In the science fiction movie Looper, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a character who makes a living thanks to the invention of time travel. When gangs want to kill someone, they send him back in time to be executed by grunts like Gordon-Levitt.
The time-travel-execution-business pays well. In the film, Gordon-Levitt’s character is learning French and saving his money so that he can move to Paris. But his boss, who is of course from the future, does not recommend it.
“Go to China,” he tells Gordon-Levitt. When Gordon-Levitt protests, he adds, “I’m from the future, go to China.”
It’s a funny line. It’s also the direct result of Chinese censorship.
We tend to understand censorship through a national lense. When it comes to Hollywood movies, however, the desire to pursue business in a censored country means that one nation’s rules can be enforced beyond its borders.
China’s movie audience is growing. It will soon be the largest movie market in the world, but it is guarded by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. And that fact is increasingly—and subtly—changing the content of Hollywood movies and influencing the stories that filmmakers choose to tell.
Every Hollywood studio worries about whether the Chinese government will allow its films to play in China’s theaters. Not doing so risks missing out on as much as hundreds of millions of dollars in box office revenue.
Twenty-five years ago, the Chinese film market was throttled by the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship, which only sanctioned propaganda. Theaters did not show American blockbusters until 1994, when the government relaxed its rules and allowed The Fugitive to play in Chinese theaters.
Recently the Chinese movie market has grown by leaps and bounds while the size of the American market has stagnated. China may eclipse America as the largest movie market by 2018, and for movies that do well in China, the rewards are great. The latest Fast and the Furious movie, Furious 7, made more from the Chinese box office than from American theaters. It’s common for blockbusters to gross more overseas than in the United States, and China is the largest overseas market.
Box Office Receipts in China and the United States
As in the case for many American businesses, however, filmmakers can’t always reach the Chinese market. (Just ask Mark Zuckerberg, who has learned Mandarin, praised President Xi Jinping, and met with China’s top propaganda official in an effort to get Facebook unblocked in China.)
This is partially a matter of protectionist trade policies—something the United States and China regularly spar over at the World Trade Organization. To aid Chinese filmmakers, the government caps the number of foreign films that can play in Chinese theaters at 34 each year. It also requires foreign studios to partner with Chinese companies—a move that allows Chinese filmmakers to earn a share of the Chinese box office take and to learn from Hollywood studios.
It’s also a question of censorship. In China, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television must approve any movie before it can be screened. The 37-person committee, as noted in the U.S. government report “Directed by Hollywood, Edited by China”, has a mandate to ban all movies that are “anti-China.” It’s headed by a member of the Communist Party who worked for 10 years as the deputy director of Beijing’s propaganda department.
In the case of Looper, the filmmakers originally intended for the protagonist to go to Paris. But in order to access the Chinese market, the producers signed a co-production deal with a Chinese company that was contingent on switching the setting from Paris to Shanghai. The Chinese censors probably liked that the movie portrayed China, in the near future, as a more attractive place than France; they have balked at scenes that even slightly malign China—like a scene in Shanghai of clothes drying on clotheslines in Mission Impossible 3.
The list of movies that have made changes to appeal to China’s censor board is a long one. The makers of Red Dawn, a film that imagines a Chinese invasion of America, switched the invaders to North Korean. Leaked Sony emails reveal executives worrying about Chinese censors modifying key scenes (“Don’t think we can make a stand on it either way,” one wrote, “too much money on the line, cross fingers we don’t have to cut the scene out.”), and the makers of The Karate Kid had the censors pre-approve their script.
Censors also demanded changes to the zombie flick World War Z. The original script cited China as the source of the zombie outbreak, and the characters discussed how the Chinese government covered it up—a plotline that censors probably found too reminiscent of accusations that the Chinese government covered up a SARS outbreak in 2003.
The filmmakers changed the location of the fictional outbreak to Russia.
We’ve Seen this Movie Before
If you’re hoping that Hollywood will resist censorship, we’ve got bad news. This has happened before, and Hollywood did not do well.
In The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, author Ben Urwand chronicles Hollywood’s efforts to maintain access to a large movie market: pre-World War II Germany. He writes that Hollywood producers readily complied with Nazi censorship requests:
Hitler wanted the ability to shape the content of Hollywood movies—and he got it. During the ’30s, Georg Gyssling, Hitler’s consul in Los Angeles, was invited to preview films before they were released. If Gyssling objected to any part of a movie—and he frequently did—the offending scenes were cut. As a result, the Nazis had total veto power over the content of Hollywood movies.
Other scholars have argued that Urwand overstates Germany’s ability to demand changes. But it’s widely acknowledged that the whims of Hitler and his supporters influenced Hollywood—despite many producers being Jewish. In 1936, MGM began working on turning It Can’t Happen Here, a book about an American demagogue winning the presidency à la Hitler, into a movie. The studio dropped it after receiving criticism.
Then again, as New Yorker film critic David Denby has written, not very soothingly, filmmakers also deferred at the time to the sensitivities of the French and British—as well as American censors.
What is striking about the influence of German censors, however, is their light touch. People don’t look back askance at the 1930s as an age of Nazi-influenced movies. The German government rarely banned American films. Instead studios checked their scripts in advance or offered advance screenings to a German consul in Los Angeles. These were part of good will tours offered to German officials.
Similarly, Hollywood’s choice of film and message was massaged in a subtler way than we normally associate with censorship. “The American movies that the Nazis loved best were those that proclaimed the need for a strong leader,” a reviewer of Urwand’s book writes. “Nazi newspapers were ecstatic to see the ‘leader principle’ illustrated in films like The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mutiny on the Bounty, Our Daily Bread, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The lesson of the Nazis’ love of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film about the democratic process, is unclear.
Censorship or Pandering?
Some of the demands made by China’s censorship board are the type of ham-handed edits you’d expect of communist censors—like the tweaks made to Kung Fu Panda to ensure that the image of China’s beloved panda was not slighted.
Similarly, extra scenes added exclusively to the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 at the behest of the Chinese co-producers clumsily showed Chinese doctors performing a complex surgery on Iron Man. Most Chinese audiences reportedly disliked or laughed at the added scenes.
Yet most of the changes are subtle, offering no hint of censorship. Like with Nazi Germany, studios try to get pre-approval of scripts and footage via their Chinese co-producers. Cases of a movie being banned are rare; instead the changes happen in advance, and movies that don’t make it into Chinese theaters seem to fall afoul of the cap on the number of foreign films rather than explicit censorship.
It’s not at all clear in Looper, for example, that Chinese censorship led to the changes, and Hollywood is eager to avoid that confrontation. Looper director Rian Johnson has stressed that the change was not a “sell-out,” telling The Guardian, "In many ways Shanghai was a more natural setting for a sci-fi movie than my beloved Paris."
Filmmakers with experience clearing a movie for release in China describe a murky process, which is an asset for the censorship board. Since the process is unclear, studios don’t just respond to demands from the Communist Party, they think of how to curry favor by portraying China in a positive light.
Who's going to rescue Matt Damon from Mars? China! Photo credit: 20th Century Fox.
Not all positive portrayals of China, however, are inevitably censorship. Many are likely traditional pandering. If the censorship committee did not exist, Hollywood producers would still worry about how well their movies would perform in China.
The movie Looper implies that, in the future, America is struggling with crime while China is prosperous country. In The Martian, stately administrators of the Chinese space agency save the day by beneficently adapting one of its rockets to help rescue a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars. In the most recent X-Men, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing played a minor role in the story, but a huge role in selling it abroad—Chinese audiences went nuts over her casting in the film.
Hollywood has been pandering to Americans for decades by showing our presidents, astronauts, and even oil drillers saving the world. You’d expect them to do the same now for Chinese audiences. Although a censorship board that obtusely hands out a limited number of slots in China’s movie market certainly encourages it.
Over the past 30 years, China has grown its economy at a blistering pace, thrown up skyscrapers and high speed rail, and lifted some 600 million people out of poverty. Expect to see a lot of evidence of that in theaters.
China also has a poor human rights record, ethnic tension between its citizens, and a corruption problem. But don't expect Hollywood producers to notice—they’ll be too busy marketing movies in China.