'Spidey 3' to China first

Sequel arrives day before N. American debut

"Spider-Man 3" will premiere in China on May 3, the day before it opens in North America, China's top overseas film import official said Thursday. The move is designed to secure a strong opening at the boxoffice before pirated copies have a chance to flood the market.

Yuan Wenqiang, president of state-run China Film Group's Film Import & Export Corp., said that releasing Columbia Pictures' "Spider-Man 3" in China first — during the peak moviegoing season around the weeklong national holiday that kicks off May 1 — is a testament to the growing importance of China's theatergoers in the eyes of Hollywood.

"It will be almost a day-and-date release because of the time difference, but China will see 'Spider-Man' first," Yuan said. Increasingly, Hollywood studios choose to release big films in China on or near their worldwide premiere dates to stem losses from piracy that increase the longer a film is in theaters.

As international day-and-date releases have taken hold, the openings for U.S. films in China have been steadily moving closer to simultaneous release, rather than trailing their U.S. opening dates by months. Several films — including such titles as "The Interpretor," "Star Wars — Episode III: Return of the Sith," "The Legend of Zorro" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" — have opened on the same date in the U.S. and China.

Near-simultaneous releases in China can result in greater profits at the boxoffice, especially for the China Film Group, which not only is the sole legal importer of overseas films but also has control of the country's largest distribution company. MPA statistics show that of all the optical discs sold in China, about 93% are illegal. Despite government crackdowns, pirated DVDs of first-run movies are widely available on China's streets for less than $1 each.

The move also is a first for Sony Pictures Releasing International, president of distribution Mark Zucker said. He stressed, however, that the film will in fact be released on a day-and-date around the world.

"It's opening the whole world on the same weekend," he said. "It's not just China. … It's true that some territories will open before America. In Japan we are opening on May 1. We (continue) to see many territories opening on the same weekend. But in terms of China, it's probably the first time."

The original "Spider-Man," which dominated the U.S. boxoffice in 2002, grossed 43 million yuan ($5.5 million) in China that year. "Spider-Man 2" made 55 million yuan ($7.1 million) at China's boxoffice in 2004.

Yuan, whose company is China's only licensed importer of the 40 overseas films allowed to screen theatrically each year, would not say whether "Spider-Man 3" will be edited by the censor board at the China Film Bureau, but he confirmed that the Film Bureau had approved the import. Only 20 overseas films each year can share in a percentage of their own boxoffice receipts. "Spider-Man 3" will be one of those films.

Yuan also said it was too early to say how many prints of "Spider-Man 3" would be made for China, subtitles and all.

MPA data shows that Columbia, along with other MPA member studios, lost $244 million in potential sales in China in 2005. Their Chinese counterparts lost $2.5 billion to piracy in the same period.

Steve Brennan in Los Angeles contributed to this report