Hollywood's cave to China on censorship
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
While the U.S. reckons with the fact that China's market power can stymie free speech after the NBA's firestorm, Hollywood — America's premier cultural exporter — has long willingly bent to Chinese censorship to rake in profits.
Why it matters: China is set to become the world's biggest movie market in 2020, and with its 1.4 billion citizens, it won't relinquish that title anytime soon. That means it's key for Hollywood studios to do all they can to ensure that their tentpoles can pass the standards of the country's strict censors.
- Plus, China only has 38 official slots for international films to be shown in the country on the most generous revenue-sharing terms, making competition fierce.
The big picture: The country's rampant censorship makes things difficult for foreign films. Beyond unsurprising restrictions on graphic nudity, sex and violence, China's censors can balk at anything from men wearing earrings to ghosts.
- Its censors also won't allow homosexuality to be depicted on screen, leading to controversy surrounding 2018's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Even Rami Malek's Oscar acceptance speech for playing Freddie Mercury in the film was censored on one of China's biggest streaming networks.
- However, China's sensitivity on domestic political issues is what often causes some of the harshest — and, to Americans, most absurd — acts of censorship.
Perhaps the most extreme example was the 2018 decision to not allow Disney's "Christopher Robin" to be released, purportedly because Chinese President Xi Jinping's resemblance to Winnie the Pooh had become a joke among activists who resisted the country's Communist regime.
- Censors also blocked the release of 2013's "World War Z," amplifying the film's relative financial disappointment for its studio, Paramount. Theories for its ban range from a reference to the film's zombie outbreak starting in China to a Chinese shadow ban on its leading man, Brad Pitt, for starring in "Seven Years in Tibet" in 1997.
- 2012's "Red Dawn" saw its entire original plot, which featured China invading America to reclaim its debt, rewritten after filming to feature North Korea as its enemy instead — and still couldn't get a Chinese release.
Many American films do get released, but only with copious cuts to please the censors. While these usually involve slicing scenes of violence or sex, they often involve more politically-minded edits.
- 2012's James Bond film "Skyfall" finally got released in China in 2013, but only after it cut references to prostitution in Macau and had its subtitles changed to mask references of torture by Chinese police.
- Another popular franchise entry, 2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," had roughly 10 minutes of footage involving Chow Yun-fat's character cut over a determination that his portrayal somehow vilified the Chinese people.
- And 2006's "Mission Impossible III" had footage cut from its opening sequence — a Tom Cruise chase sequence in Shanghai — because censors believed the underwear hanging to dry on clotheslines presented the country in a bad light.
The bottom line: Despite the handwringing over China's economic ability to suppress Americans' freedom of speech, Hollywood film studios have willingly ceded their artistry to China's censors for years — on issues big and small — in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
Go deeper: China's vise grip on corporate America