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'Ice Age: Continental Drift' and 'The Lorax' battle for Chinese viewers

'Ice Age: Continental Drift' is opening the same weekend in China as 'The Lorax.' Why is China forcing two Hollywood movies to compete for ticket sales?

By Ben Fritz, John Horn and Tommy YangLos Angeles Times / July 13, 2012

A scene from the animated film, "Ice Age: Continental Drift,' shows the characters Diego, voiced by Denis Leary, left, Sid, voiced by John Leguizamo and Manny, voiced by Ray Romano. The Ice Age sequel opened in the US Friday, and opens this weekend in China.

(AP Photo/20th Century Fox)

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Los Angeles

China’s government-controlled film distributor is releasing two of Hollywood’s biggest 3-D animated movies of the year on the same weekend, forcing them to compete head-on and potentially denting their ticket sales in the world’s second-most-lucrative market.

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The movies — 20th Century Fox’s sequel “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and “The Lorax” from Universal Pictures — will both be released July 27 by China Film Group. In the U.S. and elsewhere, the two family pictures were released months apart to avoid cannibalizing each other’s box office.

Jiang Defu, a spokesman for China Film, said the overlapping release dates were simply the result of a crowded calendar in the busiest month for Chinese audiences.

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Twentieth Century Fox and Universal have not been given an official reason for the conflicting release dates, according to executives close to both studios. But people familiar with the Chinese movie market who were not authorized to speak publicly speculated that the government may be intentionally trying to limit each film’s take at the box office.

Figures released this week show that American films dominated the Chinese box office in the first half of the year. Although Chinese officials are proud of their film market’s rapid ascension — it now trails only the U.S. in ticket sales — the lack of Chinese blockbusters has been a sensitive subject for a country that wants to increase its “soft power.”

Forcing the American films to compete head to head could curtail their grosses and help boost homegrown movies’ share of the Chinese box office.

Several U.S. executives noted that it’s unusual for China to open two movies targeting the same audience on the same date, particularly two 3-D pictures in a country where the technology is hugely popular. (In the U.S., studios try to avoid such face-offs by scheduling release dates early and changing them when competition crops up, but they have no control over how China Film schedules and markets their movies.)

Jiang dismissed such speculation, noting that the recently released Chinese movies “Caught in the Web” and “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” also opened the same week.

“China’s film market is very competitive. It’s very common to see many movies to go head to head against each other,” Jiang said. “Since blockbuster Chinese movies like those two can be released the same (week) in China, I don’t understand why two American movies can’t go head to head against each other.”

He added that in a month in which seven or eight movies are typically released every week, “it’s really hard for a movie to enjoy a completely competition-free release.” Jiang said foreign movies also need to receive approval from Chinese censors, which can complicate release schedules.

China generated more than $2 billion in box office in 2011 and is on track to top $3 billion this year.

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