If "Skyfall" is going to make it to a billion dollars at the worldwide box office, it will need to score big in China. But six weeks after it opened globally, Chinese officials still haven't told Sony when it can roll out its James Bond blockbuster in Beijing.
The most likely landing spot for "Skyfall" is late January, which would enable it to play through the Golden Week holiday in China, exhibition insiders tell TheWrap. But the China Film Group, which oversees the country's movie industry, has yet to confirm a date.
The period around Golden Week, which marks the Chinese Lunar New Year and begins Feb. 9 in 2013, is important because many workers and students take time off.
Also awaiting a date is Warner Bros.' "The Hobbit." Although no Chinese release of Peter Jackson's latest Middle-earth epic has been scheduled yet, that film doesn't even open in the U.S. until Friday.
A worst-case scenario would see the two forced to go head-to-head. More likely, though, is that "The Hobbit" will open after Golden Week.
"Skyfall" also could wind up opening around the same time as "Cloud Atlas," another film awaiting a date confirmation. That film, which likely will play before the holiday, is distributed by the Chinese company Dreams of Dragon Picture and expected to play strongly throughout Asia.
There are no censorship issues for either "The Hobbit" or "Skyfall" -- and both films eventually will open -- but studio executives, who declined to comment to TheWrap, have to be a little wary.
Chinese officials are increasingly aware of their growing stature in the global box-office realm, and this year they've become more protective than ever of their domestic film industry. To reduce the impact of American movies, they've slotted U.S. films against each other, grouped releases and imposed brief moratoriums to boost the local entries in the market.
The Chinese market uncertainty won't be going away anytime soon, David McGregor, head of Ernst & Young's media and entertainment group for Asia and the Pacific, told TheWrap.
"For now, it's just part of the process that has to be managed," he said from Australia, days after returning from a Shanghai conference designed to bring Chinese and American executives together.
"When it comes to film releasing, as it does to just about every aspect of doing business in China, it comes down to relationships. At this point, those relationships are developing, and it will be tricky until the trust factor is established on both sides."
The payoff for U.S. studios is a big one.
Warner Bros.’ “Dark Knight Rises” and Sony’s “Amazing Spider-Man” both opened in China on Aug. 27. That cut their grosses, but China still became the No. 1 foreign market for both films, with “Dark Knight Rises” taking in $52 million and “Spider-Man” taking in $48 million. Fox released "Life of Pi" there three weeks ago, and it's already taken in $68 million.
“Skyfall,” which stars Daniel Craig, has a good shot at becoming the first Bond movie to hit the billion-dollar mark at the box office. But it will need strong performances in China and Japan -- where it has taken in more than $13 million since opening two weeks ago -- to get there.
The film has made more at the box office than any of the 22 previous James Bond films, with $918 million globally since opening on Oct. 26. The majority of that -- $656 million -- has come from overseas.
Under a new trade agreement reached in February, China is allowing U.S. companies to release an additional 14 films a year if they are 3D or in big-screen formats like Imax. That brings the total number of U.S. films released in the country annually to 34. The pact also raised the U.S. studios' share of the box office from 13 percent to 25 percent.