Chinese censors have ordered the 2D version of "Avatar" pulled from screens across the country, apparently to reduce competition for the homegrown film industry ahead of the nation's biggest holiday season.
The 3D and IMAX versions of James Cameron's global hit will continue their run into February. But Saturday marks the end of 2D screenings of the science fiction epic, which also dramatizes the forced eviction of a people -- a politically sensitive subject in China.
China Film Group, the state-run domestic distributor of the Hollywood blockbuster, has ordered the move after receiving instructions from China's censors. Repeated calls to the distributor's spokesman Tuesday went unanswered.
Reportedly, part of the reason is to reduce competition for China's homegrown films, like the state-backed biopic of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, starring Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat, which opens this Thursday.
The Beijing Youth Daily on Tuesday quoted UME International Cineplex assistant manager Liu Hui confirming the pullout at theaters in the capital. She said it won't affect the cinema's revenues.
"In UME, the 3D and Imax version make up 90 percent of our box-office income, so it won't affect the majority of viewers. With the pullout of the 2D version, movies like Confucius will gain some room for showing," she said.
Next month is Lunar New Year, the nation's biggest holiday. With a week of vacation or more, many Chinese are expected to flock to the country's theaters. China boasts about a dozen IMAX screens, another 800 3D screens and an estimated 4,500 regular screens. It's unclear how many 2D screens Avatar was playing on.
China remains highly protective of its domestic film industry, allowing only 20 foreign films into the Chinese market each year. Cameron, who visited Beijing in December as part of "Avatar's" press tour, had called on China to end that restriction, which is also being challenged by the World Trade Organization.
There is also sensitivity to the movie's plot, which revolves around the forced evictions of the alien Na'vi race by humans -- a story line that some have said draws unflattering comparisons to China's own, often brutal removal of millions of residents to make way for property developers.
Columnist Huang Hung penned a commentary in the official English-language China Daily, saying the film had struck a chord with Chinese viewers.
"All the forced removal of old neighborhoods in China makes us the only earthlings today who can really feel the pain of the Na'vi," she wrote.
"Avatar" is already the biggest box-office success in China, pulling in more than 300 million yuan ($44.1 million) as of Jan 12. It quickly surpassed last year's "2012" and "Transformers 3."
China's box office is still small compared with North America's, but the country is a growing marketplace for Hollywood. Revenues surged from 920 million yuan in 2003 to 4.3 billion yuan ($630 million) in 2008 -- compared to $9.8 billion in the U.S. in the same year, according to government statistics.
Tickets for the 2D version cost 30 to 40 yuan ($4.40 to $6), while 3D tickets are pricier at 60 to 80 yuan ($9 to $12). An IMAX ticket, at 130 to 150 yuan ($19 to $22), is a very expensive treat for movie-goers in China.
In theaters across the financial metropolis of Shanghai, word of the decision spread quickly.
"It's not just our theater. The 2D 'Avatar' is going to be stopped everywhere," said a ticket sales manager at Nanjing Peace Theater who refused to give his name because he had not been authorized to speak to media.
"If you want to see it, seize the opportunity now -- even for 3D! We just listen to the command from the relevant authority, although we will lose some ticket sales for sure," he said.
Associated Press researcher Ji Chen in Shanghai contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS the prices of tickets.)