"The American studios are getting more movies into China ... but on the other hand there are these new constraints occurring," said Steven Saltzman, a Loeb & Loeb partner with extensive experience in China. "One shouldn't be surprised, however, because this is a market where noncommercial considerations, including political ones, matter greatly."

In Hollywood, China's decision-making process on whether and when to release an imported movie has long been mystifying.

Companies that desire to have their movies distributed in China submit them to SARFT several months before their U.S. launch date in hopes of getting permission to open there and an optimum release date.

"The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Lorax" and "Ice Age" were cleared by government censors and given a coveted quota slot relatively quickly. The studios then waited — half a year in the case of "The Lorax" — until officials from the China Film Group, part of SARFT, informed them they would be opening against competitive Hollywood pictures. China Film refused to provide an explanation to the studios for its decision.

Hollywood executives with China experience were shocked. None could recall two quota films ever opening against each other, let alone similar ones.

There is no official appeals process, and unofficial lobbying efforts by studio representatives in Beijing were unsuccessful. The Motion Picture Assn. of America, Hollywood's trade organization, has been similarly unable to persuade Chinese authorities to change their policies.

The studios' only recourse would appear to be withholding future releases from China, cutting off a growing revenue stream in an increasingly important foreign movie market. Spokespeople for the MPAA and several Hollywood studios declined to comment. People familiar with the thinking of studio executives said they were fearful that speaking publicly on the matter would antagonize Chinese authorities and lead to further punitive measures.

"While there has been change in the way China handles American movies, it has been and will remain incremental for the foreseeable future," said Saltzman. "To expect otherwise is an unsophisticated approach in this market."

Fritz and Horn reported from Los Angeles. Pierson reported from Beijing.

Niole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

ben.fritz@latimes.com

john.horn@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com