Four years ago The Dark Knight took the world’s box office by storm, pulling in over $1 billion in ticket sales. But Chinese moviegoers never got to experience the late Heath Ledger’s bone-chilling performance as the Joker – or any part of the film for that matter. The Dark Knight never appeared on Chinese screens. Warner Brothers, the studio behind the blockbuster, did not even submit the film to the government for consideration. Why? The theory is that the studio was worried that scenes in the film where Batman kidnaps a Chinese money launderer would offend the censors.
But the third and final instalment in the trilogy has had better luck. Warner Brothers has confirmed that The Dark Knight Rises will be screened in China.
That was the good news. The bad: Batman has a superhero rival. China Film Group, one of the two state-owned entities that controls the distribution of foreign films across the country, has decided to schedule the release of The Dark Knight Rises on the same day as the premiere of Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man.
In fact, according to the LA Times, Batman will also have to compete head-to-head against Prometheus. All three Hollywood blockbusters will open in the last week of August, which is highly unusual since studios try to avoid such face-offs. But in China, foreign film release dates are determined not by studios but by their Chinese hosts.
Just last month, China Film Group released two Hollywood 3D animated films Ice Age: Continental Drift and The Lorax on the same day. While Ice Age has grossed a healthy $51 million , Lorax was decimated by the competition, opening to less than $1 million.
“Unfortunately, for foreign distributors, we have absolutely no control [over timing] at all,” says Robert Cain, author of industry blog Chinafilmbiz. “Sometimes these decisions are made for economic reasons and maximising profit, but often political considerations are present.”
Jiang Defu, a spokesman for China Film Group, denies there’s any hidden agenda, saying that the overlapping release dates were simply the result of a crowded calendar in the busiest month of the year for Chinese audiences.
But many speculate that the officials have been pitting Hollywood exports against one other in an effort to reduce their total ticket sales and in turn protect domestic productions, which have been lagging behind in box office takings. China Film Group is also said to be considering openings for the thrillers The Bourne Legacy and Total Recall on the same day in September.
Backing up that protectionist theory is the fact that there has been an unofficial ‘blackout’ on Hollywood imports in China over the summer season. The blackout period – called “domestic film protection month” by the local press (it actually lasts about two months) – has been in effect since 2004. As a result domestic films dominated during June and July with total box office revenue of more than Rmb1 billion ($158.7 million). Big-budget productions like Painted Skin: The Resurrection, Caught in the Web and The Four, all recorded strong box office figures, each grossing box office revenue of more than Rmb100 million.
Gu Yan, a film critic, said the move reflects a lack of confidence within the Chinese film industry: “From a market perspective, the ‘protection month’ may give domestic films more revenue,” he told Shenzhen Daily. “But the key to protecting domestic films is improving their quality, not imposing protectionist measures.”
Needless to say, Hollywood studios are frustrated with the situation. Warner Brothers is said to be lobbying China Film Group to delay the opening of The Dark Knight Rises to September.
But Cain reckons that it is unfair to characterise the Chinese government as solely devoted to curtailing the revenues of the Hollywood studios: “If anything, it seems to me that China has been surprisingly permissive with and solicitous of Hollywood’s studios. That such graphic films as The Dark Knight Rises… are being allowed to screen at all came as quite a surprise,” he wrote.
“If China Film Group wants these films to fail, why is it going to so much trouble to bother releasing them, when it could easily and legitimately deny their releases on censorship grounds?” he adds.
Others agree that some of the complaints are overblown as Chinese films are often released in the same week too. Phoenix Entertainment reported that at least eight domestic movies will compete head-to-head during the National Day holiday in October, another peak period for filmgoing.
Already, Dangerous Liaisons, a remake of the French film starring Zhang Ziyi (see photo) and Cecilia Cheung, and Chow Yun-fat’s The Assassin are slated for release right before the October 1 holiday. And seven out of the eight domestic films are action movies.
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