Hollywood is paying more attention than ever before to China, which could have the world’s biggest box office by 2017. And that means courting Chinese censors, who allow distribution of as few as 34 foreign films each year.
“No Hollywood producer that wants to take advantage of the Chinese market would at this point include a film that includes anything about Taiwan, about Tibet, about Tiananmen,” Aynne Kokas, author of the forthcoming book “Hollywood in China” and a professor at the University of Virginia, recently told Business Insider.
And that’s just the start.
“You won’t see the Chinese government acting as an enemy to the US state, but you will see the counterexample of things like ‘The Martian’ and ‘Gravity’ where Chinese astronauts save an American astronaut,” Kokas said. “If the US and China had that level of cooperation in their military and space programs, we wouldn’t be having all these conflicts in the South China Sea.”
Beijing also looks down on “violent content, sexual content, political content, particularly anything that shows Chinese leaders who are corrupt – American leaders who are corrupt is less of a problem. Also supernatural content,” Kokas added. (It’s worth noting that China doesn’t have ratings, so all movies must be approved for a general audience.)
Kokas expects even more seamless coordination between Hollywood and China in the future, as US and Chinese companies announce collaborative film slates, Chinese companies buy US entertainment companies, US studios announce more Chinese coproductions, and US studios open China-focused subsidiaries.
“There are really structural changes in the US media industry that are less visible to consumers but will have a substantial change in how Hollywood actually operates,” Kokas said.
We’ve rounded up some movies that made obvious changes in hopes of Chinese distribution:
Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” changed The Ancient One from Tibetan in the comics to Celtic. “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘…we’re not going to show your movie,'” “Doctor Strange” screenwriter C. Robert Cargill said.
Cargill also claimed this was a no-win scenario, saying the original character was “a racist stereotype.”
“Iron Man 3” changed The Mandarin from an evil Chinese mastermind in the comics to a Western actor hired by the real villains. It also crammed the movie with product placement and more.
- Iron Man 3 trailer
“Iron Man 3” shows a doctor drinking China’s Gu Li Duo milk – positive propaganda after batches of domestic milk in real life China were contaminated with mercury. It also features Chinese medicine, product placement for China’s TCL and Zoomlion, two Chinese supporting actors, and a winning shot of cheering Chinese schoolchildren, as noted by The New York Times.
Some of these elements exist only in the special Chinese cut.
“Cloud Atlas” removed nearly 30 minutes from its Chinese cut, largely plotlines and scenes with controversial sexual relations.
- “Cloud Atlas”
Notably, the same-sex romance between two men and sex between a future “human-replicant” and her foreman.
Source: The Hollywood Reporter
“Looper” changed a scene from future Paris to future Shanghai, hoping to qualify as a Chinese coproduction.
A time-traveler discourages another character from retiring in France. “I’m from the future,” he says. “You should go to China.”
The film also added Chinese actress Xu Qing.
Source: Film School Rejects
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” featured half an hour of content in Hong Kong and cameos by Chinese star Fan Bingbing and a Chinese boy band.
- “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
Source: The Guardian
“Skyfall” took out a scene in which James Bond kills a Chinese security guard in the Chinese cut.
It also dropped a plotline in which a character turned villainous after being left in Chinese custody. All versions of the film include scenes in Shanghai and Macau.
Source: The New Yorker
“Mission: Impossible 3” dropped a shot of clothes on clotheslines in Shanghai for the Chinese cut. Apparently, the lack of dryer ownership is a sensitive issue.
- “Mission Impossible 3”
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” removed Chinese actor Chun Yow Fat from the Chinese cut because displaying a Chinese pirate was not acceptable.
Source: The Federalist
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” included shots of a debit card from the Chinese Construction Bank and a main character drinking a Chinese brand of milk.
- “Transformers: Age of Extinction”
The movie, which was coproduced by China’s Jiaflix Enterprises, generally shows the Chinese government as benevolent, while some US government agents appear as indecisive and corrupt.
“Men in Black 3” cut a scene in which Chinese bystanders get their memories erased for the Chinese edit.
- “Men in Black 3”
“This could have been a hint on the use of internet censorship to maintain social stability,” China’s Southern Daily newspaper noted. The Chinese cut also dropped scenes in which shady aliens are disguised as Chinese restaurant workers.
Source: The Telegraph
“World War Z” changed the origin of a zombie virus from China in the book to Russia in the movie.
- Paramount Pictures
“Pixels” removed an attack on the Great Wall among other changes.
Leaked emails from Sony Pictures Entertainment show that the studio removed the Great Wall scene as well as a reference to hacking by a “Communist-conspiracy brother” in hopes of getting Chinese distribution.
“Red Dawn” changed an invading army from Chinese to North Korean in postproduction.
- “Red Dawn”
“The studio spent a considerable amount of money to digitally alter the film,” said Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at University of Southern California. “But with North Korea as the enemy, there was no challenge since there’s really no market for US films there.”
“Captain America: Civil War” shows Avengers using China’s Vivo phones.
This doesn’t make sense in the context of the movie, Geek.com‘s Dave Gonzales explains, not only because those well-funded characters would not use such mediocre products, but also because US government-backed secret agents would never be allowed to use products with such unreliable security.
“Warcraft” is based on a game franchise that might have more players in China than the US. Adding Chinese actor Daniel Wu was a cherry on top.
It also helped that this CGI-heavy movie was easy to dub into Chinese.
“Warcraft” went on to earn much more in China ($221 million) than the US ($47 million).
Source: Vanity Fair
“Independence Day: Resurgence” featured Chinese star Angelababy and a bunch of Chinese products.
- “Independence Day: Resurgence”
Lead actor Liam Hemsworth is shown using China’s popular QQ instant messaging service. Also a Chinese product, Moon Milk, is all over the film.
Source: Vanity Fair
“Django Unchained” was drastically recut to remove violence in China.
- Weinstein Company
While another version of the film was cleared for release, it was pulled from theaters in a matter of hours.
The movie was rereleased a month later with major changes: Django and his wife are not seen naked while they undergo torture; a flashback of a slave mauled by dogs is not present; and the shootout at the end of the movie is heavily altered.
Source: The Guardian
The rebooted “Karate Kid” was radically recut for China to remove negative portrayals of Chinese characters — tricky in a movie about an American expat fighting Chinese bullies. As an American critic noted, it went from an “underdog story to one of self-discovery.”
- “Karate Kid”
Notably, the movie cut scenes in which Chinese kids were bullies, showing instead that they don’t fight the Americans unless provoked. Also the Chinese kung fu teacher no longer seems like a bloodthirsty jerk.
Also the movie title was changed to “The Kung Fu Kid.”
Don’t be surprised if you see Chinese stars in more movies. For example “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” prominently features China’s Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen — perhaps a strategy to recover from the weak Chinese response to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
- “Rogue One: A Star Wars story”
Source: The Hollywood Reporter
What movies got outright blocked from release in China? It’s a long list.
- Warner Bros.
“Suicide Squad.” Aynne Kokas said: “A case like ‘Suicide Squad’ is relatively easy to understand because it’s a really violent film and removing that violence would make it difficult to actually release the film.”
“The Departed.” A Chinese spokesperson said: “It’s very bloody and violent. It’d be difficult to edit all those violent scenes out …. [also] this military procurement plot involving the government, of course, is not appropriate for the domestic market.”
“Top Gun.” A 3D rerelease was rejected because it portrayed US military dominance, notes the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
“Captain Phillips.” Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony Pictures, speculated in leaked emails that the plot was a nonstarter: “Reasons being the big military machine of the US saving one US citizen. China would never do the same and in no way would want to promote this idea.”
“Seven Years in Tibet.” Obviously, the story of an Austrian climber befriending the Dalai Lama wasn’t getting into China. Interestingly, it led to temporary bans on all movies from Sony Pictures Entertainment and actor Brad Pitt.
“Ghostbusters,” “Crimson Peak,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” were all blocked, presumably because of ghosts.