How Chinese Censorship Is Changing American Movies

I’ve written in the past about the challenges American film and television studios face in attempting to get their products into the Chinese market, and the Los Angeles Times has a blockbuster piece out about the compromises movie studios are making to win Chinese approval:

In “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,”a romantic comedy about building a dam in the Mideast, Chinese hydroelectric engineers showed off their know-how; the original book included no such characters. In Columbia Pictures’ disaster movie”2012,” the White House chief of staff extolled the Chinese as visionaries after an ark built by the country’s scientists saves civilization.

In fact, references to the Middle Kingdom are popping up with remarkable frequency in movies these days. Some are conspicuously flattering or gratuitous additions designed to satisfy Chinese business partners and court audiences in the largest moviegoing market outside the U.S. Others, filmmakers say, are simply organic reflections of the fact that China is a rising political, economic and cultural power.

Meanwhile, Chinese bad guys are vanishing — literally. Western studios are increasingly inclined to excise potentially negative references to China in the hope that the films can pass muster with Chinese censors and land one of several dozen coveted annual revenue-sharing import quota slots in Chinese cinemas.

Now, I have no complaint with certain things that can result from Hollywood being held accountable to non-American markets. If Chinese audiences want to see more Chinese characters—something the Times piece said happened with a college comedy called 21 and Over—and want to see them treated like actual people rather than stand-ins for stereotypes—Men In Black III apparently went through reshoots to avoid portrayals that were considered objectionable—that’s progress. Hollywood economics so rarely end up incentivizing progress.

But as the Times points out, it doesn’t stop there. Characters are supposed to speak Mandarin rather than Cantonese, because the Chinese government is trying to make Mandarin the uniform national tongue. Studios aren’t supposed to shoot in cities and give revenue to areas that have pockets of dissidents. They’re not supposed to promote obscenity, gambling, violence, supernaturalism, horrors, ghosts, demons, general supernaturalism, or disturbances of social order, all of which are pretty fantastic story drivers. That’s a lot of creative integrity to hand over. At some point, big talents are going to get frustrated by these restrictions. Even from a business perspective, there’s got to be a point at which it becomes difficult to satisfy both American audiences and Chinese censors. And while the Chinese government and Hollywood studios may believe that Chinese audiences will pay to see anything as long as it’s on a big screen, that is not necessarily a condition that will last forever.