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The Oscar Nominees Are In; The Shanghai DVD Sellers Are Stocking Up

Feb 3, 2015
Originally published on February 8, 2015 10:40 pm

The Academy Awards are coming this month, and if you're still trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, it may be easier to find them in China than in the U.S.

A few weeks ago, the films flooded into the pirated-DVD store down the street from my apartment in Shanghai. It happens like clockwork every year.

I asked T.J. Green, an American executive who runs a small movie theater company here in China, to visit the store and explain what was happening.

There is nothing subtle about the store, which has a huge "DVD" sign on top and pipes music out onto the sidewalk. We strolled inside to find a dozen shelves worth of pirated DVDs. The front rack, visible from the street, was filled with all the Oscar hopefuls, including American Sniper, Selma and Birdman.

"Every single one of them is in perfect and nicely wrapped plastic and in great, great condition," Green said, admiring the packaging. "You can even read the synopsis on the back."

A female clerk, who wore the store uniform, a bright yellow windbreaker, assured Green all the DVDs had high-quality pictures and audio.

"What happens if [there's] bad quality — can we bring it back?" Green said to the clerk.

"OK, no problem," the clerk answered cheerily.

Green is the CEO of Apex Entertainment, which has a cinema in the eastern city of Suzhou and is building nine more around China. He often checks out pirated DVD stores to gauge the competition.

After scanning the Oscar nominees, Green asked about the latest Hunger Games film, which opened around the world in late November but is coming to China just this month.

"The copy not very well ... so you can wait," said the clerk. "Maybe after Chinese New Year, I have very good one."

As Green chatted with the clerk, the store's enforcer, a Chinese man about 6 feet tall, continued to eye us from just a few feet away and frown. We decided to leave and head to my apartment to talk about what we'd seen.

All the Oscar-nominated movies in the store were copies of screeners, the DVDs sent to the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of the nomination process. Green says the copies could have come from factories that made the screeners or from the homes of members themselves.

Members are not supposed to show a screener to other people. "But, hey, this is the real world," Green says. "It can easily get into the hands of others."

Online piracy in China remains a big problem, but the problem of DVDs on the streets has actually improved. When Green arrived here in 2004, vendors across the city were still operating carts containing hundreds of DVDs each. Since then, authorities have run most street vendors out of business.

Green says a big reason is the explosion of movie theaters in China.

When he came here, there were about 2,000 screens. Most of the theaters were rundown and had lousy sound systems. Today, there are about 25,000 screens, most state of the art. Nearly all are locally or state-owned, which means China's government has a big incentive to protect them.

"Before, if it was just a Hollywood cinema or a Warner Brothers cinema, there wasn't as much pressure to crack down, because it's foreign," Green says. "But now it's having an effect on their own pocketbooks."

That's probably one reason why the DVD store in my neighborhood didn't have a clean copy of the new Hunger Games movie. A pirated DVD of the movie would have eaten into potential ticket sales here over the past two months.

To protect domestic filmmakers, China only allows 34 foreign movies into the country each year. Green says that's an even bigger problem than piracy, because it severely limits what Hollywood can show here and what audiences can legally see.

"This weekend, I went to Hong Kong and I was able to watch American Sniper," Green says. "That film will never see the light of day here because of the quota system."

China says it will increase the foreign quota in two to three years. Until then, Green says, film fans here will have to keep going to pirated websites, or stores like the one in my neighborhood, to see some of Hollywood's best movies.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Academy Awards are this month. And if you're still trying to catch up with all the Oscar-nominated films, it might be easier to find them in China than here at home. Let's catch up with NPR's Frank Langfitt, who took a recent stroll through his neighborhood in Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm standing outside my neighborhood DVD store. And I'm here with an expert on the Chinese and the American film business. Can you introduce yourself?

T.J. GREEN: Sure, my name is T.J. Green. I'm the CEO of Apex Entertainment. We build and operate cinemas throughout China.

LANGFITT: I invited T.J. here to take a look at this pirated DVD store and explain what it says about movie piracy in China today. We stroll inside and find a dozen shelves worth of pirated DVDs. A young clerk approaches and offers to help.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I can help you.

GREEN: Do you have all these best films here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You want this? You found already...

GREEN: Yeah, all the best pictures - "American Sniper," you have that?

LANGFITT: T.J. hands her a list of movies. The clerk begins pulling films from the shelves. They sell for about two bucks each.

GREEN: So we have everything from "American Sniper" to "Birdman" to "Selma" to "The Imitation Game." And every single one of them is in perfect and nicely wrapped plastic...

LANGFITT: Indeed.

GREEN: ...And in great, great condition. You can even read the synopsis on the back as if you were...

LANGFITT: Yeah, it's in great shape. And there's a guy behind us who's looking uncomfortable, too.

GREEN: Right.

LANGFITT: He might kick us out in a sec.

GREEN: Right.

LANGFITT: The store's enforcer, a Chinese guy about 6 feet tall, eyes us and frowns. T.J. presses on with the questions.

GREEN: How is the condition?

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: She says the movies have good picture quality.

GREEN: And if there's a - what happens if bad quality? Can we bring back?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, no problem.

GREEN: No problem?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, no problem.

LANGFITT: (Foreign language spoken).

The shop's enforcer continues to glower. It's definitely time for us to go.

Bye-bye. (Foreign language spoken).

We step onto the street.

GREEN: That guy was a bit scary standing behind her like that, looking over us and making sure that we weren't with some authority or - they didn't want any publicity coming to the shop.

LANGFITT: All the Oscar-nominated movies in the store are copies of screeners. Those are the DVDs sent to Academy members as a part of the nomination process. T.J. says the copies could've come from factories that made the screeners or from the homes of members themselves.

GREEN: If I'm an Academy member and I have this in my home, well, I have people come into my home - I - you're not supposed to let - show it to other people, but hey, you know, this is the real world here. It can easily get into hands of others. And here we are in China and able to buy it, you know, before the Oscars are shown.

LANGFITT: Online piracy in China remains a big problem. Bur T.J. says DVD piracy in general has actually improved.

GREEN: When I arrived here in 2004, you would literally walk down to any block, and on the corner there would be a cart. And inside the cart would be hundreds of DVDs. It was prevalent; it was everywhere.

LANGFITT: Since then, authorities have run most street vendors out of business. T.J. says the big reason is the explosion of movie theaters in China. There were about 2,000 screens when he arrived. Now there are some 25,000, nearly all locally or state-owned, which means China's government has a big incentive to protect them.

GREEN: So before if it was just a Hollywood cinema or Warner Brothers cinema, there wasn't as much pressure to crack down because it's foreign. But now it's having an effect on their own pocketbooks.

LANGFITT: To protect domestic filmmakers, China only allows 34 foreign movies in the country each year. T.J. says that's an even bigger problem than piracy because it severely limits what Hollywood can show here and what audiences can legally see.

GREEN: This weekend, I went to Hong Kong, and I was able to watch "American Sniper." That film will never see the light of day here because of the quota system.

LANGFITT: China says it will increase the quota in two to three years. Until then, T.J. says, film fans here will have to keep going to pirated websites, or stores like the one in my neighborhood, to see some of Hollywood's best movies. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.