'Ghostbusters' Denied Release in China

Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Melissa McCarthy in 'Ghostbusters'

China has been known to ban movies involving ghosts because of an obscure censorship guideline, but sources say the rationale behind not releasing the Sony reboot is much more straightforward.

After months of debate, anticipation and heavy marketing, Paul Fieg's all-female Ghostbusters reboot has finally arrived.

But the world's most populous nation — and No. 2 film market — won't be joining the fun anytime soon. The Sony tentpole has been denied a release in China, sources close to the decision-making process in Beijing tell The Hollywood Reporter.

China's official censorship guidelines technically prohibit movies that "promote cults or superstition" — a holdover from the Communist Party's secular ideology — and the country's regulators occasionally have been known to use this obscure provision as rationale for banning films that feature ghosts or supernatural beings in a semi-realistic way (Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest suffered such a fate in 2006, thanks to its depictions of ghouls and cannibalism).

Ever since Feig's reboot went into production, industry watchers have wondered what stance China's film authorities might take on the movie.

Speculation only increased this spring, when it was revealed that the Chinese character for "ghost" had been removed from the reboot's Chinese title, even though it appears in the local names for the original films.

The original Bill Murray-starring 1984 classic, which never screened theatrically in China, was translated as "捉鬼敢死队," five characters literally meaning "Ghost Catcher Dare Die Team." The sequels followed suit. The reboot, however, has been reworked as "超能敢死队," meaning "Super Power Dare Die Team."

Many guessed that Sony made the adjustment in hopes of finessing the film into China's strictly regulative but increasingly lucrative theatrical market.

But sources close to China Film Co., the dominant state-owned film body that handles the import and release of all foreign movies in the country, tell THR that censorship wasn't the determinative issue.

"It's been confirmed that Ghostbusters won't be coming to China, because they think it's not really that attractive to Chinese audiences," says one Chinese executive. "Most of the Chinese audience didn't see the first and second movies, so they don't think there's much market for it here."

Sony isn't commenting, but a Hollywood source with knowledge of the situation says the film hasn't been officially submitted for approval by Chinese regulators.

The new Ghostbusters stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones in roles similar to the paranormal investigators previously played by Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis in the '80s films. Many members of the original cast make cameos in the reboot, including Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson, Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts.

The Chinese box office has become an increasingly important piece of the international distribution map for the big six Hollywood studios. The biggest Hollywood films in China in the first half of this year were Disney's Zootopia at $235.5 million, Legendary Entertainment's Warcraft with $221 million and Marvel/Disney's Captain America: Civil War with $190.4 million.

Sony's Ghostbusters had a net production budget of $144 million (rebates and tax incentives brought it down from $154 million). Box-office observers are predicting a wide range for the film's opening performance this weekend — anywhere from $38 million to $50 million.  

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