sets its creatives loose. Let's hope the quota decision – exposing them to more foreign competition – means the first cord has been cut.
Burgess Powers creates web sites and applications like this one!