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China vs. Hollywood: Protectionism is the wrong script

Advertisements for “Avatar” and a trailer showing the biopic “Confucius” at a cinema in Beijing, Jan. 19, 2010. State-backed productions as “Confucius” have inspired little more than yawns.

Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

China is taking on two U.S. superheroes at once. New Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man are likely to go head-to-head with a same-day release, thanks to the state film regulator. It looks like a cynical plot to cut their audiences, and won't much help nurture China's homegrown studios. Playing fair won't ensure China makes great films of its own, but it would help it make more profitable ones.

Faced with Hollywood's dominance, China has put up stiff limits on foreign films. Only 20 a year were allowed until room for 14 more was announced during Vice-President Xi Jinping's U.S. trip in February. The new tactic – where the regulator schedules films from similar genres on the same day – adds a new twist. Animated features The Lorax and Ice Age 4 both debuted on July 27.

Studios don't like it, but there's little they can do. Even if China's restrictions aren't in the spirit of its World Trade Organization promises, any access to a market growing so quickly is better than none. Audiences vote with their wallets anyway. Despite being allowed only a third of screen time, foreign films took 65 per cent of box office revenue in the first half of 2012. Studios now get 25 per cent of that, up from around 15 per cent before Mr. Xi's U.S. trip.

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Building a decent domestic movie industry is more important to China, however, than box office revenue. Early People's Republic films such as 1964's Two Stage Sisters inspired adherence to Marxist-Leninist ideals. Recent state-backed productions like Confucius and The Founding of a Republic have merely inspired yawns. Building creative industries is a key part of the next Five Year Plan. But protectionism is the wrong script. Financial gain alone has already lured studios like Dreamworks Animation SKG to partner with Shanghai Media Group and others. Comic-book maestro Stan Lee is designing a Chinese superhero for a state-owned movie. And Marvel Studios' Iron Man 3 is a co-production with Beijing studio DMG that shoehorns in a China angle.

By moving in that direction – openness and co-operation – China will get its own Hollywood with time. Censorship may argue against producing truly great films, with 10 banned categories including the vague "infringing fine cultural traditions." But with foreign studios as allies, China might eventually give Spidey and Batman a run for their money.

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