"Avatar's" record-breaking run worldwide is getting pulled up short in China.
Authorities are pulling the non-3D version of the science fiction epic from screens across the country as of Jan. 23, according to theater operators and state media, apparently for political and economic reasons.
China Film Group, the state-run domestic distributor of the Hollywood blockbuster, has reportedly ordered cinemas to stop showing the 2D version of James Cameron's global hit by this weekend on the orders of China's censors, though the 3D and IMAX versions of the movie will continue their run into February.
Repeated calls to the distributor's spokesman Tuesday went unanswered.
Part of the reason is to reduce competition for China's homegrown films, like the state-backed biopic of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philospher, starring Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat, which opens this Thursday.
The Beijing Youth Daily on Tuesday quoted UME International Cineplex assistant manager Liu Hui confirming the pullout at theaters in the capital, but said it won't affect the cinema's revenues.
"In UME, the 3D and Imax version make up 90 percent of our box-office income, so it won't affect the majority of viewers. With the pullout of the 2D version, movies like Confucius will gain some room for showing," she said.
The other sensitivity is to the movie's plot regarding the forced evictions of the alien Na'vi race by humans, which draw unflattering comparisons to China's own, often brutal removal of millions of residents to make way for property developers.
Columnist Huang Hung penned a perceptive piece in the official English-language China Daily on what she called "a social phenomenon."
"Somehow the film struck a chord with Chinese audiences and created nothing less than a social phenomenon ... Why? All the forced removal of old neighborhoods in China makes us the only earthlings today who can really feel the pain of the Na'vi," she wrote.
"Avatar" is already the biggest box-office success in China, pulling in more than 300 million yuan ($44.1 million) as of Jan 12. It quickly surpassed last year's "2012" and "Transformers 3."
In theaters across the financial metropolis of Shanghai, word spread quickly that the 2D version of the movie would be gone by the weekend. All versions of the movie were originally scheduled to run through Chinese New Year in mid-February.
It's "not just our theater. The 2D 'Avatar' is going to be stopped everywhere," said a ticket sales manager at Nanjing Peace Theater who refused to give his name because he had not been authorized to speak to media.
"If you want to see it, seize the opportunity now — even for 3D! We just listen to the command from the relevant authority, although we will lose some ticket sales for sure."
Associated Press researcher Ji Chen in Shanghai contributed to this report.
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