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The first “Avatar” movie, released in 2010 in China, raked in $203 million at the box office there. Back then, that was a lot of money for China. “Avatar” launched the 3D experience in the country.
“The first ‘Avatar’ movie was really good. It was very imaginative,” Beijing moviegoer Yuan Mengyi said. She was looking forward to the sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which hit theaters Friday — the same day as in the U.S.
To secure a theatrical release in America and China simultaneously is a big deal. China restricts the number of foreign films shown in the country. The number of Hollywood movies getting theatrical releases has slowed to a trickle in the world’s second-largest economy.
That the sequel was approved came as a surprise to American film distributor David Lee of Leeding Media, which mostly brings in movies from the West to China.
“Seven straight Marvel films with different studios have not been approved for release,” he said, adding that there is no official ban. “There never is a clear mandate of ‘No, this is forbidden.’ It is different levels of bureaucrats kind of reading wind patterns to see what I should be doing and what I shouldn’t be doing.”
What’s currently in the wind is rising nationalism at home and frictions between China and the U.S.
At least the tensions have not worsened recently, according to Lee, who cited a face-to-face meeting between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in November.
Does the official release of “Avatar: The Way of Water” in China signal better days to come for Hollywood movies?
Film distributor Lee is hopeful. But movie lover Danny Xu in eastern China’s Anhui province thinks the “Avatar” sequel might well be the last American blockbuster he can watch in Chinese theaters for a while.
“’Avatar 2′ isn’t full of ideology, like ‘Top Gun: Maverick.’ That type of film wouldn’t be screened in China,” Xu said.
He hopes to bring his children to watch the sequel at Imax, where each ticket costs 100 yuan, or about $14. Xu said tickets for prime-time screenings are hard to get.
The Hollywood movies that do pass China’s censors don’t always top the box office like they used to. Among other reasons, Chinese films are getting better and Chinese audiences have developed their own tastes.
“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, I didn’t watch many Hollywood blockbusters. There were no impressive ones,” Beijing moviegoer Yuan said.
Plus, China’s strict “zero-COVID” policy would often shut down theaters at a moment’s notice.
“For these superbig movies — prior to the trade war — China played a huge role in their ability to recoup that investment, and that has kind of gone away in the past three years,” movie distributor Lee said.
However, this month the government dropped most of its harshest pandemic measures.
At a packed preview screening of the “Avatar” sequel in Shanghai this week, a theater staffer tried to rev up the crowd with a chant: “In Shanghai! Together we watch ‘Avatar’!”
With a lot of other things weighing on people’s minds, the chanting was lackluster.
“No more [COVID] positive cases!” a man shouted between the chanting, which generated some laughter.
Being infected with the coronavirus had carried an enormous stigma under the zero-COVID policy. That attitude has changed as infections have spread.
“I am a close contact!” said another, which about a week ago would have landed him in a centralized quarantine facility. But with cases surging, officials are no longer keeping track.
“Get herd immunity as soon as possible!” a third man yelled.
To go to the movies without fear of a lockdown — only to risk getting COVID — is a strange feeling.
Additional research by Charles Zhang.
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