Carefully Crafted Narratives
Fear of rejection prompts Hollywood filmmakers to portray China in a positive light
Box office hits won’t be the only ones breaking records in the upcoming months.
Analysts predict that for the first time, China will move into the No. 1 spot as the country with the highest-grossing box office sales, according to The Hollywood Reporter magazine. By the end of 2020, China’s movie sales were expected to take the lead at U.S. $12.28 billion compared to U.S. $11.93 billion in the United States.
Projections call for China to dominate in the category for the foreseeable future. “That means it’s key for Hollywood studios to do all they can to ensure that their tentpoles can pass the standards of the country’s strict censors,” according to Axios.com.
Chinese censors have always had a tight grip on media it allows into its mainland cinemas and across social media platforms. Growing economic influence in the film industry means the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will likely exercise even greater control over storylines that involve China.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) allows only 34 foreign films a year to be shown in the nation’s theaters, and each must obtain approval from censors, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, according to The Epoch Times newspaper. Foreign film studios earn only 25% of box office profits in China, but if the film is co-produced with a Chinese company, the foreign studio can keep closer to 50% of profits, The Epoch Times reported.
Generating more profits comes at a cost. Foreign studios that elect for co-production often must shoot scenes in China, cast Chinese actors, allow Chinese investors and portray the Chinese government with positive images, according to The Epoch Times.
These censorship controls also extend to video games. Take for example the game Devotion, which was only available for one week in early 2019 on the gaming network Steam before the PRC asserted its influence.
Indievent, the China-based company that had published Devotion, pulled the game from Steam after Chinese players discovered and complained about an image that referenced General Secretary Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh, a controversial comparison of the CCP leader to the Disney character.
Chinese authorities would later revoke Indievent’s business license, according to Engadget.com. In the aftermath, Devotion’s creator, Taiwan-based developer Red Candle, issued a letter apologizing. Red Candle also lost its account on Weibo, one of China’s largest social media platforms.
“This is Chinese censorship in action,” according to an August 2019 article on Engadget.com. “After two years of intense upheaval in the Chinese video-game market, with new laws restricting creative freedoms and gigantic companies like Tencent gaining traction across the globe, China today has enormous influence over the trajectory of the entire industry.”
When it comes to movies, many U.S. films do receive approval for release by Chinese censors. That stamp of approval, however, often means filmmakers have had to tone down scenes involving violence and sex. More often, it means crafting narratives that align politically with the CCP’s paradigm. Here is a sampling of how Hollywood has adjusted plotlines to win CCP approval or was rejected because studio executives refused to kowtow to censor demands.
MOVIE: TOP GUN (2020)
PLOT CHANGE: The 1986 classic Top Gun features main character Maverick, portrayed by actor Tom Cruise, a standout student at the U.S. Navy’s elite fighter weapons school. In the original film, Maverick wears a leather jacket with a large patch that reads, “Far East Cruise 63-4, USS Galveston.” The patch commemorates the U.S. battleship’s tour of Japan, Taiwan and the Western Pacific and therefore included the U.S., United Nations, Japan and Taiwan flags. The 2020 remake “reimagines” Maverick’s jacket and strips away the Japan and Taiwan flags, replacing them with unidentifiable look-alikes, according to Business Insider.
Tencent Pictures, the film division of Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent, co-financed the remake, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Tencent is also part owner of Skydance, which co-produced the movie with Paramount.
WHY IT MATTERS: The PRC has battled Japan for regional influence, particularly in the past decade as the PRC has used checkbook diplomacy to buy influence. Until Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to China in October 2018, it had been eight years since a Japanese leader made a state visit to the PRC. Having the financial influence to erase any mention of Japan in a movie destined to be popular among Chinese audiences would be well within the PRC’s purview as a power move. The tensions between the CCP and Taiwan are even more palpable. The CCP views Taiwan as part of its territory and rejects any claims or representations that portray Taiwan as an independent country.
MOVIE: ABOMINABLE (2019)
PLOT CHANGE: China-based Pearl Studio spent a year working with DreamWorks Animation to craft a version of the animated movie Abominable that Chinese censors would approve for release. Pearl Studio worked to change jokes and character backstories, according to Business Insider.
Perhaps the biggest show of Chinese influence is in a scene depicting a map of East Asia with lines marking China’s nine-dash line, pictured, in the South China Sea. Abominable was the first film co-produced between the U.S. company DreamWorks and China’s Pearl Studio, according to Business Insider. The nine-dash line has no mention in the film’s plot, and no reason has been given for its inclusion.
WHY IT MATTERS: The South China Sea is a strategically important body of water. The PRC has built artificial features in and around the contested area in an attempt to subvert competing claims to resources. Malaysia refused to allow the film’s release unless the map was removed. Vietnam officials pulled the film. In the Philippines, officials called for a boycott. The PRC continues to have competing claims with several countries in the region regarding the South China Sea. In July 2016, an international tribunal ruled against China’s nine-dash line expansive claims to the sea, including within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Beijing has rejected the ruling, which lacks an enforcement mechanism.
MOVIE: DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
PLOT CHANGE: The original comic book storyline for Doctor Strange contains a character called the Ancient One, a peaceful farmer born in Kamar-Taj, a village in a hidden land in the Himalayas now known as Tibet. The Marvel Studios movie adaptation cast British actress Tilda Swinton, pictured in the movie’s poster, for the role, thereby allowing the storyline to skirt any mention of Tibet.
WHY IT MATTERS: The CCP and its army occupied Tibet in 1951, and many non-Chinese believe that Tibet should have independence or greater autonomy, according to The New York Times newspaper. “He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you … risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political,’” Doctor Strange movie writer C. Robert Cargill explained in an April 2016 podcast on DoubleToasted.com about the decision to change the ethnicity of the Ancient One.
MOVIE: IRON MAN 3 (2013)
PLOT CHANGE: Iron Man 3 audiences in China saw bonus scenes not shown outside the country. In fact, an extra four minutes of product placement were added to the Marvel film, which Marvel Studios collaborated with Chinese distributor DMG Entertainment to produce, according to Business Insider. The New York Times newspaper reported that one addition to the Chinese version includes the film opening with the question: “What does Iron Man rely on to revitalize his energy?” The answer appears with the words Gu Li Duo, the brand of a milk drink in China. In 2012, the drink’s manufacturer removed baby formula from shelves because it was tainted with mercury; the Chinese government later began a campaign to reassure parents that the company’s milk was indeed safe, according to Business Insider. Other exclusives in the Chinese version include Chinese schoolchildren cheering with Iron Man, product placement of Chinese electronics and the use of Chinese medicine to aid Iron Man, according to Business Insider.
WHY IT MATTERS: Chinese box offices yield big profits. Just as Iron Man 3 was scheduled to debut, China overtook Japan as the second largest box-office market in the world after the U.S., according to the entertainment news site Vulture.com. That gives China a growing economic voice when it comes to Hollywood movies. It also potentially places even more pressure on filmmakers to partner with Chinese companies and bow to their requirements of pro-Chinese narratives.
MOVIE: PIXELS (2015)
PLOT CHANGE: A 2013 script for Sony’s animated comedy Pixels included a scene in which intergalactic aliens blast a hole into China’s Great Wall.
“Even though breaking a hole on the Great Wall may not be a problem as long as it is part of a worldwide phenomenon, it is actually unnecessary because it will not benefit the China release at all. I would then, recommend not to do it,” Li Chow, chief representative of Sony Pictures in China, wrote in a December 2013 email to senior Sony executives, according to Reuters. Sony executives — anxious to have the movie released in China — obliged, Reuters reported. Instead of blasting a hole in the Great Wall, aliens strike India’s Taj Mahal, the Washington Monument and parts of New York City.
WHY IT MATTERS: Li’s email was one of tens of thousands of confidential Sony emails and documents hacked and released to the public in late 2014. Chinese government officials and film industry executives refused to comment on them, according to Reuters. The documents revealed multiple discussions on ways Sony could change other productions to make them more palatable to Chinese authorities to secure approval from censors.
“The Sony emails provide a behind-the-scenes picture of the extent to which one of the world’s leading movie studios exercised self-censorship as its executives tried to anticipate how authorities in Beijing might react to their productions,” according to Reuters. “The internal message traffic also illustrates the deepening dependence of Hollywood on audiences in China.”
The removal of the Great Wall scene in Pixels shows how global audiences are being subjected to standards set by China, Reuters reported, “whose government rejects the kinds of freedoms that have allowed Hollywood to flourish.”
MOVIE: WORLD WAR Z (2013)
PLOT CHANGE: Author Max Brooks deliberately chose China as ground zero for his 2006 novel World War Z.
“In my zombie apocalypse novel, cases of a mysterious new disease start showing up somewhere in China. The government responds by suppressing news of the infection, threatening several doctors who try to sound the alarm. That coverup allows the virus to spread throughout the country, and then beyond its borders to the rest of the world,” Brooks wrote in a February 2020 opinion piece titled, “China barred my dystopian
novel about how its system enables epidemics,” for The Washington Post
newspaper. “Sound familiar?”
Brooks goes on to say he chose the PRC for a reason. “When I was thinking up an origin story for my fictional pandemic, it wasn’t enough to choose a country with a massive population or a rapidly modernizing transportation network. I needed an authoritarian regime with strong control over the press. Smothering public awareness would give my plague time to spread, first among the local population, then into other nations. By the time the rest of the world figured out what was going on, it would be too late. The genie would be out of the bottle, and our species would be fighting for its life.”
In an uncanny turn of events, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as life imitating art.
The PRC banned the book, and people Brooks identified only as “collaborators overseas” asked him to remove any chapters about China because they contained politically sensitive material. He refused.
Brad Pitt portrayed the lead character in the 2013 film adaptation of the same name. Unlike Brooks, Paramount executives elected to avoid pointing to China as the origin of the outbreak that causes the zombie apocalypse.
WHY IT MATTERS: Some critics say that mention of China being the origin of the outbreak in the film would have been a minor point in the story arc. This demonstrates that even the smallest negative detail will cause Chinese censors to reject a film. Others also point to the lasting effect of participating in a project disapproved of by China. Pitt starred in the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet. China banned the movie, and some say Pitt because of his participation.
MOVIE: RED DAWN (2012)
PLOT CHANGE: The original script for 2012’s Red Dawn, a remake of the 1984 film, called for Chinese troops
to invade the United States. Once backlash from CCP-controled media ensued, movie producers at MGM made North Korean troops
Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, published two editorials blasting Hollywood as “demonizing” and “planting hostile seeds against China,” DailyMail.com reported. The 1984 film centers on an invasion by the Soviet army.
MGM reportedly spent U.S. $1 million going frame by frame to digitally alter Chinese symbols and replace them with North Korean emblems.
“While the Communist nation is notorious for its nuclear capabilities, Hollywood big wigs evidently figured that it is better to incur the wrath of the pariah of the Far East rather than alienate the region’s economic juggernaut,” DailyMail.com reported at the time of the film’s release.
Due to mounting criticism, Red Dawn was shelved for two years after its completion, and the film declared bankruptcy before ultimately changing its central storyline.
“While changing Chinese symbols into Korean ones was just a matter of a few — albeit expensive — clicks of the keyboard,” DailyMail.com wrote, “the choice of the new baddies raises some important questions: Why and how would a nation of 24 million starving people cross the ocean to invade a nation of 313 million well-armed and well-fed Americans?”
Actor C. Thomas Howell, who starred in the 1984 version, mocked the remake’s changes in an interview with USA Today newspaper.
“Quite frankly, we all know North Korea cannot afford to invade [itself],” Howell said. “How is that going to happen? That’s already stupid in my book.”
WHY IT MATTERS: International collaborations can come with strings attached and certain concessions — an expensive lesson that producers of Red Dawn learned as the filmmaking process unfolded. “When we made the movie, it was very different circumstances,” an unnamed MGM insider told entertainment news site Vulture.com. “We were owned by a hedge fund, and we could do what we liked.”
The studio went bankrupt before the movie’s release. Sony Pictures took over distribution and its relationships with China came into play, Vulture.com reported. “The truth of it is,” another unnamed MGM insider told Vulture, “no company that’s multinational can afford to piss off the Chinese.”