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China Pulls `Da Vinci' in Wake of Protests

June 08, 2006|Josh Friedman and Don Lee | Times Staff Writers

In a stunning about-face that is sure to send shock waves through Hollywood, the government of China has decided to yank the controversial thriller "The Da Vinci Code" from the country's theaters starting today, Sony Pictures confirmed Wednesday.

The decision, made in the wake of protests from Catholic groups, comes three weeks after the movie opened in China on nearly 400 screens -- the biggest rollout there of a film by a major U.S. studio. The film has already grossed $13 million in the Asian nation.

"What can we say? We are surprised and disappointed about it," said Jeff Blake, Sony's head of worldwide marketing and distribution. "The good news is that we did a substantial amount of business in China."

Based on Dan Brown's international bestselling novel, "The Da Vinci Code" has grossed an estimated $604 million worldwide, with $427 million generated in more than 90 countries outside the U.S. and Canada. It opened in the U.S. on May 19.

There has been no public announcement of the decision, and even entertainment industry executives based in China were unaware that the record 393 prints in Chinese theaters -- 13 more than "King Kong" -- were to be pulled.

But a major movie house in Shanghai, Paradise Warner Cinema City, which is a joint venture with Warner Bros., said it would show the movie for the last time today.

"The Da Vinci Code" opened in China 4 1/2 hours before the official premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and sold about $5 million worth of tickets in its first weekend, an unusually high number for this nation, according to China's Xinhua news agency.

The book has sold more than 1.2 million legitimate copies in China.

On the eve of the movie's premiere, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Assn. and the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China -- which are the highest authorities of the government-approved church but are not affiliated with the Vatican -- urged a nationwide boycott of the movie, saying it violated religious morals. But there appeared to be no organized effort to remove the film from theaters.

The Chinese government, which helped the studio with its gala launch there, gave no reason for its decision, Sony said.

"I guess maybe the government did this out of the consideration of some religious groups," said Yu Guoming, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China. "The government wants to show respect to their will and doesn't want to cause trouble because of one movie. The Chinese government has always been very cautious on ethnic and religious issues."

Another factor may have been the movie's spectacular performance, some sources speculated.

The Chinese government, while encouraging certain kinds of foreign investment, has had an uneasy relationship with Western media. It has suggested that it is concerned about its citizens being overexposed to other cultures and ideas. Authorities limit the number of foreign movies in theaters to about 20 a year.

The financial effect on Sony is expected to be minimal because the film already has enjoyed a profitable run, but studio executives clearly hope the lucrative Chinese market becomes more accessible in the future.

The nation currently accounts for only a tiny fraction of Hollywood's global ticket sales, but U.S. studios and filmmakers see huge potential in the population of 1.3 billion.

Box-office sales reached a record last year, totaling $247 million, according to the Shanghai Daily newspaper. Four of the top 10 moneymakers were foreign, including No. 2, Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." "The Da Vinci Code" and its source novel have provoked criticism from Christians around the globe for its premise that Jesus married and fathered children and that the Catholic Church covered up this story.

Despite the controversy, "Da Vinci" has been welcomed in most countries, said Sony spokesman Jim Kennedy. It was banned in Brunei, the Philippine capital, Manila, and several Indian states, he said.

The film took in $154.7 million overseas in its opening weekend, the most ever, and it has been the leading international earner for three consecutive weeks.

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