'Avatar' pulled from 2-D screens by Chinese government
The communist nation’s state-run movie distributor China Film Group is unexpectedly yanking the James Cameron-directed blockbuster "Avatar" from 1,628 2-D screens this week in favor of a biography of the ancient philosopher Confucius starring Chow-Yun Fat.
Paul Hanneman, co-president of international distribution for the movie’s distributor 20th Century Fox, confirmed the news, which he and other executives at the studio learned Monday evening.
According to a report in the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, the move was made at the urging of propaganda officials who are concerned that "Avatar" is taking too much market share from Chinese films and drawing unwanted attention to the sensitive issue of forced evictions.
Millions of Chinese have been uprooted to make way for high rises and government infrastructure projects. “Nail House” is a popular term given to homes of dwellers who refuse to leave though they are surrounded by demolished homes. In "Avatar," human colonists try to demolish the village of an alien race in order to obtain a precious resource buried below it.
However, David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia, a media consultancy based in Beijing, said the decision to pull "Avatar" had more to do with the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday.
"There's certain windows in the year that are held for domestic films," Wolf said. "We're coming up on Chinese New Year, so this can be expected."
The week-long national holiday, also known as the spring festival, begins the weekend of Feb. 13. China has only 4,000 screens, which places run times at a premium.
Wolf said that most foreign films get a 10-day run before being pulled. Executives at Fox had expected "Avatar" to play much longer, however, due to its massive popularity. It is already the most successful movie of all time in China, having grossed a record $76 million, according to the studio.
Losing the 2-D screens will be a blow to "Avatar," but not a fatal one, a studio executive said. The movie will remain on nearly 900 3-D screens, which have so far generated $49 million, or 64% of its total ticket sales, according to Fox.
It’s not uncommon for China Film Group to protect domestic pictures. In 2006, "The Da Vinci Code" was unexpectedly pulled from theaters there after racking up $13 million in sales.
Foreign movies were also removed from theaters in the run-up to last year’s 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The sweep was believed to help promote the nationalistic epic, “The Founding of A Republic.”
Only 20 foreign movies per year are allowed to be shown in China's theaters. "Avatar," which opened worldwide in mid-December, was held in Chinese theaters until January because the 2009 quota had already been filled.
Pirated copies of “Avatar” are already available in Beijing’s bootleg DVD stores.
Calls to the China Film Group were not returned.
--Ben Fritz, reporting from Los Angeles. David Pierson, reporting from Beijing.
Photo: Producer Jon Landau, Cameron, and Fox co-chief executive Jim Gianopulos promoting "Avatar" in Beijing on Dec. 23. Credit: Andy Wong / AP.