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China delays release of Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,’ but why?

Brad Pitt, left, and Mike Moh play Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
Brad Pitt, left, and Mike Moh play Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper / Columbia Pictures)

Distribution of Quentin Tarantino’s film “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” in China has been postponed indefinitely, the latest sign of the country’s unpredictable relations with Hollywood.

The movie was to be released Oct. 25 in China, but regulators in Beijing have canceled those plans, said a person familiar with the film who was not authorized to comment.

The decision is a blow to Sony and to the Chinese distributor, Beijing-based Bona Film Group, which has a 25% stake in the film. The vast China market would have provided even more revenue to a movie that has already grossed nearly $400 million in global ticket sales.

Though the reason for the delay was unclear — the film’s violence is one possibility — it could be due to an appeal for changes reportedly made directly to China’s National Film Administration by Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, according to sources cited by the Hollywood Reporter.

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Shannon Lee, chief executive of Bruce Lee Family Co., could not be reached for comment Friday. However, when Tarantino’s film came out in the U.S. in July, she called her father’s depiction a “mockery.”

“The script treatment of my father as this arrogant, egotistical punching bag was really disheartening — and, I feel, unnecessary,” Lee told The Times over the summer.

Tarantino later said at a news conference that Bruce Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy,” prompting the martial arts expert’s daughter to say the director “could shut up about it” or own up to the fact he didn’t know what her father was like.

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco, but his family moved to Hong Kong when he was an infant. There is a memorial statue of the martial artist in Hong Kong, which is now caught up in massive protests against the Chinese government.

“South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone issue an “official apology” to China, mocking it for banning a recent episode of their show.

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The distribution dust-up is just the latest example of Hollywood studios’ having to navigate China’s strict censorship rules and comes during a period of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China.

The National Basketball Assn. struggled to respond to China’s demands that the league apologize for a since-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting protesters in Hong Kong. Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN has faced criticism for its coverage, or lack thereof, of the dispute.

“South Park,” from Viacom Inc.-owned Comedy Central, was banned from China after a recent episode satirized Chinese human rights violations and censorship. The episode, titled “Band in China,” also lampooned Hollywood’s attempts to cater to Chinese officials in order to tap the market, which is expected to eventually surpass the U.S. and Canada as the world’s largest box office.

In another incident, DreamWorks Animation’s “Abominable” was pulled from theaters in Vietnam because it contained a map — subsequently shared on social media — that showed China unilaterally controlling a vast expanse of the South China Sea, where Vietnam also claims rights.

With a $90-million budget, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” was a gamble for Sony Pictures that has paid off handsomely.

The critically acclaimed and controversial film that deals in part with Charles Manson “family” members’ plan to murder actress Sharon Tate and others has grossed about $367 million in global box office receipts since its late July release, making it one of Tarantino’s biggest performers. His highest-grossing film remains 2012’s “Django Unchained,” which collected $425 million.

“Django” was pulled by censors in China during its premiere there in April 2013. It was edited and rereleased a month later but flopped, grossing only $2.75 million.

A representative for Tarantino did not reply immediately to a request for comment.


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