When Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises were finishing up "Noah," they looked to an unusual market to release the $130-million biblical epic: China.
Paramount has enjoyed tremendous success in the world's most populous nation, with "Transformers" and "Mission: Impossible" scoring big hits there. The studio has filmed on location in China, and even recently hosted several of the nation's top filmmakers for a behind-the-scenes film industry junket on its lot.
The studio even spent about $10 million to convert "Noah" into 3-D, making it more appealing to potentially lucrative territories such as China, Russia, Brazil and Germany.
But "Noah" and his ark won't be landing in China any time soon. The country's cinematic censors have refused to give the Russell Crowe movie one of the nation's limited non-Chinese release slots, two people with knowledge of the studio's efforts to bring the movie to the mainland said Thursday.
"Noah," which was released domestically March 28, has grossed $99 million in the U.S. and an additional $233 million so far overseas. China probably would have been another key to the film's global popularity.
The nation has become a big source of ticket sales for Hollywood. Last year, China recorded ticket sales of $3.6 billion, up 27% from 2012, trailing only the United States for total revenue. Three American films were among China's top 10 releases last year: "Iron Man 3," the top box-office performer in the U.S., grossed $124 million, "Pacific Rim" grossed $114 million and "Gravity" took in $73 million.
A Paramount spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment.
Getting the Bible-based story past China's censors was always seen as a bit of a challenge, given the government's sensitivities on religious issues. ("Noah" has been banned in several Muslim countries.)
But people working on marketing "Noah" to mainland audiences, who requested anonymity to maintain their business relationship with Paramount, indicated that the plan was to emphasize the film's special effects and "environmental message."
Paramount executives had said before the movie was rejected that they were hopeful that "Noah" would appeal to Chinese moviegoers. The environmental themes sparked criticism from conservative Christians, who said the film trampled biblical truth.
As recently as Tuesday, Paramount believed that the film had been accepted for release in China, according to a person familiar with the process. Director Darren Aronofsky was scheduled to visit the country to promote the film, but now he will travel next week only to Japan, where "Noah" opens June 13.
Another person with knowledge of China's censorship system said "Noah" may have been shunned partially out of commercial concerns.
Several other potential Hollywood blockbusters already are slated for release on the mainland in the coming weeks, including Warner Bros.' "Godzilla," opening June 13. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which opened in China on Sunday, took in $10 million in its first day in theaters. Disney's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has grossed more than $115 million on the mainland.
No official China release date has been set yet for Paramount's "Transformers: Age of Extinction," although there is strong speculation that the Michael Bay movie, which filmed some scenes in Hong Kong, may open in Beijing on June 27, the same day as the U.S.
Paramount released "Noah" in 2-D in the U.S. but made an Imax 3-D version for international markets. Under China's quota system for imported films, 14 slots per year are set aside specifically for "enhanced-format" films like 3-D and Imax.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency seemed to anticipate the film's release in China. On April 21, the agency said in a Chinese-language article:
"Although there are other versions of the story of Noah, such as comedy, animation, even Broadway shows, 'Noah' is definitely the first big blockbuster that recreates the Bible story on the big screen truthfully. Although Noah's story happened a long time ago, it still contains profound meanings that can be reflected by people now. The film includes environmental protection, peace, human nature, kindness and evil, and redemption messages, which make the film more vivid. It is learned that 'Noah' will be screened in China in the form of 3-D and Imax 3-D. It is believed the historical epic ... will bring lots of surprise to Chinese audiences."
Paramount has been stepping up efforts to strengthen its business on the mainland; senior executives have made multiple trips here in recent months.
Chief Operating Officer Frederick Huntsberry and Vice Chairman Rob Moore attended the Beijing Film Festival in April, during which Paramount announced that it would team with state film company China Film Group to co-produce a new 3-D fantasy-action film, "Marco Polo." Shooting is to begin in October.
Paramount late last year also hosted several Chinese directors on what has been described as an "internship" or "exchange program." Directors including Wuershan and Zhang Yibai spent a week at the studio in December, meeting with executives and visiting various departments to learn more about how American studios develop, produce and market films.
Although freedom of religion has expanded in China since the late 1970s, there are still significant limits on practice and organization. The state officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. But religious activities are supposed to be held under the auspices of "patriotic religious associations," which are government regulatory bodies.
Last week in the eastern coastal city of Wenzhou, authorities demolished a large church after saying that the congregation built the structure bigger than building permits allowed.