But the four axed films don’t appear to touch on any of the typically taboo subjects, leaving cinema-goers puzzled.
“The Eight Hundred” and “The Hidden Sword” are war films, while “The Last Wish” is a dark comedy about a dying man’s desire to lose his virginity. Teen drama “Better Days” revolves around a high-school student who becomes friends with a small-time criminal.
Broad, vague reasons were given for the cancellation of any of the movies and the news was met with disappointment online.
“‘Better Days.’ ‘The Last Wish.’ They are all the food that supports my spiritual world. Why did the release of them get canceled?” one Weibo user asked. “What the hell is going on?” another commenter demanded.
There are no public figures for how much each of the films cost, but widely-reported estimates put the production budget of “The Eight Hundred” alone at $80 million.
CNN has reached out to the films’ production companies for comment.
Film posters for the film, the “Eight Hundred.” Credit: Huayi Brothers
An executive in a foreign film studio’s China office, who asked to remain anonymous due to the political sensitivity of the topic, said the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1 was an important milestone that could be making the ruling Communist Party’s censors nervous.
For example, “The Eight Hundred,” paints a positive picture of soldiers from the Chinese Nationalist army, holding out nobly against the Japanese. It was also the Nationalists who fought against the Communists during China’s Civil War.
“Of course, it’s the 70th anniversary of PRC this year, but there will be something major every year in the foreseeable future,” the executive said. “The environment is only going to get worse from here.”
Death of a blockbuster
The latest controversy began on June 24 with a message posted to the official “Better Days” social media account.
“After considering the level of completion of ‘Better Days’ and our market pre-assessments, and following consultations between the production and distribution parties, the film will not be released on June 27. A new release date will be announced at a later time,” the statement said.
Fans were shocked. The film had been due to release that week.
So far, no new release date has been given and the account has since been silent. The day after “Better Days” was pulled, promoters behind “The Eight Hundred” announced on social media that the film wouldn’t be releasing on July 5 as planned, adding a new release date would be made public “when decided.”
It said that after “consulting and discussing (with) every side,” screenings of the film were being canceled. Fans were shocked. The film had been due to release that week.
“After consultation between the production team and other entities, ‘The Eight Hundred’ will cancel its original July 5 premiere and temporarily vacate the summer release date window. The new release date will be announced at a later time,” said a statement posted to the film’s social media.
It happened again with the “The Hidden Sword,” which was pulled just four days ahead of its planned release on July 15. A statement was issued on the film’s social media account: “Due to market reasons, the film ‘The Hidden Sword’ has canceled its original July 19 release. Thank you for your anticipation, your attention and support!”
“The Hidden Sword” announced it wouldn’t be premiering just four days before it was due to come out. Credit: Bejing Century Media Culture
Dark comedy “The Last Wish” then missed its July 18 release date. No statement was put on their official social media but local media said it had been withdrawn for “production reasons.”
But China’s movie industry operates very differently compared to Hollywood.
Until 2018, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) was tasked with approving all film scripts and could request changes at any point during production or post-production, experts said.
At the time, Huang Kunming, head of the Publicity Department who is also a member of the Party’s decision-making Politburo, said in state-run media Xinhua that the restructuring would strengthen the party’s leadership in the sector and would improve both its ideological governing and prosperity.
CNN has reached out to the Publicity Department for comment on the four cancellations.
Films are often pulled from release, or censored, by the department with no explanation, said Tan See Kam, an associate professor of Film Studies at the University of Macao.
“(The government) is not obliged to explain or justify its decisions publicly. Coded language like ‘technical issues,’ and ‘market issues’ draws attention to actual acts of censorship, while denying the practice,” he said. “Film producers, on the other hand, would not make a fuss publicly because this could worsen the situation.”
For four major films to be censored in one month is unusual, he said.
‘Nothing is guaranteed’
The foreign film company executive said the cancellation of films like “The Eight Hundred” showed how difficult and unpredictable the film industry had become in China.
“Preparations for that movie began four or five years ago — and it obviously received approval to be made and was ready to be released,” the person said. “But the abrupt cancellation really shows that nothing is guaranteed until a move is actually shown in theaters.”
The executive said that some companies were deliberately releasing movies quietly, without much publicity, to avoid attracting attention from critics and closer scrutiny from censors after initial approvals.
Few companies appear safe from the decision to drop a film.
Both “The Eight Hundred” and “The Last Wish” were released by the Huayi Brothers, one of China’s largest and most successful production companies. They have also partly produced Western films such as “Warcraft” and “Molly’s Game.”
Macao University film expert Tan said China’s growing film industry would suffer if the unpredictable and strict censorship didn’t ease up.
“The problems Huayi Brothers face have implications for the film industry as a whole. If, for the Communist Party, politics must prevail over economics, then, for the market, politics is a hindrance to profit-making,” he said.
But, with minimal explanation offered by the companies or the government, Chinese film lovers can only wait and see if some of their most highly-anticipated movies ever make it into cinemas.