Beijing has ordered China's cinemas to use the box office this year to spread propaganda celebrating the Communist Party. The country's movie fans aren't having it — and worry the new mandate is crowding out some of the Hollywood films they are clamoring for.
Chinese moviegoers revolted last month after major ticketing sites around the country quietly stopped promoting showings for new re-releases of the three "The Lord of the Rings" movies, the popular and critically acclaimed Western adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy book series.
The disappearance of the films — which had been remastered in time for the first movie's 20th anniversary — from theater schedules in early April took many in China by surprise. Warner Bros., which did not respond to questions about why that happened, had been advertising their return to Chinese movie theaters for weeks. (CNN and Warner Bros. are both part of WarnerMedia.)
"The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" were originally scheduled for release on April 9, April 16 and April 23, respectively, according to promotional materials published in March. Fans had cheered the news and there was reason to suspect the films could help boost an unsteady box office: James Cameron's "Avatar" had just been re-released in Chinese cinemas to success.
"Avatar" is seen on a screen showing film schedule at a cinema on March 14 in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China.
But on April 1 — the day a Beijing-led effort to promote movies celebrating the founding of the Communist Party took effect — promotional posters and ticketing information for "The Lord of the Rings" vanished from major ticketing apps. At the same time, decades-old movies that promoted the Party and which were favored by regulators flooded theater schedules.
The China Film Administration, which released the directive to promote Party-approved movies, never put out any public statements calling for Hollywood movies to be removed from theater schedules. The agency did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business.
But industry analysts and movie fans in the country were quick to blame Chinese film regulators, who they believed to be the obvious culprits.
"We just want to watch popcorn movies," one person wrote on the Chinese social media website Zhihu on April 5. "Don't bother us with US-China relations here, please."
"We are not being unpatriotic," wrote another on the Twitter-like social platform Weibo a few days later. "We just want to watch good films."
And then, just as suddenly as they had disappeared, "The Lord of the Rings" films were back. In a statement posted to its official Weibo account, Warner Bros. said on April 14 that the movies would be shown, starting with a screening of 2001's "The Fellowship of the Ring" just two days later. It did not explain the delay.
"The Chinese film industry is not just production studios, but also movie theaters and distributors. And the distribution and exhibition sector makes huge amounts of money off Hollywood imports," said Chris Berry, a professor of film studies at King's College London. "They may be worried that they will suffer financially as a result of this policy. After all, the audience can watch other things on TV and on the internet."
The dust-up over "The Lord of the Rings" in China illustrates a couple of major challenges that face Beijing as it tries to instill party loyalty among young people and bolster national industries, such as film production.
"There is resentment about the 'nanny state' that determines what you can and cannot see in terms of culture," said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in Chinese politics and society. "Nationalistic pride, which certainly exists, can only go so far."
It's also a sign that no matter how mighty the Chinese box office has become — it just surpassed the United States last year as the world's biggest — Western productions remain important to keeping its momentum going, especially as the industry tries to get people back in seats after the coronavirus pandemic.
"China will need those [foreign] films to continue to be the number one box office in the world, assuming the North American market recovers sufficiently," Rosen said.
China has relied for decades on at least a few big Hollywood hits to bolster its box office each year. The People's Republic of China imported its first recently produced Western blockbuster — the Harrison Ford-led action thriller "The Fugitive" — in 1994 for general theater release.
At the time, the movie industry was in crisis. Ticket sales plunged more than 40% from 1990 to 1993 as audiences shunned local productions, according to a 2012 paper published by Liu Fan, an associate researcher with the Chinese National Academy of Arts, a government research institute.
But that changed as the country accelerated the opening of its economy. Along with foreign trade and investment, China began welcoming foreign culture, too.
"The Fugitive" turned out to be a smash hit. It grossed nearly 26 million yuan (worth about $3 million at that time) that year, more than three times the amount achieved by the second biggest film, a Chinese production based on the 1945 Chongqing Negotiations, famous peace talks backed by the United States between the Communists and the then-ruling Nationalists vying for control of China.
Since then, authorities have allowed a few dozen foreign films to be screened in the country each year, most of which typically come from the United States.
Those imported films have been a big contributor to the Chinese box office's explosive growth. From 1995 to 2019, ticket sales increased nearly 7000%, according to government statistics, enough to catapult it to the status of the second biggest movie market in the world.
Foreign films accounted for more than 40% of yearly receipts on average for the past two decades, according to Chinese brokerage firm Dongxing Securities.
But locally made films have been surging in popularity in recent years.
As China overtook the United States to become the world's largest box office in 2020 — a milestone achieved in large part because the United States struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic — many of the biggest box office draws were produced by Chinese studios and production companies, including last year's top film, the Chinese war epic "The Eight Hundred." Hollywood films "Mulan" and "Wonder Woman 1984," meanwhile, flopped with audiences.
The strength and influence of the country's box office hasn't gone unnoticed by Chinese regulators, who in late March ordered every cinema to screen at least two movies promoting the Party per week through the end of 2021.
The objective: to honor the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's founding. The movies will focus on themes of "loving the Party, the country, and socialism" and "singing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party, the motherland, the people, and its heroes," the China Film Administration said early last month in another statement explaining its goal.
Many of the movies the regulator approved for April are old propaganda films that were popular during the time of Mao Zedong, who led Communist China from its founding in 1949 until his death in 1976. They highlight themes of patriotism and were specifically created to educate viewers about the history of the Party.
The regulator emphasized a desire for "young people" to "grow their affections" of the Party and socialism by watching the movies.
Targeting young people at the movies makes sense, in theory. More than 70% of moviegoers were born between 1986 and 2001, according to the major Chinese ticketing app Maoyan. But younger generations have grown up with a lot of exposure to Western culture — a reality that the blowup over "The Lord of the Rings" appeared to demonstrate.