Why Did China Kill 'Avatar'?

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Google isn't the only American commodity being driven out of China. Avatar, James Cameron's highly successful and critically acclaimed sci-fi epic, will be pulled from all 2-D screens in China by this weekend, according to Chinese media outlets.

Although 3-D and IMAX versions of the film will continue, the majority of Chinese movie theaters are not equipped with 3-D technology. As a result, the movie will be pulled from 1,628 movie screens across the country (compared to only 800 3-D and IMAX cinemas). Avatar will be replaced with Confucius, a domestically produced biopic about the renowned Chinese philosopher. Why?


Avatar generated record-breaking profits in China, earning $76 million in Chinese ticket sales so far. The film's financial success, however, may have led to its demise. Several reports from both the mainland and U.S. indicate that the government wants to promote and protect the domestic film industry. Currently, only 20 films can be imported per year, in order to reduce foreign competition. These films can only run for 10 days and are often curtailed during a major holiday, giving domestic films a significant market advantage.

Avatar's resonance with Chinese audiences also may have prompted government intervention. In the film, humans attempt to conquer the alien-inhabited world of Pandora, which contains a mineral that the Earth desperately needs. Many Chinese citizens see a close parallel to their own lives, as urban developments and projects such as the Three Gorges Dam force them off their land. Perhaps the government is worried that the ensuing violence on-screen may incite violence off-screen as well.

At first glance, the decision to pull Avatar is not exceptional. The film has indeed lapsed its 10-day run and a holiday -- the Lunar New Year -- is approaching. In addition, foreign films often contain themes that the government is not fond of. What is exceptional is the timing. A week after Google threatened to leave China, the Chinese government shows no signs of changing its restrictive censorship policies. I don't think it is mere coincidence that Confucius -- a state-sanctioned, state-produced movie about one of China's most beloved and patriotic figures -- will replace the controversial Avatar. By canning the most successful movie of all time in China, the government shows little concern for free markets or its consumers. Ignoring Chinese consumer demand for Avatar and bait-and-switching it with state propaganda may incite the very criticism that the government seeks to avoid.  

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Mackie Jimbo is an editorial intern at The Atlantic and author of the blog The Unpaid Gourmet.

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