Effects of Chinese Censorship on American Film

March 15, 2013

Chow Yun-Fat in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

On a mission to follow the money, Hollywood is changing the way it conducts its business. A decade ago, Russia had only a few dozen movie screens, but due to cinema goers’ demand, enough theaters have now been built that movie ticket sales in Russia exceeded the country’s population last year. That may sound impressive (and lucrative) but China, the world’s fastest growing economy and the most populous nation, is predicted to beat these numbers with its rapidly growing market for American movies. Currently, China easily adds $50 million to a Hollywood movie’s gross thanks to its 11,000 movie screens–but theater-building is expected to double by 2015. According to a recent report, Ernst & Young predicted that China’s box office for American-made movies would overtake the American market by 2020.

Hollywood is rolling in the deep, right? Yes! But that’s just part of the story. China’s government imposes a firm quota on film imports, and keeps a watchful eye on the content it permits to been seen by Chinese audiences. If a movie is perceived to be critical of the Chinese regime or paints China in a negative light, the movie will not make it through. So, when MGM remade Red Dawn with its plot featuring China as the rival superpower, China, in turn, had a problem with allowing the film into theaters. Determined to realize a full potential of profits, MGM spent a million dollars on digitally erasing the Chinese flags and symbols, modified dialogue and sequences, and changed the villains into North Koreans.

Similarly, when veteran Hong Kong actor, Chow Yun-Fat starred in the Hollywood blockbuster trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, he was edited out of the Chinese version after censors disapproved of his character. And all references to prostitution and corruption in China were edited out in the Chinese version of Skyfall. Additionally, the offensive aliens from Men in Black 3 were removed since they had disguised themselves as Chinese restaurant workers. And the list goes on.

Another solution to successfully get past Chinese censors is for film makers to make movies with pro-Chinese messages. In the tale of cataclysm , 2012, a White House staff member praises the Chinese scientists because they designed an ark that rescues mankind. Washington likewise gives Hong Kong the credit for discovering the alien origins of earth’s attackers in Battleship.

Some have complained that these modifications are illustrating a golden portrait of China to the the US as well as the world’s movie-going market, asserting a need for China to be seen more realistically: including some content containing human rights abuses and a repressive republic. Surely the US has had its share of self-promoting films; but anti-American movies, as well films that focus on our flaws, are likewise allowed to be created, viewed in theaters, and distributed across the globe.

Well, American filmmakers can’t make movies without you actors.  So what’s your take on this situation? If you or your cast mate were edited out of a movie to increase the profits in China, would that rub you the wrong way, or would you just chalk it up American capitalism? Certainly there’s much to be admired about China’s rich and remarkable culture, history, and people. But would you think twice if you were cast in a film that gives nothing but high praise to China, particularly if it ignored social and political matters close to your heart? Or is filmmaking primarily entertainment and independent of political concerns? It’s something to think about as the global market is changing at light speed.