On the day of the Oscars, another DVD shop was sold out of the best picture winner, "The King's Speech." A young woman sitting on the floor packaging discs did her best to save the sale. "Don't worry," she chirped. "We'll get more in tomorrow."
"What we can do here is very limited," said Li Chow, vice president for greater China at Sony Pictures International and Columbia Tristar Films. "There are too many factories and little enforcement. You can shut them down today and they reopen tomorrow."
"Why are these DVD shops allowed?" she continued. "That's what we're asking the government. You need better enforcement to stop all this."
Chinese authorities certainly do conduct periodic crackdowns. At the Zhongguancun market in Beijing, where DVDs are sold wholesale by weight or in quantities of 100 for about 30 cents each, stands were empty and guarded by police on a recent visit. Vendors said the enforcement was launched ahead of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in early March.
"Those two conferences are coming soon, so the government is taking these issues extremely seriously," said one vendor who refused to give his name. "But if you really want DVDs come back tomorrow and find me."
Given that the government has demonstrated it can stamp out the online and street sales of material it objects to, such as religious texts or democracy literature, many outsiders believe Beijing has good reason for looking the other way on commercial piracy. The business interests of the country's military, the People's Liberation Army, may be a factor.
"It was pretty clear to us that the PLA was involved in the replicating business. If not involved, at least condoning," said Frazier of the MPAA.
The Hollywood trade group believes China will only get serious about piracy when its homegrown industry demands action.
Major Chinese directors are becoming increasingly vocal about the threat of piracy to China's film industry. This month, Zhang Yimou, who directed "Raise the Red Lantern" and designed the Beijing Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, has called film theft "rampant" and said that "boosting copyright protection is key to the healthy development of film industry," according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Some directors have resigned themselves to the efficiency of pirates. Chen Daming, who directed the Chinese remake of "What Women Want," went to a DVD shop three weeks after the film premiered last month to buy copies of the movie after he ran out of his own discs.
"The quality wasn't bad," he said. "I don't know how they do it."
Still, he said, 20 days before being pirated is a pretty good "window" for a Chinese film -- his previous film was pirated even before it was widely released.
Whether the concerns of domestic directors are enough to alter the political calculus of China's leaders on piracy remains to be seen.
"China's leaders are very concerned about keeping the country together," said Frazier of the MPAA. Piracy "may help keep the masses happy."
Dan Levin reporting from Beijing and John Horn reporting from Los Angeles
Times staff writer Julie Makinen contributed to this report.