Still from the DreamWorks Animation movie "The Croods." (DreamWorks Animation )
Even as DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg was in China this week crowing about the box office success of "The Croods", Chinese theater owners were ordered by regulators to end the movie's theatrical run two weeks earlier than anticipated.
The move was widely interpreted as a way to make room for local animation films, underscoring how even the Hollywood studios that are the most successful in China can be subject to the unpredictable decisions of government authorities eager to expand their own film industry.
"The Croods" has generated nearly $65 million in ticket sales since its release on April 20 -- making it the top grossing original animated movie in China and even surpassing "Kung Fu Panda," which was also a hit in China, the world's second-largest film market. (The sequel "Kung Fu Panda 2" holds the record for top grossing animated movie in China, having sold almost $100 million worth of tickets there.)
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The caveman comedy was expected to run through May 21 but was given an extension until June 21 because of its popularity with Chinese audiences.
But the film's very success -- and its unusually long run for a foreign movie in China -- may have contributed to its early exit from theaters.
China Film Group, the state's leading distributor, did not comment on the decision. But the action was widely seen in China as an effort to leave more box office revenue for locally-produced animated films released this month: "Happy Little Submarine 3: Rainbow Treasure" and "Kuiba 2."
DreamWorks Animation officials also declined to comment.
In a speech at the Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, China, on Friday, Katzenberg made no mention of "The Croods'" early exit but touted the company's bright prospects in China, where DreamWorks Animation has partnered with Chinese media companies to build an animation studio in Shanghai and design a Broadway-like entertainment district in the city.
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"Beyond the 'Kung Fu Panda' movies, the phenomenal growth of China's film market has been invaluable for the DreamWorks brand,'' Katzenberg said. "Four of China's top five animated films are from DreamWorks, and our most recent release, 'The Croods,' is their highest-grossing original animated film of all-time."
Katzenberg added that the studio has never been asked by censors to "change a single frame of film" and said DreamWorks aims to become a "China-based family brand that regularly creates entertainment in China for China and for export to the rest of the world."
The decision to pull "The Croods" from theaters marks the latest incident in which government authorities have sought to limit the box office haul of a Hollywood movie, or schedule "blackout periods" for foreign movies, in order to give a boost to local product.
Much to the chagrin of Hollywood studios, the state-owned China Film Group has been scheduling U.S. films from the same genres on the same dates in a practice known as "double dating."
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Last summer, the superhero movies "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" opened simultaneously in China. A similar case of "double dating" occurred July 27 with the release of the animated movies "Ice Age: Continental Drift" and "The Lorax" in China.