In another odd case of government over-interference, the Chinese movie authorities pulled the movie “Avatar” from all 2d screens in China. This was done to make way for a Chinese blockbuster – “Confucius” – to be released in the next few weeks. Avatar will continue to be shown on 3d and IMAX screens, which are of course less common.

There are several explanations for this. The Apple Daily in Hong Kong insinuated that the theme of the story made Chinese censors a little too nervous. A story of people being forcibly evicted from their land would seem very relevant to the millions who have been relocated due to government infrastructure projects. “Confucius” is also a highly patriotic movie that the government wants many to see. The Chinese New Year holiday runs from February 14 to February 28, and this is the prime movie time of the year. So just when Avatar ticket sales could really take off, customers might only be able to see Confucius in their local theaters.

The government explanation is more disturbing. The State
Administration of Radio, Film and Television claims that Avatar was pulled for commercial reasons, since sales to the 2d version of the film contributed only 36% of the film’s total revenue in China. The Administration’s spokesman decided that although the release of Confucius coincides with Avatar’s scheduled run time, Confucius has no 3d version, and thus there is no conflict. That’s a little tenuous.

What bothers me the most about this is not the censorship allegations, and not even the protectionist ones. It’s the fact that even movie theaters are subservient to some government bureau and have no autonomy of their own. Why do Chinese movie theaters need the State to tell them what movies are commercially viable? What if Avatar 2d tickets made up 90% of all sales for one theater? Doesn’t matter, since the 2d version isn’t commercially viable, says Beijing.

This is micromanagement to the extreme, and it violates the WTO ruling against China from earlier this year. Theaters want to make money. They want to air what people want to see. I’m sorry if Confucius isn’t as appealing as Avatar, but that’s the fault of the directors and actors. Instead, theaters and their employees are being punished. I have no doubt that many millions will flock to see Confucius (seems like just another Chinese war film to me…), but this sort of intervention is nuts.

I’d love to see a US government official walk into a Walmart in Montana and say “Coke will no longer be sold here because we in Washington, DC have decided it is not commercially viable.” China makes some amazing movies, so its too bad the sales numbers for Confucius will now need an asterisk.