Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin in 'Iron Man 3'
Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin in 'Iron Man 3'

Marvel's "Iron Man 3" stomped its way through the box office last weekend, raking in $175 million in North America in its first three days alone and more than $680 million internationally in less than two weeks.  These were huge numbers, even for a superhero flick, second only to last summer's blockbuster of blockbusters, "The Avengers" (another Marvel product).

It was a sound conclusion to the Iron Man trilogy, with a well-pitched sardonic tone, a thoughtful had-ya-fooled plot twist, and an enjoyably bombastic set piece finale.  And, of course, there were the cameos.  Remember Dr. Wu, the medical genius played by Wang Xueqi who was the only doctor who could un-Iron Man Tony Stark at the end of the film?  And Fan Bingbing, who excitedly proclaimed, "He's here!" when Stark arrived at the hospital?

Alas, if you were one of the many who flocked to see "Iron Man 3" in theaters across the U.S. last week, you don't remember either of these characters--because you didn't see them.  In fact, these scenes were created specifically for the Chinese version of the film, and they were never meant to be watched--and probably never will be--by audiences anywhere other than China. 

"Iron Man 3" in China is a story of studio pandering for the sake of cash, and the incomprehensibly byzantine process by which foreign films are allowed into the communist country.  Even more so, it is a cautionary tale for Hollywood heavyweights as they try to break into what could potentially be a massive market--and almost certainly will be someday soon.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, as new "Iron Man 3" scenes were added for specifically Chinese audiences, the re-release of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," featuring three minutes cut from the original (including nudity scenes), is flopping in China. The film originally hit Chinese theaters April 11, and was pulled within "minutes of its opening screenings... without official explanation," per Deadline.

Eastward Ho!

Hollywood desperately wants to break into the Chinese market, and for good reason: China last year passed Japan to become the number two market in the world, and is on track to beat out the United States for number one by 2020.  According to John Horn of the Los Angeles Times, the only thing stopping China from taking the top slot right now is the country's limited number of theaters: as Horn told PRI's The World, China is currently building cinemas "at a frantic clip" and could conceivably overtake the U.S. even before the end of the decade.

Despite these limitations, China already promises big box-office numbers for American movies: "Iron Man 3" earned a remarkable $63.5 million in its first five days there, its best result in any foreign market.  These dollar levels--and the potential for exponentially bigger returns in the future--only whets the appetite of Hollywood studio execs to grab a piece of this burgeoning market.

But American studios trying to get their films into China face an even bigger challenge than the limited number of theaters: the Chinese government's arcane rules on how films can enter the country--and in what form. Chinese officials recently upped the quota of American films they would allow into the country each year from 20 to 34, but the government's State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) censorship system continues to dictate what can and cannot appear in those films. Earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" was pulled from theaters just minutes into the very first showings of the film on orders from SARFT --even though officials had previously OK'd the flick to play in Chinese theaters.

The Iron Man Plan

The holy grail for any Hollywood studio looking to make big profits in China is to have a project designated a co-production.  U.S. studios typically receive only 20 to 25 percent of box-office grosses in China--less than in other markets--while co-productions are treated like domestic Chinese films and bring studios 38 percent of receipts.