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Hollywood gripped by pressure system from China

To appease China and gain access to moviegoers and financing, movies include positive references to the nation (no Chinese villains!) and face censorship.

June 12, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik and Jonathan Landreth, Los Angeles Times
  • Will Smith talks via Skype to moviegoers in Beijing who had just watched him star in “Men in Black 3.” Chinese authorities censored several of the film’s scenes.
Will Smith talks via Skype to moviegoers in Beijing who had just watched… (Jonathan Landreth, Los…)

When aliens besiege Earth in Universal Pictures' recent action film"Battleship," it is the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong whom Washington credits with delivering the early proof that these invaders aren't exactly homegrown.

But those aren't the only Chinese do-gooders on screen these days.

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.

MGM, the studio behind the remake of the 1984 movie "Red Dawn," last year digitally altered the invaders attacking the U.S. to make them North Koreans instead of Chinese, as originally shot.

When Sony's "Men in Black 3" was released in China last month, censors had the studio remove or shorten several scenes set in New York's Chinatown that they believed depicted Chinese Americans unflatteringly. (One portrayed Chinatown restaurant workers as alien monsters, and another showed bystanders of Chinese heritage having memories erased by a U.S. government agent / alien fighter played by Will Smith.)

Sony executives refused to comment publicly, and the scenes remained in versions of the film shown outside China. But privately, studio officials suggested they might have considered changing the locale from Chinatown to another New York ethnic enclave — thus altering the movie for audiences worldwide — had they been aware of the Chinese sensitivities before production.

"Hollywood these days is sometimes better at carrying water for the Chinese than the Chinese themselves," said Stanley Rosen, director of the East Asian Studies Center at USC and an expert on film and media. "We are doing all the heavy lifting for them."

A screenwriter on another Hollywood tentpole was told by the studio to steer clear of any Chinese villains in shaping his script.

The net effect is a situation that movie-business veterans say is unprecedented: The suppressive tendencies of a foreign nation are altering what is seen not just in one country but around the world.

"It's a clear-cut case — maybe the first I can think of in the history of Hollywood — where a foreign country's censorship board deeply affects what we produce," said a leading Hollywood producer who, like several others interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to offend potential Chinese partners.

As overseas box office has become more important to Hollywood, studios have become more attuned to foreign cultures. The industry has been mindful, for instance, about offending Japan, which until recently was the largest foreign market (Japanese characters also play a big part in "Battleship").

With China, co-financing deals add to the pressure: Under those agreements, foreign films receive funding from Chinese entities and are allowed to bypass the quota system. But such films often must include some Chinese elements — positive ones. Marvel Studios' "Iron Man 3," which recently began filming in locales including North Carolina and China, is expected to show a highly friendly side to the Chinese, because the production is accepting Chinese funds from the financing entity DMG.

"We look forward to working alongside DMG to bring 'Iron Man' to the Chinese marketplace in a significant way," Rob Steffens, general manager of operations and finance for Marvel, said when the deal was announced. "Adding a local flavor … will enhance the appeal and relevance of our characters inChina'sfast-growing film marketplace."

Some filmmakers say their inclusion of Chinese elements is a natural part of the creative process — such as a sequence in Disney's "The Muppets"last year in which Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Jack Black were portrayed as martial arts experts, with onscreen flashes of their names in Chinese characters. James Bond will be in Shanghai in the next 007 film, "Skyfall," though the production isn't receiving Chinese funding.

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