HONG KONG - Theater operators in mainland China were ordered to cease scheduling screenings for The Croods on Thursday, in a move largely seen as clearing space for already-released local animation films and a state-backed Chinese blockbuster opening on Saturday.
The DreamWorks Animation hit was originally slated to end its run on June 24, but theater management received a verbally-conveyed directive from the authorities at about 2pm on Thursday to stop screening the film from today onwards, a Guangzhou-based cinema chain manager told The Hollywood Reporter on the condition of anonymity.
In a verbally-conveyed directive resembling the one he received on April 10 about cancelling screenings of Django Unchained -- in which theater management was requested to even stop already-begun screenings -- an official from the country’s film regulators told the manager to also refund customers who had bought tickets for advance screenings.
The manager said he was "not surprised" by the sudden request.
"You just have to look at the box office figures and you understand why,” he added.
The Croods has been a towering success compared to the lackluster box office returns of the three homegrown animation films released on June 1: while the imported blockbuster has generated ticket sales of $63.7 million (391 million yuan) as of Thursday, the collective gross for local animations Happy Little Submarine 3: Rainbow Treasure, The Adventures of Sinbad 2013 and Kuiba 2 are less than $16.28 million (100 million yuan).
The Croods has proved to be a slow-burning success in China, and was still generating healthy returns in the country despite already being in the seventh week of its run here. On Thursday, the film was still shown on about 3,000 screens, which amounted to roughly 5 percent of the total number of screens in China, according to figures from Chinese media information consultants Entgroup.
More impressive, the film has continuously had a very high average number of viewers-per-show. Entgroup’s statistics showed that the film generated an average of 11 customers per screening, a figure not far behind the much more recently-released Star Trek Into Darkness (15) and American Dreams in China (13). In contrast, the Chinese animation films were registering at most “five or six people” per show, the Guangzhou-based cinema manager told THR.
Released in the country on April 20, The Croods was originally slated to end its run on May 21. But the film’s swelling popularity – with earnings actually increasing rather than decreasing during the course of the first two weeks of its run, culminating in its third-week takings of $20 million (122.7 million yuan) – led to the film getting a screening extension to June 21.
Chinese social media was abuzz with critical comments directed at China’s film regulators after news broke of the enforced termination of The Croods’ run in the country, with some speculating that the move as an effort to clear the way for local productions opening during the weekend.
Among the Chinese-language films to be released on Saturday is Switch, a heist thriller starring Hong Kong’s Andy Lau, Taiwan’s Lin Chi-ling and mainland Chinese actress Zhang Jingzhu. The film now stands in a good position to make a killing at the box office as the country prepares for a three-day holiday break which runs from Monday (June 10) to Wednesday (June 12), with the Guangdong-based cinema manager telling THR that the film could expect to take up at least 30 percent of total screens in the country when it opens.
No Hollywood blockbusters were scheduled to open in China during the first three weeks of June. The Paramount-backed Star Trek Into Darkness was the most recent import to have taken its bow in the country on May 28, with Man of Steel now scheduled to unspool on June 20.
This Hollywood-free window mirrors the many occasions in recent years when the country’s film regulators cleared schedules of imports so as to allow local productions to have a clear run in theaters. Last year, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man were denied July release dates and were forced to open during the same week in late August – a decision which led to the local fantasy blockbuster Painted Skin: Resurrection to generate a then record-breaking haul of $118.3 million (726.4 million yuan) at the Chinese box office.
The China Film Group, which distributes imported films and decides when they are to be released, was unavailable for comment on Friday about the early end of The Croods’ run. THR could not reach DreamWorks Animation for clarification on the matter, but the company's reps were quoted in the Chinese press as saying how the China Film Group and the official Film Bureau, rather than the producers themselves, are responsible for the scheduling of releases in the country.
Some Weibo users also pointed out how this intervention would again adversely affect China’s reputation as a film market, following the way Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was first approved for release on April 10 and then taken off screens when the first screenings were already underway that day – with reports suggesting the country’s censors took issue with the film's nudity and violence. Django was eventually re-edited and re-released on May 10, but flopped spectacularly, taking just $2.5 million during its month-long run.