Just like the aliens at the heart of its story, the blockbuster film Avatar faced a forced eviction in China.

James Cameron’s film, although hugely popular and running to packed houses here, was forced out of many cinemas two weeks ago on the government’s orders. The reason: to make way for a State-sanctioned, patriotism-themed biopic of Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC), a revered figure from China’s past.

What the authorities did not expect, two weeks on, was that cinema-goers here would overwhelmingly plump for a futuristic Hollywood action film over a government-supported tribute to Chinese history.

While Avatar continues to run to packed theatres here, Confucius has found far fewer takers, and has failed to bring theatre-owners comparable returns. “We had to give Avatar five theatres to meet demand at peak hours,” said Li Xianping, general manager of Beijing Ziguang Cinema, which runs 10 screens. “But for Confucius, two theatres have been enough so far,” he told State-run Xinhua news agency.

In recent weeks, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), China’s film regulatory authority, has found itself in an unusual position, and facing a tricky balancing act, between addressing the commercial interests of cinema houses and following the ruling Communist Party’s long-standing policy to support patriotic domestic films.

Pressure

But now, under increasing pressure from theatre-owners, it appears that SARFT, in a rare move, has reconsidered its decision. In recent days, some theatres in Beijing said they have been given permission to continue screening successful Avatar beyond its prescribed limit, and at the expense of Confucius, although there has been no official word from SARFT.

As of Saturday, at least two cinema houses in Beijing were still screening Avatar, indicating a possible change in policy, for the first time putting theatre-owners’ business interests above the Communist Party’s directives to promote domestic films, particularly patriotic ones.

China’s censorship laws limit only 20 foreign films every year for public screening, and each film can only run in cinemas for a fixed period of time.

Zhang Hongsen, the vice director of SARFT’s film bureau, said earlier this month that Avatar would be phased out of all 2-D screens in China to make way for Confucius, although it would continue to be screened in a limited number of 3-D cinemas. Mr. Zhang described the move as a “normal” commercial decision, in line with State policy to support domestic films.

However, crossing $100 million in earnings, Avatar has been the most successful ever film in China, and has far out-performed Confucius at the box-office.

Cinema-goers have been drawn to the film largely for its spectacular special effects, but critics here have also pointed to the resonance its plot-line has had for many Chinese given its parallels with the land conflicts common in many of China’s cities. Home demolitions and seizures of land by the government are regarded as the biggest source of unrest in China, and are a sensitive issue for the authorities.

Avatar’s removal from some cinemas brought an unexpected wave of criticism directed against the government, from both local media and thousands of Internet users. Many bloggers even called for a boycott of Confucius to protest State interference.

Raymond Zhou, a columnist at the State-run China Daily newspaper, said the fading relevance Confucius holds for young Chinese was part of the reason for the film’s relatively weaker performance, but a reaction against State interference was another.

“The wave of anti-Confucius sentiment following the removal of Avatar from 2D screens reveals a backlash against official manoeuvring,” he said. “But just like our parents, [Confucius] has been made so preachy that he has become a symbol of authoritarianism, someone to be rebelled against and overcome.”