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Reel China: 'Smaug' smokes box office; Oscar films in short supply

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BEIJING -- Smog seems to have helped Smaug at the Chinese box office this last weekend.

"The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug," raked in about $33.7 million from Friday to Sunday, consulting firm Artisan Gateway said Tuesday, putting it in first place. Intense air pollution covering much of northern China may have helped drive patrons to theaters, as the government advised people to limit outdoor activities.

"Smaug" far outperformed the opening weekend of director Peter Jackson’s first installment in the Warner Bros. franchise, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." When it was released in Beijing in February 2013, the initial film in the J.R.R. Tolkien series grossed about $19.4 million in its first weekend and eventually took in about $51.5 million in China.

MGM’s "Robocop" is the next U.S. release in China, opening Friday.

PHOTOS: 60 images from Middle-earth and 'The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug' 

All the talk in Hollywood this week may be about the Oscars, but in China, audiences -- in theaters at least -- have gotten to see only one of the nine best picture nominees so far.

"Gravity" opened in China in November and grossed more than $70 million. But none of the other contenders -- "Captain Phillips," "Her," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club," "12 Years a Slave," "Philomena" and "Nebraska" -- has been released in Chinese cinemas.

"American Hustle" is said to be getting a March release; no concrete plans for any of the other best picture nominees have materialized.

Chinese film fans, however, may take a special interest in the best visual effects category. All five contenders in that race -- "Gravity," "The Lone Ranger," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" and "Iron Man 3" -- have been seen in Chinese cinemas in the last year.

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Director Feng Xiaogang says he is teaming up for an English-language remake of his 2004 film "A World Without Thieves."

Feng, helmer of such films as "Aftershock" and "1942," said in London last week that he would work on the project with British producer Duncan Kenworthy, who worked on films such as  "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

"A World Without Thieves" starred Andy Lau and Renee Liu as a con-artist couple who encounter a young, naive man who is riding a train home to get married, carrying his life’s savings.

"We have finished a draft script and [are] going to carry out in-depth discussion about it," Feng told the state-run Xinhua News Service. Feng was in England for a British Film Institute tribute.

News of Feng’s English-language project comes on the heels of word that Zhang Yimou is planning to take on an English challenge as well; the Chinese director of "Raise the Red Lantern" and mastermind of the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, is reportedly set to direct an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum book "The Parsifal Mosaic" for Universal Pictures.

julie.makinen@latimes.com

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