On March 17, the day that Disney's Beauty and the Beast opened on 20,000 screens across China, The People's Daily tweeted: "Controversial gay moment kept in Disney's #BeautyAndTheBeast... requires no guidance for minors."
It was a modestly encouraging sign for the country's LGBTQ community. Not only was China's notoriously strict censorship regime allowing the film - which includes a three-second "gay moment" - to screen in full, the Communist Party's official newspaper appeared to be boasting about it.
"Our appreciation mostly goes to the filmmakers," says Chinese indie director and activist Fan Popo, whose LGBT documentary Mama Rainbow was pulled from Chinese streaming services in 2014. "So many international films are 'a little bit gay' these days, if the censors insisted on blocking all of it, one day soon there wouldn't be American film showing in China."
Local insiders say China's censors are now contending with a fresh test of their newfound tolerance: Oscar best picture winner Moonlight. But few expect Barry Jenkins' elegant award winner to get the same liberal treatment BATB received. Says one source close to state-backed distributor China Film Group: "They think Moonlight is unsuitable for the China market and not politically correct."
Shortly after the Oscars telecast last month, China's Netflix-like streaming video giant iQiyi scooped up exclusive online rights to Moonlight, La La Land and best foreign-language film The Salesman. But sources tell THR that the Moonlight acquisition was made without prior censorship clearance and iQiyi's online release plans remain uncertain (the company declined to comment). Moonlight was also recently tipped to screen at the upcoming Beijing International Film Festival in April, but organizers say the selection is "still unconfirmed."
Depicting gay relationships on TV is banned in China, but no rules explicitly prohibit such stories in feature films or online. Regulators have shown their discomfort with the subject on several occasions, however, pulling popular gay-themed dramas from the web, and blocking movies via the invocation of "pornographic" or "sensitive" material. Such was the argument when Brokeback Mountain was denied a release in China in 2006, despite the star status of Taiwanese director Ang Lee in the country. More often, no explanation is ever given at all - the movies simply don't screen.
So why would Beauty and the Beast cruise through the system - along with Power Rangers, which features Hollywood's first queer-questioning superhero protagonist - while Moonlight remains in limbo?
"Each of these decisions is a calculation," says one Beijing-based exec. Beauty and the Beast was a major studio title widely projected to be a hit (meaning more revenue for local cinemas and distributors), while the film's gay content could easily be missed with a well-timed sneeze. Disney's deep local government connections also certainly helped.
"Money outweighed the political sensitivities," the exec adds (so far, BATB has earned just shy of $80 million in China).
A24, the company that financed, produced and is handling international sales on Moonlight, is currently working with a Chinese partner to try to arrange a theatrical release in China. ("At this moment, there is no tangible update," said a spokesperson on behalf of the company.)
Though official word has yet to arrive, Fan says he's not optimistic about Moonlight's chances - although a surprise wide release would indeed be "great news" for China's gay community.
"It would also be good news for the whole Chinese movie audience," he adds. Civil rights questions aside, Fan says: "Moonlight is a beautiful and thoughtful film."
A version of this story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.