Coming soon to a theater near you: China’s Communist Party.
From demanding changes in plot lines that denigrate the Chinese leadership, to dampening lurid depictions of sex and violence, Beijing is having increasing success in pressuring Hollywood into deleting movie content Beijing finds objectionable.
It’s even getting American studios to sanction alternative versions of films specially tailored for Chinese audiences, including Iron Man 3, which debuts in theaters around the world later this week.
The Chinese version features local heartthrob Fan Bingbing – absent from the version showing abroad – and lengthy clips of Chinese scenery that local audiences love.
There’s no secret to what’s driving Hollywood’s China policy, which has burst on the scene with meteor-like intensity in the past year. Already the second-biggest box office in the world, China seems set to surpass the U.S./Canada market by 2020 at the latest.
And with traditional movie funding sources drying up, Hollywood studios increasingly see Beijing as a bankrolling destination of choice, with Chinese counterparts ponying up on glitzy co-productions, including Iron Man 3 and next year’s Transformers 4, and films without a direct China connection as well.
Movie attendance in the U.S. is down because of global piracy and audience indifference, said Los Angeles-based film historian Leonard Maltin. So the explosion of the China market is a boon to the industry. I’m sure the studios are not excited about making the China-inspired changes, but they’re in the business to make a buck and they’re finding it hard to resist.
Published reports have pinpointed at least a half dozen recent films where Hollywood has given in on demands from Chinese censors to alter content for political or other reasons, ranging from the James Bond feature Skyfall – where unflattering references to the sex trade in the Chinese territory of Macau supposedly landed on the cutting room floor – to World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, in which the Chinese origin of a plague of apocalyptic zombies was said to have been excised.
And that doesn’t take into account ostensible instances of self-censoring, like last year’s remake of the 1984 film Red Dawn, where producers changed the nationality of bloodthirsty soldiers invading the United States from Chinese to North Korean, apparently to cater to their perception of Chinese political sensitivities.
The American film industry is extremely reluctant to discuss the China concessions Hollywood is making, and the industry’s main lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association of America, tries to portray the practice in the best light.
The adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognize China’s right to determine what content enters their country, said MPAA spokesman Howard Gantman in an email.
There’s no question that China is very sensitive to its image, said Stanley Rosen, an expert on the Chinese film industry and director of UCLA’s East Asian Studies Center. And as it has become richer over the past several years it’s been in a position to do something about it.