China is rolling up the red carpet for Hollywood.
Just six months after Chinese and American leaders reached a new agreement allowing more foreign movies into the world’s most populous nation, officials there are trying to torpedo the box office returns of some of Hollywood’s biggest summer films.
American studios carefully schedule their pictures’ launch dates — often declaring them a year or more in advance _ to avoid colliding with similar movies going after similar audiences. But the state-owned China Film Group, which oversees the release of imported movies, has been scheduling U.S. films from the same genres on the same dates, aiming to limit their total grosses and boost the percentage of box office generated by Chinese-made pictures.
On Tuesday the superhero movies “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the Nos. 2 and 4 films of the year at the global box office, were to open simultaneously in China.
A similar case of “double dating” occurred July 27 with the release of the animated movies “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and “The Lorax” in China. Next month, the thrillers “The Bourne Legacy” and “Total Recall” are tentatively set to open opposite each other as well, according to knowledgeable people not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
China, now the world’s second-largest movie market, also insists upon monthlong “blackout periods,” during which only locally produced movies can premiere. This summer, the blackouts have lasted longer, according to American movie executives familiar with the China market.
A China Film spokesman previously told the Los Angeles Times that the overlapping dates were a result of a crowded calendar. But in a subsequent interview in local media, officials gave a different explanation.
“We hope those protective measures will be able to create a space for domestic movies to survive and grow,” Zhang Hongsen, deputy head of the film bureau controlled by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, said to the state-owned People’s Daily newspaper.
China Film representatives did not respond to requests for further comment.
The face-off between “The Dark Knight” and “Spider-Man” was the No. 2-trending topic Monday on Sina Weibo, China’s wildly popular Twitter alternative, drawing nearly 13 million comments by the early evening.
“The American studios are getting more movies into China … but on the other hand there are these new constraints occurring,” said Steven Saltzman, a Loeb & Loeb partner with extensive experience in China. “One shouldn’t be surprised, however, because this is a market where noncommercial considerations, including political ones, matter greatly.”
“The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Lorax” and “Ice Age” were cleared by government censors and given a coveted quota slot relatively quickly. The studios then waited— half a year in the case of “The Lorax” — until officials from the China Film Group, part of SARFT, informed them they would be opening against competitive Hollywood pictures. China Film refused to provide an explanation to the studios for its decision.
There is no official appeals process, and unofficial lobbying efforts by studio representatives in Beijing were unsuccessful. The Motion Picture Assn. of America, Hollywood’s trade organization, has been similarly unable to persuade Chinese authorities to change their policies.
The studios’ only recourse would appear to be withholding future releases from China, cutting off a growing revenue stream in an increasingly important foreign movie market. Spokespeople for the MPAA and several Hollywood studios declined to comment. People familiar with the thinking of studio executives said they were fearful that speaking publicly on the matter would antagonize Chinese authorities and lead to further punitive measures.