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Big box office money in China a draw for filmmakers, despite state censorship

Published time: January 21, 2013 07:24
Edited time: January 21, 2013 13:33
AFP Photo / Wang Zhao

AFP Photo / Wang Zhao

China's booming film market is the world's second-largest, just behind the US. However, those who plan to create or release a movie in China are increasingly running up against a real obstacle: State censorship.

“It's a system of protection,” Chinese film producer and distributor Yao Guo Qiang told RT at the International Film Market in Paris. “Whether you agree or disagree doesn't matter, you just have to accept it.”

Anti-communist and anti-Chinese films, as well as those deemed vulgar and violent, are banned from screening in the Asian country. “In China, we don't like too pessimist, too dark films,” Yao said.

Yearly box office returns in China doubled from 2009 to 2011, hitting $2 billion. From January to November of last year, Chinese theaters raked in $2.3 billion, Screen International reported.

The all-time box office record in China was set by James Cameron's 'Avatar,' which grossed nearly $225 million in 2010.

The highest-grossing Hollywood release in China in 2012 was the 3-D version of another James Cameron film, 'Titanic,' which brought in $150 million, making China the world record-holder for sales of tickets of the film.

AFP Photo / Wang Zhao
AFP Photo / Wang Zhao

The version of 'Titanic' shown to Chinese cinema-goers censored nudity in the movie – a shot was changed to show the nude Rose (Kate Winslet) from only her neck up. China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television altered the film’s nude scenes over fears that audiences would try to reach out and 'touch' Winslet in the 3-D version.

That same scene – where Winslet's character poses nude as Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) draws her – was censored in China during the debut release of 'Titanic' in 1998, the Hollywood Reporter said. However, many in China managed to watch the original version on pirated copies; the nude scenes quickly became the talk of the town.

“Yes, there's censorship about subject matter. But censorship is targeted not only at foreign films. It concerns all films, including the ones made in China,” Yao explained.

According to Variety, China boasts the largest number of 3-D movie screens in the world, at nearly 7,500. By 2020, the country is expected to overtake the US as the world's biggest box office marketplace, with 25,000 screens set to go up over the next five years, Ernst and Young reported.

AFP Photo / Wang Zhao
AFP Photo / Wang Zhao

China produces 600 films per year, Yao said. By way of comparison, 271 films were produced in France in 2011 – a record for Europe.

According to one Paris-based Chinese film buff, there is a simple reason behind the country's booming film industry: “It's the population that matters, the number of people, though proportionally there are not so many Chinese who go to the movies,” Ying Liu told RT.

“I think the challenge for young Chinese filmmakers these days is the box office,” Yao said.

Lost in Thailand (image from
Lost in Thailand (image from

The low-budget Chinese comedy 'Lost in Thailand,' made at a reported cost of $3.1 million, recently grossed nearly $160 million in a period of one month.

“The challenge for directors is censorship. If it changes, there will be more variety. There are filmmakers who fight to express themselves. Some succeed in it, others don't. It's an obstacle,” Ying explained.

"China's film school isn't bad. There are still interesting films made, despite the system.”

­Valeria Paikova, RT