Authorities withdraw previously okayed film after boffo run

BEIJING — Having hosted the world preem, China now says it no longer understands Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

Prints of “Code” were withdrawn from cinemas across the country after the final screenings Thursday.

A letter from China Film Group addressed to the nation’s theatrical exhibitors asked that the film be pulled “in order to protect the market for locally made films and give them more screen time,” according to Chinese industry sources.

But this explanation is widely regarded as a pretext disguising other reasons. Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” opens Friday, as the last film before the annual summer blackout on Hollywood releases, while “Poseidon” is still playing in theaters.

Speculation points to protests from Catholic groups having contributed to the film’s withdrawal. China and the Vatican are at loggerheads over the appointment of unofficial bishops to China’s independent-minded Catholic church.

The other possibility is that the film was simply doing too well.

“It is within a day of becoming the No. 2 all-time foreign box office grosser for China,” said a distribution industry source. The film would have displaced “Pearl Harbor” at RMB105 million ($13.1 million). “Titanic” remains No. 1 in China with $37.5 million. Final China take for “Code” will be about $13 million.

China was surprisingly host to film’s preem some four hours ahead of its red carpet gala in Cannes. And it opened on a superwide 393 screens.

But pic’s original approval by the State Administration for Radio Film & Television was a puzzle to many in the industry. Overt religious themes, although fantasy, would normally be enough to keep it out of the officially Communist and secular country.

Typically, films with controversial content would simply not pass the Sarft approval process required by law for every film release.

Withdrawal of “Code,” however, marks the first time in recent history that a foreign film has been pulled from the market after having been approved.

Pirated DVD copies of the movie are widely available on the black market.

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