In a shocking twist not unlike the ending of a Quentin Tarantino film or two, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's China box office ambitions appear to be going up in flames.
The critically acclaimed movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, had been approved for release in China on Oct. 25, but regulators have abruptly reversed course.
According to multiple sources close to the situation in Beijing, who asked not to be named because they weren't permitted to speak publicly about the matter, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's local release has been indefinitely put on hold.
The film would have been Tarantino's first proper release in China, and the country's enormous market was expected to help push the title's worldwide box office total past the $400 million mark (it has earned $366 million to date). The abrupt change-up comes as a blow to both Sony Pictures and the film's Chinese financier, Beijing-based Bona Film Group.
As The Hollywood Reporter reported exclusively in January, Bona took a sizable equity stake in Once Upon a Time, which gave the company participation in the film's worldwide box office, as well as distribution rights in Greater China. Bona's CEO Yu Dong and COO Jeffrey Chan are both prominently credited as executive producers of the film.
As is typical in China, no official explanation for the cancellation has been offered by Beijing regulators. Bona didn't reply to text messages and emails, and Sony's China office could not immediately be reached.
But the story swirling through the executive ranks of China's film industry Friday was that the decision stemmed from Tarantino's somewhat controversial portrayal of martial arts hero Bruce Lee, the only character of Chinese descent in the movie. Friends and family of the late Lee have blasted the director for the depiction, saying the real-life action star didn't behave as he's portrayed in the film.
According to sources close to Bona and China's Film Bureau, Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, made a direct appeal to China’s National Film Administration, asking that it demand changes to her father's portrayal.
Played by Mike Moh, the Lee in Sony's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is wildly cocky and claims he could have "crippled" Muhammad Ali in a fight (referred to as Cassius Clay). Pitt's character, a stuntman and former war hero named Cliff Booth, laughs in Lee's face over the comment and then the two get into a "friendly" contest of who can knock the other down three times without hitting the face. The scuffle ends before either side wins, but Pitt appears to have an edge near the end, after throwing Lee into the side of a classic car.
Sources described to THR a last-minute scramble at Bona to work with Tarantino to cut the film in time for it to be re-approved ahead of its originally planned Oct. 25 release date.
The only prior Tarantino title to come close to a proper theatrical rollout in China was his 2012 Western Django Unchained. That film also initially received permission to screen, but was bizarrely ordered pulled from cinemas across the country minutes into its opening night.
Again, no official explanation for the sudden change was ever provided, but sources said at the time that a senior Communist Party official had seen the film on opening night and took issue with its graphic violence. Django received heavy cuts and was rereleased a month later; but by then, pirate copies were widely available with Chinese subtitling. The unedited, pirated version went widely seen, but the delayed official release fizzled and promptly faded from cinemas, earning just $2.6 million.
Although Once Upon a Time's ultimate fate remains uncertain, the release drama comes at a time of rising official repression within China's media and entertainment sector.
Beijing has taken a heavy-handed approach to censoring China's own film output throughout 2019, blocking the distribution of hotly anticipated titles from some of the country's most esteemed directors, such as Zhang Yimou and Guan Hu.
On the international front, the NBA was plunged into an international crisis after Beijing took extreme umbrage with a single tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets, who expressed his support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. The uproar over the tweet briefly appeared to threaten the NBA's entire multi-billion-dollar business in China (the league and its stars' seeming capitulation to Beijing's pressure has only inspired more international outrage).
A recent episode of South Park, meanwhile, made international headlines by poking fun at Hollywood's willingness to bend over backwards to appease Chinese censors in order to maintain market access there. Beijing responded in its typical fashion, instituting an outright ban of the comedy show. South Park creator's Matt Stone and Trey Parker then responded in their own typical fashion, ridiculing the authorities with a satirical apology.