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BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Wednesday denied that it was forcing the box office smash "Avatar" off local cinema screens, saying a move to take down the 2D version was a commercial decision and that the 3D version would still be shown.
Chinese media have speculated that James Cameron's sci-fi spectacular, which has grossed more than $1.6 billion worldwide, had been pulled to make way for domestic movies over the upcoming Chinese new year holiday, including a biopic on philosopher Confucius.
Many Chinese theatres will pull the 2D version of "Avatar" from Friday to make way for "Confucius," though the wildly popular 3D version will still be available.
"Avatar" has already earned more than 300 million yuan ($43.94 million) at the Chinese box office.
"Whether a movie closes or not, it's a market behavior decision," an official at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television told Reuters. "The government will not interfere."
The regulator's deputy chief, Zhang Hongsen, went further in comments quoted by Chinese media.
"The box office performance of the 2D version has not been great, whereas it's been really hard to get tickets for the 3D version," Zhang said. "So it's normal to take the 2D version off the screens. There'll be no change for the 3D version."
"Avatar" is already widely available on pirated DVDs in China.
Studio Twentieth Century Fox said they hoped audiences would still be able to see the film at the cinema.
"As of today, January 19, 'Avatar' is still playing in cinemas nationwide in China. Twentieth Century Fox hopes that cinema-goers in China will continue to have the opportunity to see this film, which has been enthusiastically embraced by audiences there and throughout the world," it said in a statement.
Zhang did admit that perhaps there was a connection with the new Confucius movie, staring Hong Kong's Chow Yun-fat and mainland Chinese actress Zhou Xun.
"Perhaps it's because that 'Confucius' is just coming out, but 'Confucius' has no 3D version, so there ought not to be any conflict," Zhang said.
"Confucius" has received only tepid reviews in the Chinese press.
There is an unwritten rule in China that at certain times of the year, such as the Spring Festival or National Day in October, Chinese movies have to be given precedence at the theater.
China allows only 20 foreign movies every year to be shown on the big screen, but widespread piracy means that even the most sensitive films can be bought for around $1 on the street, irrespective of any official ban.
Reporting by Yu Le and Ben Blanchard, and Bob Tourtellotte in Los Angeles, editing by Miral Fahmy