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.
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.