'Avatar' tops China box office as film faces axe

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The Independent Culture

"Avatar" has become China's all-time box-office champion, new figures showed Thursday as Beijing plans to controversially yank the 2D version of the Hollywood blockbuster from cinemas.

The futuristic adventure, which was released in both 2D and 3D versions on January 4, has grossed 540 million yuan (80 million dollars), Xinhua news agency reported.

That puts it ahead of the disaster epic "2012", which raked in 460 million yuan until its nationwide release ended last month, Xinhua said, quoting Tong Gang, a top official with the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the nation's film regulator.

But Friday will be the last day that Chinese movie-goers can catch a screening of the 2D version of "Avatar", the Global Times newspaper said, quoting an official with China Film Group, which controls movie distribution.

Reports that the hugely popular movie would be pulled ahead of schedule have sparked a furore amid charges the government had shunted it aside to make way for the patriotic biopic "Confucius."

Some movie-goers have also claimed that the government is nervous about "Avatar" over its portrayal of a tribe's fight against humans chasing them from their land on a far-off planet.

Some people have drawn parallels to a rash of forced land evictions in China, which sparked violent clashes and last year saw one woman kill herself by setting herself on fire in protest.

Xinhua quoted Zhang Hongsen, deputy director of the state regulator's film bureau, as saying the film's run was being ended for commercial, not political reasons, "because the box office returns of the 2D version had been low".

Officials at the film regulator and China Film Group declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

The release of "Confucius" comes as his teachings on peace, social harmony, and respect for authority have enjoyed a renaissance in China, backed by the ruling Communist Party, after being suppressed during the radical Mao years.

A report on the website of the Beijing News said the box-office take for "Avatar" was nearing 600 million yuan, quoting "theatre figures" but giving no other details.

Xinhua's report said the 2D version had accounted for only one-third of its total revenue in China, despite the fact that China only counts around 700 3D screens - just 15 percent of the nationwide total of 4,600.

However, the Global Times noted that tickets for the 2D version cost 30-40 yuan, half that of 3D tickets, while tickets on large IMAX-style screens cost 130-150 yuan.

The film bureau has said the 3D version would continue to be screened in China until February 28, as previously planned.

A woman who answered the phone at China Film Stellar Theatre Chain, which operates 127 theatres, told AFP it had not received word from the government to stop screening "Avatar" and she did not know if the movie would be pulled.

However, the woman, who refused to identify herself, added "all of our member theatres need to provide space for new films."

The United States has complained repeatedly about Chinese restrictions on the screening of foreign films, rules seen as aimed in part at giving a boost to domestically produced films.

China currently allows only 20 foreign films to be shown in its movie theatres each year.