By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China will relax some curbs on filmmakers, the government said on Wednesday, in a small step towards greater freedom of expression that has drawn a cautious welcome from Chinese film directors, who argue authorities will retain a tight grip.
Chinese filmmakers will no longer have to submit screenplays to officials for review and approval before they can shoot a movie, the central government said on its website (www.gov.cn).
But films will continue to be subject to pre-screening approval in one of the world's strictest censorship systems in the second largest movie market after the United States.
The measures appear to be the first, albeit tiny, moves to expand some rights related to freedom of expression after hopes for political reform warmed when a new leadership took power in March.
In its announcement the government did not give a reason for the relaxation, but said that besides helping to usher in new management techniques, it wanted to encourage the interaction of market forces, social expectations and professional skills.
The July 11 regulations, approved by China's State Council, or cabinet, did not say when the changes would take effect.
Chinese filmmakers, who have long lobbied for restrictions to be lifted, said they welcomed the changes, but it was too soon to celebrate.
"Censorship of completed movies still exists," movie director Zhang Qi wrote on his microblog.
"What's more, under the new regulation, the risks from censorship will be borne fully by producers and creators. However, I hope this will be a good start."
Tang Yi, a production executive, wrote on his microblog, "The only way out for China's film censorship is the implementation of a grading system".
China does not have a film ratings system to help users pick appropriate movies.
The response of Chinese social media was similarly guarded.
"They make me feel the style of China's new central leadership is changing into something that won't stick to one certain type, but will allow a hundred flowers to blossom and a hundred schools of thought to contend," a microblogger wrote.
"But whether that will happen, we need to wait and see."
China bans films with explicit sex, violence and anything deemed politically sensitive. Filmmakers often complain they are forced to censor themselves to ensure their films get seen.
Despite the controls, banned movies can be downloaded from file-sharing sites or seen on pirated DVDs openly sold in Chinese cities.
Yet many banned movies, which often do well at international film festivals, would have little appeal in China, where they are seen as being too arty, and even boring, for the mainstream.
Many Chinese films struggle to match the popularity of Hollywood blockbusters such as "Avatar" and "Star Trek", despite a strict quota on foreign movies, and government-backed films with patriotic content frequently bomb.
China had ticket sales of $2.7 billion in 2012, says trade group the Motion Picture Association of America.
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Clarence Fernandez)