Mid-way through the theatrical trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the machine guns and exploding arrows give way to two words: This November.
But in China, the third instalment in the series of blockbusters won't be shown this month – or even this year, after authorities quietly stymied plans for a simultaneous world-wide release Nov. 21. In China, the film is now likely to open in early 2015, but authorities gave no reason for the cancellation of its scheduled date, as Mockingjay became the latest Hollywood entrant to face the Middle Kingdom's often-capricious film bureaucracy and come up empty.
The first two films in the Hunger Games series have been blockbusters for Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., bringing in a combined box office total of $1.5-billion (U.S.), and the company had big hopes for the latest.
The entertainment company had planned a massive global launch of the movie, saying actor Jennifer Lawrence and director Francis Lawrence, among others, would begin a global press tour in Beijing. Chinese audiences had brought in $54-million for the previous two films. But the Beijing stop never happened, and Mockingjay was yanked from the theatrical schedule after some had already bought tickets.
Chinese media suggest Lions Gate failed to secure one of the coveted 34 annual spots for broad distribution of foreign movies in China. The Brad Pitt Second World War tank epic Fury, instead, "took the last of 2014's imported movies quota and will be played on Nov. 21," one report said, citing China's state broadcaster, CCTV.
"The Hunger Games' loss will be some other movie's gain," said Zhou Liming, a well-known film critic in Beijing, who said the jostling for year-end position commonly produces winners and losers.
This year, that winners may well not come from Hollywood. Chinese film authorities have long sought to ensure foreign films do not claim more than 50 per cent of box office receipts in a given year. In the first half of 2014, imported movies stood at 53 per cent of cinema revenue, meaning the country's film mandarins may be seeking to tamp down Hollywood's share in fall and early winter.
Chinese filmmakers, meanwhile, are preparing to release their own late-season blockbusters, like the sequel to Let the Bullets Fly, which set box office records when it was released in 2010.
A Lions Gate spokesman declined to comment on Mockingjay – there is little to gain for Hollywood in speaking out against China, because as frustrating as it has proven for moviemakers, it's also a gold mine.
This year, Transformers: Age of Extinction pulled in over $300-million (U.S.) at the Chinese box office, beating the U.S. take by some 22 per cent. China is the world's second-largest movie market, and is growing at an accelerating pace: 18 new screens per day, on average, in early 2014. Last year its total box office haul hit $3.6-billion. It was up another 22 per cent in the first half of this year, and is expected to surpass the U.S. by 2020.
But Mockingjay joins a club of Hollywood road wrecks in China that grows bigger by the year. Censors take a toll on film content. Duelling bureaucrats make sudden decisions to pull films that might reflect badly on China, and therefore their careers. Government offices deliberately sabotage foreign film earnings to ensure the annual numbers show greater revenues to domestic productions. Imported movies are shut out of the most lucrative dates on the Chinese calendar.
Other imperatives enter the mix, too, such as a desire to hand out foreign policy favours: this year, "they are trying to have movies from France, for example, because this is the 50th anniversary of China and France's diplomatic relations," said Mr. Zhou, the critic. He expressed doubt, however, about rumours that Mockingjay was delayed over concerns that its content – a rebellion against iron-fisted authorities – was deemed too sensitive during ongoing democracy protests in Hong Kong.
"Just remember that V for Vendetta was actually aired on CCTV," the state broadcaster, he said.
Often, the real reasons for movie troubles remain shrouded in mystery. But the results are sometimes-baffling decisions, and money wasted on films that are either shoved into unappealing schedules, or not shown altogether. In 2012, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man and Prometheus all opened in the same week (in North America, they were released over a span of nearly two months). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the Bond movie Skyfall were all delayed as authorities seek to give preference to local fare.
Sometimes, the decisions are shockingly last-second. Last year, authorities reportedly halted the heavily-promoted Chinese release of Django Unchained after it had played for a single minute in a Beijing theatre. Officially, it was blamed on "technical reasons," but many believed it was related to scenes of full-frontal nudity. The Quentin Tarantino film, his first to be released in China, eventually reappeared, but earned just $2.65-million in China.
More recently, in the middle of the night on Sept. 25, producers for the Nicolas Cage film Outcast received an e-mail saying the film had been pulled. It was to open Sept. 26. It's still not clear why; it may be re-released in the new year.
It's not just foreign movies: Blind Massage, a domestic movie, is not scheduled to open in China until Nov. 28, more than eight months after it won a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution at the Berlin International Film Festival – and was praised in Chinese state media for its achievement.
Delays can cause financial pain, both by muting the power of worldwide marketing, but also because China's vast piracy means theatre audiences are thinned by those who have already watched through illegal means.
That's just one part of the financial battle foreign studios have waged in China, where only in 2012 were they able to raise their maximum share of box office revenue from 17.5 to 25 per cent. (That's still less than half of places like the U.S., although the numbers aren't perfectly comparable.) Last year, studios banded together to fight a new tax imposed by China, refusing to accept hundreds of millions in dollars in payments unless Beijing relented, which it eventually did.