China is to set up a cinema network for ‘patriotic’ films
China is to set up a screen network to prioritise films of a patriotic nature. People’s Cinema Line is a government initiative aimed at creating a nationwide screen network of 5,000 screens which will favour films of a patriotic nature, including those from government departments. In being chosen, the screens will be expected to offer favourable pricing to the public, as well as group sales and bonuses. The mainstream films will be screened during special events. The screens will receive financial support in return for becoming a part of the network.
There is a pre-attributed number of screens by province which will be part of the network. Cinemas that are influential, affiliated to a circuit and have no violation records will be prioritised by the government regulator. No screen will have fewer than 100 seats. Guangdong will have the most at 594 while Jiangsu province will have 437. The 5,000 screens represent 10% of the current screen estate, although this is growing daily.
The idea of promoting patriotism has been a theme of China’s recent policy in several areas, including culture. In 2016, the President urged writers and artists to promote Chinese themes in their work and to gain more confidence in using local ideals and reflect core socialist values.
There are very few countries which would establish a similar circuit as nearly all cinemas are in private ownership and most governments have rejected screen quotas to protect local films. Therefore, government is not able to dictate the screen content. If it wishes to do so, this can be done via incentives to screen certain types of films, and an initiative on these lines can be found in the European Commission’s Europa Cinemas programme. This has been running for some years now, and has over 2,000 screens in it around Europe. It works by offering financial support to cinema screens that show European films. It is a marginal scheme to the overall mass market, but is of use to some types of cinema and some types of films (usually films that attract lower audiences).
Very few countries have government control of cinemas. In terms of publicly-owned cinemas, the ex-Soviet countries were left with an infrastructure of public cinemas, usually single screen and quite old, which have been reducing in number and being replaced by private cinemas, often multiplex. Norway still has a substantial number of publicly-owned cinemas, structured locally or regionally, although it is also moving away from this model. There is no control over what they show on screen.
The People’s Cinema Line could also be seen as a quota system, to protect local films. This sort of mechanism was common several decades ago in Europe, when local films struggled to find audiences and governments thought that screen quotas was the way to tackle this. These quotas tended to be set up from a defensive position, and did not recognise that the targeted films were not being watched because they did not have popular appeal. Encouraging those films and reducing other more popular films just reduced the overall audience, and led to a decline in cinemagoing. You can’t make people watch films they don’t want to see. A quota system was also tried in South Korea in the 1990s, with similar results. For such a scheme to add to the cinema audience, the government needs to be sure that there are sufficient films of this type to screen, and that they are of a sufficient quality and will be popular. The type of film is said to be popular at the box office
Schemes such as this are usually done for films that will struggle to find an audience on their own, or for political reasons and as such, although ‘patriotic’ is also translated as ‘mainstream’ so the impact of this network on Hollywood is unclear. If these films are popular by nature, you could argue why do they need a dedicated and non-competitive screen network to thrive, but either way, if 10% of screens are closed to Hollywood, logically this reduced the impact of Hollywood on the market. Up to now, China has used import blackouts to protect screens for local films and this may well be a way to achieve the same result across the year and not as overtly political.
It may have an impact on market share of local films, and may well reduce the impact of Hollywood films if they continue to be screened. It must however be a de facto backward step from market liberalisation, as it is a government-driven scheme to encourage a certain type of film. It is fair to say that very few countries try to control what films go on the cinema screen, although countries do obviously exercise some censorship of the films being screened and even go so far as to ban certain films.
Past experience suggests that cinema goers tend to vote with their feet and I doubt this would work anywhere else as a commercial model, but given the Chinese economic model is different to most other countries, and the driving motivation behind the scheme does not seem to be economic, it could work in China.