Hollywood bows to China censors
Coming soon to a theatre 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 it finds objectionable.
It's even getting American studios to sanction alternative versions of films specially tailored for Chinese audiences, like Iron Man 3, which has debuted in theatres around the world. The Chinese version featured 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 seemed set to surpass the US/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, as well as films without a direct China connection.
"Movie attendance in the US 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 possible light.
"The adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognise China's right to determine what content enters their country," said MPAA spokesman Howard Gantman in an email.
"Overall, our members make films for global audiences and audience's tastes and demands evolve and our members respond to those changes. But we also stand for maximum creative rights for artists."
China's economic and political clout is immense - successive years of GDP growth rates around 8-10 per cent have made its economy the second largest in the world - and the country's communist masters seem obsessed by the way Beijing is perceived abroad.
"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 the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
"And as it has become richer over the past several years it's been in a position to do something about it."
Rosen said the ultimate arbiter of what makes it onto the screen of China's 12,000 movie theatres is a board of 30 to 40 censors under Communist Party control, representing different constituencies in Chinese society - women, for example, or the military.
He said that while there were some indications the board was becoming slightly more liberal - last year's showing on Chinese television of the 2005 political adventure V for Vendetta was seen as a notable step forward - it remains beholding to sensitivities that makes its decisions sometimes hard to fathom.
That was underscored when Chinese theatres in April pulled Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained at the last minute, despite widespread reports that Tarantino had bowed to censors' demands by dampening the film's violence. China said only that the film's screening had been halted for "technical reasons" without elaborating what that meant.
The censors have now given approval for the film to be released, with some nude scenes cut (the violence, apparently, was fine).
Nitin Govil, a specialist in Asian cinema at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, said instances like this were especially unnerving to the American film industry, because they underscored the problems of dealing with the seeming caprices of China's censorship bureaucracy.
"Hollywood really doesn't have a problem with Chinese censorship," he said.
"The problem it has is with Chinese unpredictability."
- AP with Fairfax Media