China will be an important market for the studio as it goes ahead with plans to produce two movies based on "The Hobbit" and James Bond sequels. The last Bond movie, 2008's "Quantum of Solace," grossed $21 million in China.
In the last few weeks, MGM has begun showing "Red Dawn" to potential buyers at other studios. Several people who have seen the movie but requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record said they couldn't risk distributing it given the potential blowback in China.
The feedback led to MGM's decision to make the highly unusual changes. Although it's common to reshape movies in the editing room, there's no known precedent for changing the nationality of an entire group of characters.
People close to the picture said the changes will cost less than $1 million and involve changing an opening sequence summarizing the story's fictional backdrop, re-editing two scenes and using digital technology to transform many Chinese symbols to Korean. It's impossible to eliminate all references to China, the people said, though the changes will give North Korea a much larger role in the coalition that invades the U.S.
"We were initially very reluctant to make any changes," said Tripp Vinson, one of the movie's producers. "But after careful consideration we constructed a way to make a scarier, smarter and more dangerous 'Red Dawn' that we believe improves the movie."
Representatives for director Dan Bradley did not respond to requests for comment.
If MGM is unable to find a distributor for the movie, it could end up going direct-to-DVD or could even be shelved, never to be seen by the public.
"Red Dawn" is not the only piece of entertainment to swap out Chinese villains for North Koreans recently. The video game "Homefront," which was released this week and features a script by John Milius, writer of the original "Red Dawn," was also originally intended to feature a Chinese invasion. For business reasons, publisher THQ changed the occupying forces to North Korea.
A representative for MGM said it's hopeful the unusual changes will have a simple result: turning "Red Dawn" from a complete write-off into a movie that can find an audience and make money.
"MGM has been working with the film 'Red Dawn's' director and producers to make the most commercially viable version of the film for audiences worldwide," said Mike Vollman, executive vice president of worldwide marketing. "We want to ensure the most people possible are able to experience it."
Times staff writer David Pierson in Beijing contributed to this report.