Producers, writers, and financiers inside Hollywood explained to PEN America just how far the industry goes to please the Chinese Communist Party, in an eye-opening report released Wednesday.
“Most people do not burn China, because there’s an expectation of ‘I’ll never work again,’” one producer told PEN America.
“You consult with Chinese experts and media consultants, you think about whether something is going to be perceived as criticism,” another producer added. “You worry about inadvertently crossing some line.”
Chinese audiences are a massively lucrative market for American filmmakers, with China on track to pass the U.S. as the largest movie market. The Hollywood Reporter noted that American movies made over $2.5 billion in China last year.
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But selling movie tickets in China comes at a price, as the Chinese government has complete control over what movies make it to their massive audience. The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department controls media oversight.
“The Chinese government imposes a strict pre-publication review system for all films, and retains the right to ban any film that does not comply from being shown in theaters—or even from streaming online—within the country,” PEN America noted in their report.
It also controls a movie’s release date, how long a movie will play, and what theaters will show it. Beijing uses a quota system to regulate how many non-Chinese movies make it into China at all. These and other regulations also incentivize Hollywood studios to make movies through joint productions with Chinese producers, which is financially lucrative but brings production even more closely under the supervision of the communist government.
Additionally, China passed the Film Industry Promotion Law in 2016 prohibiting movies that, among other things, harm “national dignity, honor or interests,” undermine “social stability,” or belittle “exceptional ethnic cultural traditions.” This is also the kind of language the CCP uses to prosecute and imprison its people for political speech.
PEN America cites countless examples of Hollywood studios editing out scenes that might displease the CCP.
In “Mission: Impossible III,” Chinese censors successfully pressured Hollywood to cut a scene where a “clothesline hanging from a Shanghai apartment airing tattered underwear” was visible. In 2015, “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” received funding from the China Movie Channel, which is owned by the Chinese government.
In the Bond flick “Casino Royale,” Judy Dench had to change a line about missing the Cold War to a general remark about missing the “old times.” Any scenes that normalize or promote same-sex attraction are routinely censored as well.
Quentin Tarantino made headlines in 2019 for refusing to change the content of one of his movies to appease the CCP.
It’s also not just censorship of the Chinese releases of Hollywood movies. Pressure from China also often results in the final global releases — the ones that end up in front of American viewers and other international audiences — being censored.
Sony cut a scene of “aliens bringing down the Great Wall” from its 2015 movie “Pixels” for fear of angering Chinese censors. Leaked emails between Sony executives revealed that they changed the global version, not just the one released in China, to try and cover up their appeasement of the Chinese government. “If we only change the China version, we set ourselves up for the press to call us out for this when bloggers invariably compare the versions and realize we changed the China setting just to pacify that market,” one email said.
Other emails showed concerns over the movie “Captain Phillips,” which portrays the U.S. military rescuing one man from Somali pirates. “China would never do the same and in no way would want to promote this idea,” wrote Sony’s president of worldwide distribution, Rory Bruer, in 2013.
In “RoboCop” in 2014, Sony also made changes to minimize the Chinese government’s ties to an American corporation in the movie.
Sony also digitally changed Chinese soldiers to North Korean ones in the 2012 remake of “Red Dawn,” a movie about American high school students fighting against an invading army. The original 1984 movie took place during the Cold War with Soviet soldiers; the remake featured the Chinese military until Sony switched it to North Korea. The studio also ditched a backstory explaining that the Chinese military invaded the U.S. for failing its national debt payments.
Marvel Studios even whitewashed a character in “Dr. Strange” in 2016 to avoid acknowledging the existence of Tibet. The character, played by Tilda Swinton, was switched from Tibetan to Celtic. “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place…you risk [the Chinese government saying] ‘We’re not going to show your movie,’” admitted the movie’s writer, C. Robert Cargill.
In the trailer for the “Top Gun” sequel, now due for release in 2021, Paramount quietly removed the Taiwanese flag on the leather flight jacket worn by Tom Cruise’s character.
Another Paramount movie, “World War Z,” was changed to avoid angering China in 2013. A conversation in which several characters speculate that a zombie-apocalypse-causing virus originated in China (a plot point taken from the book on which the movie was based) was altered to try and secure a movie release in China, which ultimately never happened. The book’s author later commented, after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, that he’d specifically chosen China as the origin of the fictitious viral outbreak “because it’s not enough to have a large population and a rapid transportation network, so the virus can spread like wildfire. You also need a government that is willing to suppress the truth.”
When actress Crystal Liu of Disney’s live-action “Mulan” remake expressed her support for the Chinese police that are imprisoning pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, Disney never reprimanded her or even spoke publicly on the issue.
Other topics that are generally disapproved by the CCP include the protests in Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong, questions of the CCP’s territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and even time travel. Stories about the supernatural can also set off alarms. As the restrictions on time travel and ghost stories demonstrate, it’s not simply several-second scenes that the CCP frowns upon; it can be whole genres.
It’s also not just about cutting content that angers the CCP. American studios are actively adding content that pushes Chinese state propaganda, in return for favorable treatment by the Chinese government.
In “just three of many examples,” PEN American notes, “the films 2012, Columbia Pictures’ 2009 disaster film by Roland Emmerich, the 2013 Warner Brothers’ film ‘Gravity,’ by director Alfonso Cuarón, and ‘Arrival,’ the 2016 alien invasion film from Paramount, all predicate their happy endings on Chinese forces coming to the rescue.” It’s also “commonly accepted,” they note, that future movie villains won’t be Chinese.
In “Iron Man 3,” Marvel even added a scene specifically for Chinese audiences to please the CCP, which show Chinese doctors trying “frantically” to save the protagonist’s life. Chinese “regulators” were also brought on set for their advice on the movie, production sources told the New York Times. The Times called this self-censorship “middle of the road.”
Paramount’s 2014 movie “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” produced jointly with Chinese state media, was so obviously propagandized that a Variety review called it “a splendidly patriotic film, if you happen to be Chinese.”
And in the 2012 Bruce Willis movie “Looper,” after a Chinese agency funded almost half of the movie’s budget, scenes in Paris were switched to Shanghai, and a line was added from one character to another: “I’m from the future. You should go to China.”
In Gravity Pictures’ shark flick, “The Meg,” Hawaii was switched to China and scientists who were Japanese in the original book suddenly became Chinese.
And the Dreamworks animated movie “Abominable” shows a map that reflects Chinese claims to own the South China Sea, despite international jurisprudence finding against the Chinese government’s territorial claims.
“The big story is not what’s getting changed, but what is not ever even getting greenlit,” says Michael Berry, director of UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies.
PEN America also noted that plenty of the censorship is self-imposed, even before the Chinese authorities have a chance to weigh in. “If you come up with a project that is actively critical…[you’re afraid] you or your company will actively be blacklisted, and they will interfere with your current or future project,” a Hollywood producer told PEN America. “That’s absolutely in the back of our minds.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken an increasingly tough stance on China, and has blasted Hollywood for “kowtowing” to the communist country’s government.
“This is real,” a Hollywood writer told PEN America. “This is affecting not just what Chinese audiences see, but what Americans get to watch.”