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...
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.
LANGFITT: He might kick us out in a sec.
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.