China's film gatekeepers have denied Russell Crowe's "Noah" a release slot, two people with knowledge of the studio's efforts to bring the movie to the mainland said Thursday.
The Paramount Pictures release, which came out stateside March 28, has grossed $99 million in the U.S. and an additional $233 million overseas. A Paramount spokeswoman did not immediately 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. (The movie has been banned in several Muslim countries.) But people working on marketing the film to mainland audiences, who requested anonymity to maintain their business relationship with Paramount, indicated the plan was to emphasize the film's special effects and "environmental message."
Another person with knowledge of China's censorship system said "Noah" may have been nixed partially out of commercial concerns; already, several other potential Hollywood blockbusters are slated for release on the mainland in the coming weeks, including "Godzilla," which is opening June 13. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which opened in China on Sunday, took in $10 million on its first day in theaters. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has earned more than $115 million on the mainland.
No official China release date has been set yet for Paramount's "Transformers 4," though there is strong speculation that the Michael Bay movie, which filmed some scenes in Hong Kong, may open here the same day as the U.S., June 27.
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 its 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 the company announced that it would team with state film company China Film Group to coproduce 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 country's reform and opening began in 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.