BEIJING – A Beijing audience became the first to see "The Da Vinci Code" when it was shown here Wednesday, beating the official Cannes premiere by hours in a move that underscored Hollywood's efforts to woo Chinese viewers.
"Da Vinci" is being given the widest release yet for a foreign film in China, with some 393 prints sent to theaters, breaking the record of 380 prints set by "King Kong" last year, said Li Chow, general manager in Beijing for distributor Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International and Sony Pictures Entertainment
Some Christians in India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand have protested the film or expressed concern about its content. They say they fear the movie, based on the premise that Jesus married and fathered children, may sour the image of their religion in a region where it is overshadowed by Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
Complaints prompted India's government to put a temporary hold on the release of the movie — scheduled for Friday — although it has been cleared by the national censor board. A final decision on the movie's release could come early Friday. Joseph Dias, head of the country's Catholic Secular Forum, is on a hunger strike in downtown Bombay.
Groups in Thailand persuaded local censors to release an edited version of the film, but the censors later reversed their position.
Opus Dei, the Rome-based conservative Catholic movement depicted as a murderous cult in "The Da Vinci Code," was hosting a daylong public relations campaign Wednesday to counter what it says is an offensive portrait of Christianity, the Catholic Church and Opus Dei itself.
A group of Greek theologians, lawyers and judges said they will attend their country's premiere of the film to consider possible legal action against theaters that screen it.
Even though Li said Cannes is still considered the "official worldwide premiere," China's head start on the movie electrified the state-run media. The Beijing News declared: "China to be the first with Beijing premiere of 'Da Vinci Code."'
In its China debut, the film started at 9 p.m. at the upscale Oriental Plaza Mall in downtown Beijing, about four hours before the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France. Reaction among journalists at the first press screening, on Tuesday night in Cannes, ranged from halfhearted admiration to boredom to derision.
To prevent illegal copies of the movie from leaking out, security guards barred audience members from carrying large bags into the theater, and ushers used metal detectors to ensure no one was bringing in video cameras.
While China accounts for a small fraction of Hollywood's global earnings, American filmmakers are eagerly courting the Chinese market, where box office sales hit a record in China last year, reaching $247 million.
Four of the top 10 moneymakers were foreign.
Last year, U.S. studios included Chinese cities in the simultaneous worldwide releases of the latest "Harry Potter" film and "Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith."
Hollywood hopes such special treatment will attract viewers, and discourage the rampant illegal copying of movies in China, by giving audiences a chance to see the real thing before pirated DVD copies reach the market.
Foreign studios also hope that the attention will encourage the government to allow more co-productions and ease limits on the imports of foreign titles, said Wang Ran, chief executive of China eCapital Corp., a Beijing media consulting firm.
Under current regulations, only 20 foreign movies per year are allowed to share in Chinese box office revenues.
China has seen little of the controversy that "The Da Vinci Code" has elicited elsewhere. Debates have been limited and Catholics are a small minority, though some are upset about the movie.
A Catholic newspaper in the northern city of Shijiazhuang will run an editorial this week calling on Catholics to boycott the film.
Government officials who monitor religious affairs have not spoken out against the film, and Li said it was approved without cuts by China's censors on March 27.
"I think it's going to be less controversial in China because obviously religions don't have much influence in China as they do elsewhere," said Wang.