China copyright lawsCurrently, the number one film in China is the smash hit Hello Mr. Billionaire (US$306M and counting). It’s a comedy about a hapless soccer player who stands to inherit 30 billion RMB, but only if he can spend 1 billion RMB in a month (albeit with a number of complicated conditions, like no gambling, donating the money, or purchasing illegal substances).

If the story sounds like déjà vu all over again, that’s because it’s the same plot as a 1985 Universal movie starring Richard Pryor called Brewster’s Millions. The idea for Hello Mr. Billionaire originated with Universal, which was seeking to exploit their back catalog by remaking movies for a Chinese audience. It’s a brilliant strategy when it works, except that it didn’t actually work for Universal: they decided not to finance the remake and merely allowed the filmmakers to use some of the plot points from the 1985 film.

The track record of Chinese remakes is decidedly mixed. In 2017, Disney remained highly involved in The Dreaming Man (a remake of the 1995 Sandra Bullock film While You Were Sleeping) but it barely registered at the box office. Before that, the 2004 film Cellular was remade in 2008 and bombed; the Coen Brothers’ 1984 film Blood Simple was remade in 2009 by Zhang Yimou and enjoyed modest success; and the 2000 film What Women Want was remade in 2011 and basically broke even. It only takes one success to start a trend, though, and the outsize profits of Hello Mr. Billionaire will surely lead to similar remakes being fast-tracked.

But Hello Mr. Billionaire is not just any remake. It’s based on the 1902 novel Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon, which has been adapted into a film at least 12 times and in multiple countries. Sure, the story is fun, but I suspect the real reason it’s been remade so often is that the IP is free – the book’s copyright has expired and the story has been in the public domain for years. Thus, when Universal decided not to fund Hello Mr. Billionaire, the only chain of title issues the filmmakers faced were with respect to plot points or characters that solely appeared in the 1985 film. (The filmmakers may have had other contractual obligations to Universal, but that’s a separate matter.)

Let’s thicken the plot even further. China and the US are both signatories to the Berne Convention, but they don’t have the same rule when it comes to the expiration of copyright. The basic rule in China is that a published work enters the public domain after the life of the author plus 50 years (i.e., the minimum protection under the Convention); the basic rule in the U.S. is the life of the author plus 70 years. Both countries have numerous exceptions to the rule, which in the U.S. are even more advantageous to copyright holders.

It remains unclear whether China would apply its own rule or the U.S. rule for a work created in America — say, a book or play or other source material for a movie. It may seem like a moot point because most movies are created for an international audience, but the Chinese film audience is so big now that a Chinese movie only needs to succeed in China. As of December 31, 2018, the works of any author who died in 1968 will arguably be in the public domain in China. That’s a lot of potential material coming on the market, including the oeuvres of John Steinbeck, Edna Ferber, and Upton Sinclair. And that doesn’t even consider anyone who died before 1968! The larger question is whether Hollywood will view this as a threat, an opportunity, or both.

China movie lawAs everyone who follows the Chinese film industry already knows, the would-be blockbuster Asura had one of the strangest and most ignominious openings in film history last weekend. With an estimated budget of US $113 million, it ranked as the most expensive domestic production of all time, and featured a high-profile international cast and crew including Chinese teen heartthrob Lei Wu, Hong Kong legends Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Carina Lau, the costume designer from the Lord of the Rings movies and the visual effects supervisor from Deadpool. But after an anemic opening weekend of $7.1 million and a huge decline in box office even from Friday to Sunday, the film was yanked from theaters on Sunday evening like a vaudeville act getting the cane.

The producers announced their decision to pull the movie via the film’s official Weibo account (in Chinese). Some stories have emphasized that the producers (and not the theaters) pulled the movie. This is true, but elides the fact that Chinese theaters adjust the number of theaters every day for every film, especially on a film’s opening weekend. By Sunday evening Asura was already circling the drain, caught in a vicious cycle of low admissions, terrible reviews, and dwindling screens, and the producers faced a Hobson’s choice of pulling the movie themselves or having it effectively pulled for them.

No one quite believes the producers’ announced plan for Asura, which is that they will modify the film and re-release it. Numerous films have been successfully retooled after preview screenings, but after a wide release with a huge marketing push? It reminds me of the long and troubled history of the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which at the time was the most expensive Broadway show in history, had the most number of “previews” in history, and was revamped several times but still ended up losing more than $60 million.

But if the producers really are going to re-release Asura, their plan to pull the movie early may have been a stroke of genius: by pulling the movie early, they may have given up a million or so in revenue, but they’re getting that back and more with the free publicity surrounding the mystery of what’s next. And the producers are just adding fuel to the fire by alleging they were sabotaged by a deluge of (ostensibly fake) negative reviews. I can’t decide which P.T. Barnum quote is more apt: “There’s a sucker born every minute” or “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

The coverage has bordered on the gleeful, with pundits from across the spectrum weighing in on what went wrong. Everyone agrees that the movie was a disaster, with particular attention to the effects (uninspiring), the story (a strange fusion of Tibetan mythology and action-adventure tropes), the actors (poorly cast), and the marketing (off-putting with its emphasis on the movie’s cost). Indeed, in retrospect it’s hard to identify anything that went right with this movie.

Asura wasn’t some strange labor of love backed by a mysterious billionaire. It was a studio film, produced by powerful and experienced Chinese companies like Zhenjian Film Studio, Ningxia Film Group and Alibaba Pictures. Numerous executives must have weighed in on every aspect of development and production, yet nobody with the power to stop it ever did. I can honestly say that this movie looked horrible and I would have predicted that it would fail, but I would have said the same thing about Warcraft and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and those movies went gangbusters in China despite being largely ignored in the rest of the world.

As a general rule, I root for Chinese films to succeed. But if this film was as bad as it seems, it’s good that it failed, because Chinese audiences deserve better. Maybe the failure of Asura will even prove a corrective to Chinese studios trotting out 17 Monkey King movies every year. But I doubt it.

The real lesson from Asura, and the reason I think its implosion will ultimately prove to be a good thing, is that it shows the Chinese film industry is maturing. It can fail, and fail spectacularly, in the same way that Hollywood has done for years (see, for instance, Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Cutthroat Island, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, and John Carter). And just like Hollywood, the Chinese film industry will shrug off this failure, because the Chinese film industry is doing just fine – the two movies that dominated the box office last week, Dying to Survive and Hidden Man, are home-grown successes attracting audiences and critical acclaim in equal measure.

It bears noting that Renny Harlin, director of Cutthroat Island, has moved to China and restarted his once-faltering career, with numerous big-budget films lined up including one for Alibaba Pictures. What could possibly go wrong?

China film lawyerLast Tuesday, U.S. Trade Representative (and Trump appointee) Robert Lighthizer released a statement explaining that his office would seek to impose a second round of tariffs on Chinese imports, this time 10% tariffs on an additional $200B in imports. The first round of tariffs, which went into effect on Friday, July 6, imposed tariffs on $34B in imports, and was quickly matched by China’s imposition of tariffs on $34B in US exports to China.

The USTR is justifying its actions on the basis of the 200-page Section 301 report which detailed a wide range of allegedly unfair trading practices by the Chinese government, including forced technology transfer, theft of IP and technology, improper government subsidization, and lack of reciprocity.

It is difficult to find anyone outside China who disagrees with the substance of the Section 301 report, but it is difficult to find anyone outside the Trump administration who understands – let alone agrees with – the country’s blithe entry into a trade war. Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review (hardly a bastion of liberal thought), wrote a cheeky opinion piece in Bloomberg laying out what he saw as Trump’s Four Rules for Conducting a Trade War:

  1. Assume that you will win it effortlessly.
  2. Make sure your tariffs are designed to inflict maximum damage on your own country’s companies.
  3. Take on as many countries simultaneously as you can.
  4. Don’t feel that you have to make your negotiating demands clear.

The USTR has released a tentative list of 6,031 product categories that, in aggregate, allegedly represent $200B worth of Chinese imports. Included on this list, to the chagrin of almost everyone in the entertainment industry, is the following category: “Motion-picture film of a width of 35 mm or more, exposed and developed, whether or not incorporating sound track.” The list also includes motion picture films of a width less than 35mm, but it is silent as to whether this would extend to movies on digital media, which is how the vast majority of films are distributed these days. See Rule (4) above.

Industry observers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, this means to the Chinese film industry, the US film industry, and the interaction between the two. From an economic standpoint, putting tariffs on motion picture imports from China is solely a symbolic gesture. China would love to be exporting films in such quantities that these tariffs would hurt, but as we wrote in What Does the Chinese Film Industry Get From Hollywood?, Chinese films simply don’t do business in the U.S. In the past 10 years, the highest-grossing Chinese films in the U.S. have been The Grandmaster (2013, $6.6M), The Mermaid (2016, $3.2M), and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017, $2.7M).

Meanwhile, multiple U.S. films each year gross more than $100M in China.

Putting all this together, it seems possible (if not likely) that the Trump administration is simply baiting the Chinese government to retaliate against the liberal redoubt of Hollywood. See Rule (2) above. China would love to see Chinese films dominate the Chinese box office, and they certainly don’t care about protecting American business interests. But they also don’t want to do Trump’s dirty work for him.

At this point, all options are open to the Chinese government, and they have even more political cover to take whatever action they like. My guess is that the Chinese won’t do anything except use the threat of tariffs as an excuse to postpone the already-interminable negotiations over the revised film quota and profit-sharing arrangements. I’d do the same thing in their place. How could they possibly reach an agreement on film imports with the threat of retaliatory action hanging over the entire process? This way, the Chinese can have their cake and eat it too.

Of course, it’s also possible the Trump administration didn’t think about any of this too deeply and everyone is reading in complexity where there is none. Being There, anyone?

China IP lawyerHow do you know when a copyright has been infringed? For years, this wasn’t even a question people asked in China because it was so obvious. The guys on the corner with carts full of bootleg CDs and DVDs, the illegal BitTorrents and download sites – all of them were wantonly and flagrantly engaging in copyright infringement. Indeed, infringement was their business model. If they weren’t offering copies of copyrighted works, nobody would be interested.

Slowly but surely, though, China’s enforcement of copyright infringement has improved – in large part because large Chinese companies like Baidu and Alibaba and Tencent now control the rights to a great deal of content and their business models are based on people not getting such content for free somewhere else. The BAT companies have turned to Chinese agencies and courts to enforce their rights, evidenced by a concomitant surge in copyright-related litigation. We wrote about this last year in Copyright Protection in China– It’s Real, and It’s Spectacular:

The point is not that Chinese courts are establishing new rights, but that they are enforcing the rights that already exist for copyright owners – and doing so in a meaningful way. Both Chinese and foreign copyright owners are turning to Chinese courts to enforce their rights, and are prevailing. At least with the easy cases.

China still has work to do on the easy cases before it gets to the level of the US or the EU, but the concept (and value) of copyright has taken hold in China. Bring on the not-so-easy cases! Like the ongoing “Blurred Lines” case in the US, in which Marvin Gaye’s estate sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for allegedly copying the musical style of “Got to Give It Up.”

Where is the line between plagiarism and inspiration? American courts have grappled with this question for years; lawsuits are filed every day by songwriters and screenwriters who hear a hit song or see a hit movie or tv show and think that the creators stole their work. Many of these cases are spurious and easily dismissed on summary judgment, but not always.

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams lost at trial and on appeal, but still deny that they copied Marvin Gaye. Led Zeppelin prevailed in a lawsuit over “Stairway to Heaven,” but the plaintiff (the songwriter for 70s band Spirit) has appealed. Sam Smith quietly settled with Tom Petty before a lawsuit was even filed – perhaps because he feared he would lose the battle of forensic musicologists.

It’s more common to see a music-related case alleging infringement go to trial than a film or tv-related case – probably because musicology offers at least a semblance of objectivity when comparing the original and the allegedly infringing work. But that doesn’t stop online fans from crying foul when they see uncanny echoes of their favorite works in a new program. That’s what happened last week when the Chinese tv show Legend of Fu Yao was taken to task for allegedly ripping off numerous plot points from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book four in the seven-book Harry Potter cycle).

This is hardly the first time the Potterverse has been ill-used in the Middle Kingdom. Back when new Harry Potter books were still coming out, Chinese publishers did a brisk business in fake Harry Potter books. Who can forget “Harry Potter and the Hiking Dragon,” “Harry Potter and the Chinese Empire,” or “Harry Potter and the Big Funnel”? Laugh if you want, but these books sold millions of copies. You can understand why loyalists would be unhappy about the latest affront to the Hogwarts canon. The difference is, these days J.K. Rowling can do something about it.

I haven’t seen Legend of Fu Yao and can’t comment on the extent and depth of the alleged similarities. But if the producers of that  show really did steal from J. K. Rowling she could sue in China under the Copyright Law and the Law Against Unfair Competition. That was Disney’s successful strategy against the Chinese filmmakers who made The Autobots, a film whose anthropomorphic cars looked almost the same as Lightning McQueen et al. from Cars.

Suing over Legend of Fu Yao would likely be tougher sledding, but figuring out whether you have a case is what lawyers do for a living. If I were J.K. Rowling, I’d ask my lawyer to engage a China IP lawyer, stat.

China film quotasSince 1994, China has had a quota on the number of foreign films that could be shown in Chinese theaters on a revenue sharing basis (i.e., with the Chinese distributor remitting some percentage of the revenues to the foreign film’s producer). The quota started at 10 per year in 1994, was increased to 20 films per year in 2002, and then was increased again to 34 films per year in 2012 with the proviso that at least 14 of the films be in either 3D or IMAX format.

The exact revenue sharing model has varied, but the current rule, as outlined in the 2012 US and China Memorandum of Understanding (which was a settlement after the US had prevailed in a WTO complaint), allows the foreign film producer to keep 25% of all domestic revenues, without any withholdings or deduction. That percentage has been more aspirational than actualized; money from China is often both too little and too late.

Hollywood has been negotiating a new deal with China for more than a year (the 2012 memorandum expired in 2017), in hopes of raising the quota, increasing the percentage on revenue shares, and gaining more control (or at least transparency) with respect to distribution logistics such as release schedules and blackout dates. But the on-again, off-again US-China trade war has thrown those negotiations for a loop and effectively given China the ability to take whatever position it likes, from slapping a huge tariff on all US films to conceding on all of Hollywood’s deal points. But China is in no hurry to agree to anything. Why should it be? They’re fine with the status quo.

Meanwhile, an alternative to the quota import system has emerged that may render the whole discussion moot. For years, in parallel with the quota-based foreign films, China has also allowed the importation of “buyout” foreign films: films bought for a flat amount, with no required profit sharing. But in recent years, as the Chinese box office has become ever more profitable, the competition for buyout films has gotten increasingly fierce, with many distributors offering better terms, i.e., profit sharing. The most famous example of profit sharing on a buyout film came in January 2017 with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, which became a smash hit in China to the surprise of all parties involved. Once the film passed RMB 500 million in domestic revenue (which happened on opening weekend), the film producer started getting a piece of the revenue.

As Resident Evil goes, so goes the world. Indeed, strict buyout films are now more the exception than the rule, and the revenue-sharing provisions are getting better and better. The US negotiators must be wondering why they are spending so much time negotiating an agreement for terms that are not appreciably better than what foreign filmmakers are already getting on the open market.

Except it’s not really an open market; China’s theatrical distribution system is dominated by two huge players, China Film Co. and Huaxia, both of which are state-owned. Even the buyout films have to go through those distributors to play in theaters, because foreign companies are legally prohibited from distributing films in China. If there is a convergence between the revenue-sharing terms of buyout films and quota films, it’s only because the Chinese authorities want that to happen (or at least are allowing it to happen).

It’s anyone’s guess how long buyout films will be allowed in on similar terms as the quota films or what the Chinese authorities really think about buyout films. Maybe they’re letting all of this play out to see what happens. Maybe they’re just roiling the waters between the MPAA (which represents the Hollywood studios, who provide most all of the quota films) and the IFTA (which represents non-studio producers, who provide many of the non-quota films). Either way, if you’re an independent producer, it’s a good time to be selling to China.

China movie contracts
Photo by George Baird

Over the past couple weeks, the Chinese Internet has been abuzz with chatter about how Chinese movie stars allegedly underreport income via a dual-contract system in which only one contract is disclosed to the tax authorities.

The ruckus started when television personality Cui Yongyuan uploaded a redacted actor employment contract apparently for Chinese A-list actress Fan Bingbing’s work on the upcoming Bruce Willis film Unbreakable Spirit. (Initial reports stated, incorrectly, that the contract was for Fan’s work on the upcoming Feng Xiaogang film Cell Phone 2.)

Cui complained that Fan was massively overpaid – nearly $1.6M for only four days’ work – and her contract was bad for the Chinese film industry. The contract also detailed some of Fan’s allegedly egocentric contractual demands: screenplay rewrites, her own hairstylist and voice artist, luxury car service, a $200+ daily food allowance, and a requirement that the studio also hire her personal makeup artist at more than $12,000/month. Here in the United States, The Smoking Gun and other websites have posted so many celebrity contracts that we are inured to such terms, but Chinese netizens went berserk. Some penned impassioned defenses of Fan; others bemoaned the country’s skewed priorities.

Cui was just getting started. The next day he published a second redacted contract, this one for $7.8M, and intimated that the two contracts were so-called “yin-yang contracts” for Fan Bingbing: a form of tax evasion under which the smaller contract is reported to the tax authorities as income, and the other is unreported and therefore tax-free income.

At this point the Chinese tax authorities got involved and announced they would be investigating various Chinese film companies and also Fan Bingbing’s own production company. Shares in most of China’s major film companies promptly took a dive, presumably on the assumption that accounting flim-flam was rampant.

Meanwhile, the supposed evidence of Fan’s financial misdeeds unraveled nearly from the beginning. Cui conceded that the second contract had no connection to Fan Bingbing and in fact he had no evidence of any tax evasion on her part. Fan has vehemently denied the allegations of a second contract, and has threatened to sue Cui for damage to her reputation. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Actor compensation is an increasingly touchy subject in China, as the government more control over the film industry while also wanting to exert “soft power” through its cultural exports. With the possible exception of Olympic champions, movie stars probably represent China’s most bankable and least controversial form of soft power. But if the stars shine too brightly (or get paid too much), then the optics start to look bad, especially internally. For this reason, last fall the China Alliance of Radio Film and Television passed guidelines (almost certainly at the behest of the Chinese government) seeking to limit actors’ pay in two ways: capping acting fees at 40% of a project’s budget, and capping any one actor’s fee at 70% of the casting budget.

At this point the only thing that seems (relatively) clear is that Fan Bingbing received $1.6M for four days’ work on Unbreakable Spirit. But let’s imagine for a moment that Fan did receive a separate, larger payment via a second contract. There’s no proof this occurred, but even if it did there’s nothing illegal about it, unless the recipient never reported it. Indeed, all of the criticisms leveled against Fan thus far are similarly uncompelling. Consider:

  1. Fan is being paid too much for her acting services. It’s not difficult to muster a convincing argument that as a policy matter celebrities should not be paid more than, say, teachers or scientists. But the producers of Unbreakable Spirit are the ones who have to pay Fan, not the public, and they have obviously made the calculation that Fan is worth it. She is one of the most popular actresses in China, and they’re not running a charity. Why shouldn’t Fan get as much money as possible for her role? Fame (and the attendant paychecks) can be fleeting, and it’s hard to begrudge anyone who demands to be paid what the market says they’re worth. Especially a female actor, in this age of #metoo. If Unbreakable Spirit were an American film no one would think twice about Fan’s compensation.
  2. The contract is with Fan’s company, not her personally. The vast majority of actors in Hollywood are hired through their own companies, usually LLCs called loanout companies. The main reasons for this are to limit liability and to gain preferential tax treatment. The situation in China is similar. Nothing illegal about it.
  3. Fan (might have) signed two contracts for the same film. Fan has her own production company and it’s quite common for big stars to work as actual or de facto producers on a film. That is: they use their fame, connections, and/or money to help get the film financed, made, and distributed. If someone not  an actor did that, they’d be paid as a producer. Nothing illegal or even unusual about having a second contract for different services.
  4. If she signed two contracts, Fan was paid much more for producing than for acting. Actors take lower fees all the time for various reasons. Maybe they love the movie and take less just to get the movie made. Maybe they believe in the movie and will take less upfront for a piece of the profits (or even revenues, as pioneered by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman). Maybe they’re also directing and producing the film and effectively want to invest their sweat equity in the film. It’s also possible Chinese filmmakers may also be trying to avoid the 2017 rule limiting actor compensation. Such a workaround is arguably a gray area but seems difficult to police, especially with talent that legitimately provides more than just acting services. Who should decide the actual value of their acting services?
  5. Fan’s contract requests are outrageous. By Hollywood standards, Fan’s requests for Unbreakable Spirit are neither outrageous nor particularly diva-like; I’ve received bigger, less rational asks from actors who are much less famous. It’s almost expected for an actor (or their agent) to push the envelope and see how much they can get, not least because it establishes a benchmark for the actor’s next picture. And sometimes a seemingly outrageous request has a legitimate purpose, as most famously embodied by Van Halen’s prohibition of brown M&Ms.

Even if Fan Bingbing hasn’t done a single thing wrong (which is very possible), it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that tax evasion is rampant in the film business. Tax evasion is like a national sport in China. Mainland factories regularly misreport income by having payments go to a Hong Kong or Taiwanese holding company. So-called “independent contractors” in China rarely report their income because they and their foreign employer are both operating illegally. And the billion-dollar daigou business is profitable largely through tax and customs fraud.

But if Chinese celebrities are committing tax evasion through two contracts, it’s because they’re not reporting income, not because there’s anything wrong with the two-contract model.

China online gaming lawyers
China online gaming laws. It’s complicated.

Online gaming in China is subject to the same overall regulatory framework that applies to software as a service (SaaS) in China.

The regulatory framework comprises no less than a dozen key components that have developed over the past twenty years or so. The development has not evolved neatly. Earlier regulations have not been comprehensively replaced or modified by later regulations. Rather, the development has been somewhat haphazard; with an apparent tension between the various authorities competing for control of the relevant sectors. A painstaking chronological analysis is therefore required to discern those threads surviving or running consistently throughout. As is always the case in China, the regulatory framework includes certain inconsistencies and loose ends, and the authorities may not always interpret the regulations in a manner consistent with a plain reading.

We explored these regulations in Selling SaaS in China: Resistance is Futile. As we noted in that post, the lawful delivery of SaaS in China requires a platform hosted on a server located in China and operated by a Chinese-owned entity. The operating entity must have direct contact with Chinese consumers and must have the required licenses and approvals. A system is required for the proper handling of the gamers’ personal information in accordance with Chinese cyberlaw.

Foreign online gaming companies often balk at these restrictions or expect simple workarounds.

One popular but flawed workaround involves a “variable interest entity,” or “VIE.” There are still people in the tech sector who believe these entities can be used to overcome the regulatory hurdles. A VIE involves Chinese partners holding assets on behalf of foreigners in sectors from which those foreigners are excluded. These structures are unsupported by law and the sector perception is based on myths and legends and history that no longer jibes with the present day. Our China lawyers have seen companies waste a lot of time and money on illegal structures over which the foreigners have no effective control.

Another flawed workaround involves delivery of online games to Chinese nationals from foreign servers. This is popular because it circumvents the requirements on what needs to be housed on Mainland servers. In taking this route, many foreign gaming companies ultimately compromise their access to the Chinese gaming market. Most Chinese do not use VPNs, so the foreign servers are hard for them to locate and are even harder for the foreigners to properly market. Foreign gaming companies also run the risk of having their games blocked when they are distributed this way.

For these reasons, we conclude that resistance to the regulations is futile. Especially if you are a serious player.

To gain full access to the Chinese market, online gaming companies must comply with the regulations by identifying and co-operating with the right Chinese companies. The biggest problem is usually finding an appropriate Chinese partner or licensee — one with all of the required licenses and approvals. We have identified and analyzed the requirements an appropriate Chinese company must satisfy. Not less than 6 separate licenses and permits are required. As is so often the case in China, confirming whether a Chinese company has (or could hope to have) these licenses and permits is a relatively simple matter of due diligence. Again, we see a lot of time and money wasted on deals with Chinese companies that lack the necessary capacity.

In most instances, the only PRC companies with the capacity to obtain the necessary licenses and permits are major internet service providers with established gaming platforms. Proper marketing to Mainland gamers will be effectively impossible without the involvement of such companies in any event. Typically, these companies will expect the foreign game supplier to provide a turnkey or pre-installed solution and to give them an interest in the underlying technology and game IP. They will also take a certain share of gross receipts. So, even when you’ve found a Chinese company with the necessary capacity you need to understand their commercial requirements well in advance so you can decide whether they even make sense for you.

China Movie QuotasLast week, the Chinese film bureau announced a new domestic film incentive program. The exact details of the program have yet to be spelled out, but the gist is that starting January 1, 2018, Chinese movie theaters will receive financial rewards for showing more Chinese films. The rewards are based on a theater’s total box office receipts for the year and kick in if at least 55% of those receipts are for domestic films. Even bigger rewards kick in if the percentages exceed 60% and 66%, respectively. Theaters must submit box office information through the government’s internal system and cannot engage in box office fraud (duh).

The 55% mark may be difficult to attain. As of a few weeks ago, Chinese films had a market share of 52.4% for 2017, and that’s largely because of the enormous revenues from Wolf Warrior 2, the highest-grossing film in China’s history. During the first 6 months of the year (Wolf Warrior 2 opened on July 27), Chinese films had a market share of only 39%.

Many jurisdictions have film incentives, but most are geared toward film production, based on the theory that film productions inject money into the local economy, provide local employment, and develop local expertise (thereby making the jurisdiction even more attractive for future productions). British Columbia is the canonical success story for production incentives, but many US states have also pursued this strategy, as have numerous countries in Europe and beyond. Similarly, almost every country, from the US to Europe to China, offers grants, tax breaks, and other incentives to local filmmakers.

Tying an incentive program to consumption sends a very different message. Measuring the percentage of box office revenue is a zero-sum game; if Chinese films have a higher percentage, that means foreign films (most of which are American) have a lower percentage.

Whether this deal will cause movie theaters to book more Chinese films will largely depend on the specifics of the incentives. All things being equal, this incentive should spur movie theaters to book a Chinese film rather than a foreign film. But when are all things equal? Chinese movie theater owners act in their own economic best interests. Even if they would rather show Chinese films (and I’m sure most of them would), they are in the business of filling seats, and if showing Chinese movies results in lower attendance, the incentives will need to be both enticing and attainable.

This isn’t the first time China has announced an incentive program for increasing the market share of Chinese films. A similar program was announced last March, but the incentive only kicked in for theaters that derived at least 66% of their box office receipts from domestic films. I don’t think the Chinese government reduced the target because they were feeling generous. They wanted results, and they weren’t getting them at 66%.

The knock on Chinese movies of late (at least, until Wolf Warrior 2 single-handedly changed the narrative) was that they hadn’t been good enough to draw audiences. Quality is subjective, but it’s hard to look at the China box office success of films like Warcraft, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and conclude that Chinese audiences have inordinately high standards. Perhaps that’s exactly the point. If foreign movies like these can dominate the Chinese box office, where does that leave Chinese mediocrities?

This incentive program makes the implicit assumption that Chinese movie theaters can affect what Chinese moviegoers decide to see. Otherwise, why reward them? I have my doubts this is true, but if it is, the work of Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests the Chinese government is going about this all wrong. They should give the incentive to all theaters, and only demand repayment if theaters show too many foreign films. It’s exactly the same economic proposition. But instituting an explicit bias against foreign films has bad optics, and the Chinese government is still negotiating with the MPAA.

No matter what comes out of those negotiations, the bottom line is clear: the Chinese government wants fewer foreign films in its marketplace, not more. Hollywood studios’ involvement in domestic productions may soon shift from a backup plan to the main event.

China Movie IndustryChinese film director Zhang Yimou has made some of my favorite Chinese-language films: Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and more. He also produced the spectacular Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, for which he is justly revered in China. Despite some recent missteps (The Flowers of War, The Great Wall) his credibility as an artist and Chinese cultural icon is nigh-unassailable.

Last week Zhang published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “What Hollywood Looks Like From China” I’m not sure what to make of it. The piece contains some lovely metaphors and a call at the end for mutual cultural understanding. But the middle section, ostensibly a summary of the relationship between the Chinese and American film industries, reads like the opening statement in a trade negotiation: “But at the moment, a large discrepancy exists in that very few Chinese movies are able to enter the American market and attract a significant audience. Chinese audiences provide Hollywood with huge profits, but what does China’s film industry gain in return?”

The language is slightly ambiguous (by intention, I assume), but a fair inference is that the playing field isn’t fair, and it’s specifically unfair to Chinese films because American movies dominate the Chinese market and rake in the cash, but Chinese movies are prevented from gaining a foothold in the U.S. market.

Reading this sort of thing, I’m sure, makes Hollywood’s blood boil. For years, China has systematically and formally constrained the ability of foreign movies to enter the Chinese film market through a quota system and periodic blackouts on non-Chinese films. The films allowed in under the quota system receive only 25% of the net profits, and even those numbers are aspirational, as the box-office numbers are woefully underreported and payments are sometimes months or years late. An additional number of foreign films are allowed in as buyouts, which except in limited situations (e.g., Resident Evil) do not involve any revenue sharing. The number of buyout films has been increasing and is expected to hit an all-time high of 70 films this year. Long story short, even when US films do well in China (and they often do) most of the revenue stays in China with the Chinese distributors and exhibitors.

Meanwhile, Chinese films have essentially unfettered access to the US market. All it takes is a willing distributor, which could be a Chinese-owned distributor like China Lion. When you add streaming to the mix, it is theoretically possible for every single Chinese movie to be released in America and the Chinese filmmakers can receive whatever sort of profit-sharing arrangement they can negotiate.

And we haven’t even talked about content restrictions: China regularly censors content, whether it be lopping off several minutes (Logan), agreeing to show a movie then pulling it in the middle of its first showing (Django Unchained), or declining to show a movie altogether (Ghostbusters). By contrast, Chinese films are generally shown uncut in the US absent a specific agreement between the filmmaker and the distributor.

Zhang is absolutely correct about the box office disparity, though. Despite the restrictions in China, American movies still do huge business there – although Chinese movies continue to gain strength and popularity. And notwithstanding the openness of the US market, Chinese films continually fail to gain any traction in the U.S. market.

But so what? People watch what they want to watch. It’s not as if films from other countries do any better in the US. The list of top-grossing foreign-language films in the US since 1980 is dismal reading if you’re a foreign filmmaker: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is in the lead with $128M, but the next film after that (Life is Beautiful) only made $57M, and by the time you get to #11 the grosses are down to $20M. The market for foreign films in the US remains small and largely limited to two demographics: diaspora-driven audiences and arthouse audiences. Otherwise, Americans don’t want to watch movies with subtitles and won’t accept dubbed films. And although Crouching Tiger’s phenomenal success cannot be ignored, it is extremely hard to see it as anything but a once-in-a-lifetime event. Zhang Yimou should know this better than anyone; his films Hero (#3 all-time foreign film with $53.7M) and House of Flying Daggers (#26 all-time with $11M) benefited from the post-Crouching Tiger box office swell for Chinese films that ended nearly as quickly as it started.

It’s perfectly understandable for a country to support and protect its own filmmakers and retain its own cultural identity. If I had grown up in another country, I’m sure I would have mixed feelings about America’s cultural dominance. But justifying China’s protectionist measures by comparing relative box office percentages is an argument of false equivalents. Let’s not forget that foreign companies are prohibited from distributing films in China, and can only produce movies in China if they have a Chinese partner. Meanwhile, China’s Dalian Wanda Group, through its ownership of AMC Theatres, is the largest film exhibitor in the United States.

It’s reasonable to ask what the Chinese film industry gets from Hollywood. But it’s also reasonable to ask what the Chinese film industry should get. Many would argue that China is already getting more than its fair share. But as Zhang’s piece makes clear, that’s not how China sees it. Backup plans, anyone?

China and Hollywood and Big DataThis past Saturday I attended the USC Entertainment Institute on Entertainment Law and Business. In past years the Institute has had entire panels on China, but this year things were pretty low-key, with just one panelist having a China connection (Chia-Chi Li, Director of Tencent’s Content and Technology Transactions Groups).

Why the shift? Undoubtedly one reason is the high-profile collapse of several deals involving Chinese money and Hollywood. Who wants to see a discussion about all the money that’s not being invested? Another possible reason is that the giddiness of the past few years – during which many people in Hollywood viewed Chinese investors as the new “dumb money” – is over and the Chinese entertainment industry is maturing, with most of the remaining players being relatively well-run, competent outfits. Or perhaps it’s that the annual US-China Film Summit is taking place in two weeks, and there are only so many times you can have a “What’s The Deal With China?” panel.

But China nonetheless kept creeping into the discussions. The morning panel on music (“Where the Money is in Music These Days”) broke down the ways in which artists and record labels actually generate revenue today, with particular attention to YouTube and streaming services. The panelists all complained about the revenue stream from YouTube (currently the biggest single medium by which consumers listen to music), but almost as an aside noted that the revenue model for music in China was even worse. Meanwhile, multiple panels referenced the social media/DIY music video phenomenon that is Musical.ly, albeit without a word about the app being Chinese. As I wrote a few months ago, this is exactly the kind of soft power the Chinese government has been hoping for.

Professor Jeffrey Cole, Director of USC’s Center for the Digital Future, started off the institute, as he has done for the past few years, with a fascinating speech about the future of the entertainment industry (“The Industry: Trends, Fads and Transformation”). Although most of his talk centered on domestic concerns, he closed with an intimation that there was a failure of comprehension (and imagination) about the size, wealth, and power of the BAT companies (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent), and what it meant for Hollywood.

In determining the future of the US entertainment industry, Prof. Cole noted that two of the most basic concerns are how people spend their time and how they spend their money. In the US, numerous companies are competing for either or both. In China, the competition exists in name only; Alibaba controls the majority of consumer purchases, and Tencent’s WeChat is so dominant and so comprehensive in terms of user base and “stickiness” that – and this is a direct quote from Prof. Cole – it is in many ways like the commercials from the 80s for the Roach Motel: “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out.” Despite the negative connotations, Cole meant it as a compliment of the highest order: a recognition that a substantial majority of the Chinese population uses WeChat all day, every day and for almost everything. We have written about this before – if you are doing business of any kind in China, you need a WeChat strategy. Indeed, we have been approached multiple times by companies interested in forming a WFOE for the sole purpose of opening up an official WeChat account.

Meanwhile, Tencent’s representative, Mr. Li, was one of the best panelists of the institute and with by far the highest degree of difficulty, because whether he wanted to or not, he had to represent the views of himself, his employer, the Chinese entertainment industry, and China as a whole. That’s a lot of water to carry.

Mr. Li made several points worth repeating, but I’d like to focus on two. First, he acknowledged that though some Chinese companies had payment problems because the RMB is not freely convertible, Tencent (and other successful Chinese companies) had access to funds outside China and if they want to make an overseas investment they can. This is true enough, but it somewhat sidesteps the issue: the Chinese government may not be able to control what Tencent does with money in its US bank accounts, but it can certainly control what Tencent does in China, and thereby exert indirect control. Still, the point remains that for large Chinese companies already in the media and entertainment business, not having to secure government approval for every wire transfer is a big advantage.

Second, according to Mr. Li, any foreign film that hopes to do well at the Chinese box office needs a Chinese partner. His specific examples: Warcraft ($47M domestic box office, $386M foreign box office with $213M of that in China) and A Dog’s Purpose ($64M domestic, $136M foreign with $88M of that in China) had major Chinese partners (Tencent and Alibaba, respectively). The LEGO Batman Movie ($175M domestic, $136M foreign with $6M of that in China) did not.

On a certain level, this argument sounds familiar.China is too big to understand without local help, so don’t even try. But Mr. Li was actually making a more subtle point. In his telling, the reason Warcraft was successful in China (and nowhere else) is because Tencent had so much data about its users that it could identify nearly every single Warcraft player in China and could push targeted ads and marketing material to them. Similarly, the reason A Dog’s Purpose did so well in China is because Alibaba had so much data about its users that they already knew the identity of every dog-owning household in China.

It’s a compelling argument if you can get past the Big Brother-ness. I’m not sure it entirely holds up under scrutiny; why wouldn’t this strategy work for every movie released in China? Still, it’s hard to explain the success of Warcraft in China in any other way, because the movie was a critical and popular bomb everywhere else in the world. Maybe it only works for movies with a clearly defined affinity group.

Either way, China will only become more sophisticated in its collection and use of big data and companies going into China will need to keep pace — which probably means partnering with one of the BAT companies — or else they’ll just be rolling the dice. At least in the film business, the stakes are too high to accept those odds.