BEIJING -- This capital's Hua Shi Theater was scheduled to play a sure-fire hit last month: "Rush Hour," a Hollywood blockbuster starring Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan.
But at the last moment, the government ordered the theater to show old propaganda movies in preparation for this year's 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Instead of the Hollywood action comedy that would have drawn huge audiences, theater manager Li Lihua had to screen such fare as "Dragon Year's Policeman," a state-made tribute to hard-working Chinese police officers.
"Of course, no one came to watch," says Li in exasperation.
Caught between wildly popular Hollywood films and a state-controlled system that censors and discourages creativity, the Chinese movie industry may be headed for oblivion.
Since the government began cutting off subsidies in 1993, China's state-run production companies have been making fewer and fewer films, some of which draw just a handful of people per showing. Many theaters are losing money.
"We can do nothing to improve the content or quality of the movies," says Li.
Some theaters run video arcades and karaoke rooms to offset losses. But in a city where anyone can pick up a pirated video compact disc of "Armageddon" on the street for less than $2, few care to sit through leaden dramas about socialist heroes.
The condition of the domestic film industry is so bad that even the state-run media criticize it.
"About 80 percent of the films distributed in China are Chinese products -- and most of them are boring," the New China News Agency admitted last year in a rare moment of candor.
The plight of the movie business is a microcosm of the dilemma facing China's leaders as they try to build a market-oriented economy while maintaining control over a sprawling nation of 1.2 billion people.
Communist Party officials want the country's theaters to make money. Yet they fear the political consequences if they permit the sort of freedom required to produce films people actually want to see. So far, they have opted for power over profits.
"How much control can a government have over a market economy?" asks William Brent, president of China Entertainment Network, a consulting company in Shanghai. "If it's a market economy, the people who produce the best movies win."
The people who produce the best movies, though, are in Hollywood, and the regime is so worried that U.S. films would swamp the domestic industry that it allows in no more than 10 foreign movies a year.
In another effort to protect the domestic film trade, officials require theaters to fill two-thirds of their viewing hours with Chinese movies.
Even with these restrictions, Hollywood blockbusters -- including "Titanic," "Batman and Robin" and "Volcano" -- accounted for half the nation's $1.4 billion box office revenues last year.
Fans included Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who urged people to see "Titanic" and learn from its illustration of class struggle between first-class and steerage passengers.
Hollywood has been trying for years to tap into China's enormous potential audience. In exchange for access, Chinese officials want U.S. companies to distribute Chinese movies abroad, provide movie-making technology and invest in modern theaters.
In that spirit, officials in Beijing dropped a ban this month on the Walt Disney Co.'s animated film "Mulan," which opened here this week. The film is based on a Chinese folk story. The government originally blocked it because of Disney's 1997 production of "Kundun," a movie about the Dalai Lama, which was critical of China's occupation of Tibet.
Disney is discussing plans to build an amusement park in southern China and has bought U.S. distribution rights to two Chinese movies, including the Communist revolutionary weeper "A Time to Remember."
Even with Disney's considerable marketing skills, it is hard to see how the film, a sappy ideological melodrama, could find much of an audience in the United States.
Under China's strict censorship system, many of the country's best and most interesting movies can be seen only abroad. Two films by Chen Kaige, one of China's premiere filmmakers, have been banned here. "Farewell My Concubine," his critique of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which shared the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was edited heavily before its release.
Despite the sad state of Chinese cinema, there is hope.
The government has tried to break up provincial monopolies on production and encourage more competition. Some film distributors are becoming involved in producing and marketing movies for a mass audience.
The results can be seen in lively comedies such as "Be There or Be Square," which took in $1.2 million at the box office as of early December -- a strong showing by Beijing theater standards.
The film is a laugh-out-loud romantic comedy that follows the love-hate relationship between two mainland Chinese pursuing their dreams of the good life in "Meiguo" -- or the "Beautiful Country" -- as America is known here. In a major departure, the movie was shot on location in Los Angeles.
In one scene, a hustler named Liu Yuan sets up a Chinese-language class for the Monterey Park police so they can better communicate with their Chinese criminal suspects. At the end of each class, Monterey Park's finest stand up and -- without realizing what they are saying -- shout the Maoist slogan: "Serve the People!"
Gao Jun, a Beijing film distributor familiar with the production of "Be There or Be Square," said distributors contributed to nine script revisions to help make the movie more marketable. They also recommended shooting it in the United States, which nearly doubled the $4 million to $5 million production cost but gave the film an authentic feel that drew in audiences.
"In the past," says Gao, "the production was totally isolated from the market."
With the emergence of more commercially savvy directors such as "Be There or Be Square's" Feng Xiaogang, observers hope the Chinese film business will begin to turn around its disastrous performance this decade and pull in more customers.
Managers such as Li, whose theater lost more than $7,000 last year, would be delighted.
The way it is now, he says, "we can only attract movie viewers by providing them with a better sound system and more comfortable seats."
Pub Date: 2/26/99