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At a time when overseas box office is crucial to movie studio coffers, there’s confusion over whether China has stopped the release of Hollywood films in that country from last Saturday to at least until February and possibly May. U.S. and UK newspapers are reporting the lockout, but Chinese film officials are denying the news stories.

According to the journalism outlets, the reasons for the ban are fourfold  — because of a trade row with the United States over pirated copies of music and movies and other issues, because American movies are proving too successful and swamping local films, and because Chinese authorities are said to be miffed over America’s continued arms sales to Taiwan and the U.S. Congress honoring the Dalai Lama.

It’s still rare for China’s main film bureau and censor, the all-powerful State Administration of Radio Film & Television (SARFT), to approve an American film for release. And the numbers of  theaters to play the pics are still limited. But the ban supposedly began last Saturday and the Asian and Chinese divisions of the major studios have not been given any release slots in the first two months of 2008.

Among the films affected are three Paramount releases: Beowulf, Bee Movie (from DreamWorks Animation) and Stardust. But that may be because the biggest movie in China this year, DreamWorks / Paramount’s Transformers, swamped local Chinese films at the theaters. There’ve been other China bans on U.S. movies:  from June 20-July 11 and from July 21-August 12 and supposedly this month as well.