Report: How and Why Hollywood Self-censors for China

China’s cinemas have begun to recover from an 88%, 30 billion-yuan ticket sales crash triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, reopening began in low-risk areas with mandatory masks and temperature checks, a ban on food and drink, a 30% capacity cap, and WeChat-assisted attendance logging for contact tracing. Global Times reported on Sunday that nearly three-quarters of Chinese theaters are now operating again. American movie studios, meanwhile, have repeatedly pushed back premiers or elected to hold them overseas as the pandemic continues to rage across the U.S.

Chinese and U.S. box office takings have vied for global first place in recent years. The University of Virginia’s Aynne Kokas told Marketplace late last month that “in March, it looked like the U.S. was actually poised to dramatically overtake the Chinese film market for 2020. Now it looks like we’re seeing the reverse.” China Film Insider’s Sky Canaves commented that China is “really, right now, one of the few avenues that Hollywood has available for its films.” China’s quarterly box office revenue passed that of the United States for the first time in 2018. American films had dominated the list of highest-grossing films in China; now they comprise only one of the top ten and seven of the top 25. But the Chinese market remains immensely profitable: recent blockbusters including “Avengers: Endgame,” “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” and “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” have all made more in China than in the U.S., feeding into Hollywood’s growing dependence on Chinese revenue and investment.

A recent PEN America report, “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing,” explains how Chinese authorities’ notoriously tight control over access to these financial rewards gives the CCP “major sway over whether a Hollywood movie will be profitable or not—and studio executives know it.” Beyond the raw binary of access or denial, PEN America explains, Chinese authorities wield an array of more precise levers. They can allow a greater profit share by including a film in the annual quota of 34 foreign releases; exclude it, leaving the option of selling Chinese earning rights for a lower flat fee; or block it entirely. More favorable financial terms are available to filmmakers willing to accept the closer control that comes with a joint production. They can control the timing of a film’s opening relative to its global release, public holidays, or rival pictures. They can restrict, allow, assist, or undermine promotion, not least through favorable or unfavorable attention in state and other media. Underlying all of this is the threat of indefinite, unspoken inclusion on long-rumored blacklists.

Crucially, these carrots and sticks can be deployed not only based on an individual film’s own content, but on that of other productions by the same individuals or studio. The hundreds of millions of dollars of leverage available against a major blockbuster can therefore extend to other productions or more diverse business interests. Though the PEN report does not cover television or online streaming, this point was illustrated elsewhere last year by a Buzzfeed News report that Apple had instructed content producers for its Apple TV+ platform to “avoid portraying China in a poor light.” A showrunner not working with Apple told Buzzfeed that this had become standard industry practice: “They all do it. They have to if they want to play in that market. And they all want to play in that market. Who wouldn’t?”

“As a result of all the pressures that Beijing is able to bring to bear,” PEN America says, “the CCP’s influence over Hollywood films is significant. Hollywood’s decision-makers are increasingly envisioning the desires of the CCP censor when deciding what film projects to greenlight, what content these films contain, who should work on the films, and what messages the films should implicitly or explicitly contain. […] China is the only country that can effectively wield its economic clout in order to compel substantial cooperation from Hollywood studios.” The CCP is therefore increasingly “shaping what is perhaps the world’s most influential artistic and cultural medium,” and “in effect, Hollywood’s approach to acceding to Chinese dictates is setting a standard for the rest of the world.”

Hollywood is an important bellwether. The Chinese government, under Xi Jinping especially, has heavily emphasized its desire to ensure that Hollywood filmmakers—to use their preferred phrase—“tell China’s story well.” Within the pages of this report, we detail how Hollywood decision-makers and other filmmaking professionals are increasingly making decisions about their films—the content, casting, plot, dialogue, and settings—based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market.

[…] Hollywood exercises outsized influence over global society and culture through the power of its creations. Stories shape the way people think, and the stories told by Hollywood reach billions. If the hand of a foreign government is dictating the parameters of what can be told or shown, and if filmmakers are incorporating a made-in-Beijing set of prerequisites as they conceive and produce films, at the very least these dictates should be understood and debated, so that the commercial, artistic, and expressive trade-offs are understood. [Source]

The report highlights some of the China-specific cuts made over the past 15 years based on various political or other sensitivities: the deaths of a Chinese henchman or guard (“Mission: Impossible III” (2006) and “Skyfall” (2012)); underwear on a Shanghai clothesline (Mission: Impossible III); the line “Christ, I miss the Cold War” (“Casino Royale” (2006), changed to “God, I miss the old times”); references to sex work and police brutality (“Skyfall”); and same-sex kisses (“Cloud Atlas” (2013), “Star Trek: Beyond” (2016), “Alien: Covenant” (2017)) and other references to homosexuality (“Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)). An unusual counterexample is also cited: Quentin Tarantino refused to change the negative portrayal of Bruce Lee in “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” (2019), leading to its exclusion from Chinese theaters.

PEN America also highlights some of the more concrete guidelines that exist, including the 2016 Film Industry Promotion Law’s injunctions against violation of the national constitution, endangerment of national unity or honor, leaking state secrets, stirring ethnic tension, promotion of cults or superstitions, endangerment of social morality, and “other content prohibited by laws or administrative regulations.” 2004 regulations on joint productions similarly require “compliance with the Constitution, laws, regulations, and other relevant provisions of China,” and contributions to “the brilliant traditional culture of the Chinese people” and “the social stability of China.”

Other cited guidelines include a 2011 document from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television warning domestic filmmakers against “treating serious history in a frivolous way,” and declaring a ban on time travel narratives. (The Party jealously guards its monopoly on altering history.) In 2008, regulators had similarly issued restrictions on “terror, ghosts, and the supernatural.” The report notes:

Beijing’s willingness to ban entire tropes of fiction—ghost stories, timetravel stories—demonstrates the breadth of its film censorship, even if Beijing is inconsistent in its implementation of these bans in practice. It is not enough for filmmakers to avoid certain messages or plot points that may reflect poorly on Beijing; they also have to take into account what genres of storytelling the CCP is less likely to approve. [Source]

Another side of this kind of genre-level strategic guidance was illustrated this month by a document aiming to boost homegrown science fiction cinema following the success of “The Wandering Earth” (2019)—the third-highest grossing Chinese production ever—and the books of Liu Cixin, on one of whose shorter stories the film was based. From Rebecca Davis at Variety:

Entitled “Several Opinions on Promoting the Development of Science Fiction Films,” the document highlights how the sci-fi genre fits into the ruling Communist Party’s broader ideological and technological goals. It was released earlier this month by China’s National Film Administration and the China Association for Science and Technology, a professional organization.

[…] To make strong movies, the document claims, the number one priority is to “thoroughly study and implement Xi Jinping Thought.” Based on the Chinese president’s past pronouncements on film work, filmmakers should follow the “correct direction” for the development of sci-fi movies. This includes creating films that “highlight Chinese values, inherit Chinese culture and aesthetics, cultivate contemporary Chinese innovation” as well as “disseminate scientific thought” and “raise the spirit of scientists.” Chinese sci-fi films should thus portray China in a positive light as a technologically advanced nation.

In addition, the document honed in on China’s need to develop and control its own homegrown VFX and digital technologies to support the making of sci-fi content as tensions rise with the West over technology and internet control. [Source]

The PEN report also outlines the institutional structures through which film censorship and associated pressures are channeled. Foremost among these until recently were the aforementioned national regulator SARFT and its successor SAPPRFT (the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, created by a merger of SARFT and the General Administration of Press and Publication), although other national organs like the Ministry of Culture can also step in at times. These are supplemented by a “constellation of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that operate simultaneously as regulators and as business partners for foreign studios,” including the distribution duopoly of China Film Group and Huaxia Film Distribution. Joint production partners and freelance consultants can also act as vectors for influence over content.

The PEN report highlights 2018 not only as an inflection point for China’s relative market size, but also for a landmark shift in this regulatory structure. That year, SAPPRFT’s role was turned over to the Central Propaganda Department—a Party, not a state, body. PEN America comments:

By moving control of film to a more powerful, more conservative body that is more sensitive to what it perceives as slights against China, the Party is tightening the reins on creative control.

The 2018 announcement made clear that the CPD had a new, more muscular, mandate to bring film in conformance with Party ideology. The Central Committee emphasized that film, specifically, played a “special and crucial” role in “spreading propaganda.” Also, unlike the censors of the Film Bureau who often had experience with filmmaking, these new censors are trained mostly in Communist Party doctrine—a very different lens. The overall result of the change, as both outside analysts and industry insiders who spoke to PEN America affirmed, is a tighter level of political and ideological control over the film censorship process. [Source]

While attention has tended to focus on censors’ demands for post-production cuts, or the active role of Chinese authorities or partners in shaping joint productions, the PEN report warns of the longer shadow cast by efforts to smooth a project’s path by pre-empting overt interference:

Perhaps the greatest issue with the CCP’s censorious effect on Hollywood is how it has instantiated self-censorship from filmmakers aiming to anticipate and preempt Beijing’s objections. This is, of course, exactly how censorship succeeds—others internalize it to the point where the censor actually has to do very little. Over time, writers and creators don’t even conceive of ideas, stories, or characters that would flout the rules, because there is no point in doing so. The orthodoxies press down imperceptibly, and the parameters of the imagination are permanently circumscribed.

[…] Despite the documented and widely suspected examples of studios’ active cooperation with censors, ultimately, Hollywood’s self censorship is impossible to observe or document, because it involves movies that never had the chance to get off the ground in the first place for fear that the film would never enter the Chinese market. Or as Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA, described it to PEN America: “The big story is not what’s getting changed, but what is not ever even getting greenlit.”

[…] Absent written parameters, film professionals are reliant on rumor and innuendo to determine where the actual boundaries of censorship lie. This lack of regulatory transparency is a feature, not a bug. When people do not know where the lines of censorship lie, they will be extra cautious in self-censoring for fear of crossing an invisible line. [Source]

One topic not addressed in the PEN report is the emergence of algorithmic systems for selecting, shaping, and even conceiving film projects. So-called “predictive policing” systems have been shown to absorb and replicate existing racial and other biases in law enforcement. Similar software applied to filmmaking could help perpetuate anticipation and accommodation of Chinese censorship behind a politically convenient screen of mathematical neutrality.

The report notes several changes to films made not in response to but anticipation of Chinese authorities’ wishes. One recent case is the alteration of Japanese and Taiwanese flags on Tom Cruise’s jacket in forthcoming “Top Gun” sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” (2021), a co-production with China’s Tencent Pictures. Another notorious example is the digital post-production change of occupying forces in the United States from Chinese to North Korean in “Red Dawn” (2012). An originally Tibetan character in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” (2016) was rewritten as Celtic and played by Tilda Swinton because, according to swiftly downplayed comments by the film’s writer, ‘if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [the character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.'” As PEN America notes, recasting the role on that basis is also “getting political.”

An example that has come to look grimly prophetic amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that of 2013 zombie movie “World War Z.” In his original novel, Max Brooks picked China as the origin of his fictional zombifying virus because, he explained in February, “I needed an authoritarian regime with strong control over the press. Smothering public awareness would give my plague time to spread, first along the local population, then into other nations.” Paramount cut this plot point from the film in an unsuccessful effort to secure access to Chinese theaters. Although that failed, the cut remains in the version of the film released worldwide. An article on film censorship by Charley Lanyon at South China Morning Post last year noted that, in addition, “a subplot about a disgruntled Chinese officer nuking the Politburo was dropped, and the detail that Lhasa in Tibet was the largest surviving city was – gasp – done away with entirely.”

PEN America warns that pandering to Chinese audiences, authorities, and investors might undermine progress on Hollywood’s weak record of diversity and inclusion, particularly in terms of broader Asian representation. “By citing the regulatory risk from Beijing censors,” he writes, “Hollywood decision-makers can justify the avoidance of portrayals of Asian characters whose Asian identity would require thoughtful and nuanced treatment.” There are signs of the new pressures marginalizing other Asian ethnicities, and even in terms of Chinese representation, they have frequently led to no more than fleeting appearances by huaping 花瓶,or “flower vases,” a derisive pun playing on the homophony of hua 花 (flower) and Hua 华 (China) to jab at these roles’ tokenistic and decorative nature. The report’s closing recommendations include the following:

[… W]e encourage Hollywood, as a community, to commit to the inclusion and promotion of substantive, three-dimensional Asian and Asian-American characters. There is already a preexisting and obvious need for such enhanced representation within the world of film. Additionally, and more narrowly for this report’s purposes, the dearth of such three-dimensional Asian characters in Hollywood only grants further space for Beijing to insist upon stereotypes and uncritical portrayals of Chinese characters. [Source]

Skeptical reactions to huaping suggest that what may appease China’s censors or investors often fails to satisfy Chinese viewers. Nevertheless, as studio executives are often keen to point out, some changes might be more charitably described as efforts to appeal to, or at least avoid alienating, Chinese audiences, rather than craven complicity with their government. Phoebe Chen discussed this gray area at The Nation in March, arguing that “criticism of China’s censorship from the West […] can sometimes seem to equate literal suppression with the separate problem of content adjustment—that is, pandering.”

In capitulating to the Chinese box office, Hollywood blockbusters have dispersed Chinese-branded products and recognizable location shots that pique surface-level interest without real, considered narrative integration. To Western critics, pandering to Chinese audiences is an ethical failure, by which Hollywood kowtows to the demands of a repressive state for profit. (As if the US film industry never sacrificed expressive freedom for big money.) Not only does this account of pandering conflate the values of the state with those of its people, it also suggests that this new market might not be worth breaking into—that Chinese audiences should come around to the terms set by Western values. If pandering is another word for “trying to solicit a new audience,” then its framing as a political offense, in this context, seems like Sinophobia by another name.

It also ignores the fact that Chinese viewers don’t like clumsy pandering either. Chinese audiences rejected the alternate versions of Iron Man 3 and Looper that were made specifically for Chinese distribution, with bizarre, incongruous extra scenes spliced in that featured famous Chinese actors or box-ticking location shots. Not only did the Chinese theatrical version of Iron Man 3 include blatant product placement for Gu Li Duo, a popular milk beverage, it also featured a scene in which Chinese doctors inexplicably perform critical surgery on an acupuncture-needle-studded Tony Stark. As one Chinese viewer said of the scene, “When the Chinese show up in the movie, it’s like suddenly changing the channel.” [Source]

The PEN report notes that Hollywood studios “have not one but three motivations for such pandering: telling more authentically international stories, appealing to Chinese audiences, and staying on the good side of the Chinese government.” It warns, though, that “when these motivations are opaque, it becomes very easy for a Hollywood filmmaker to make content decisions that appeal to Beijing, but justify these decisions by saying to others, and perhaps even to themselves, that they were motivated by the desire to appeal to everyday Chinese theatergoers.” This and other related issues were discussed in a panel discussion marking the report’s launch, hosted by Clayton Dube at the University of Southern California, and featuring Variety’s Rebecca Davis, the University of Virginia’s Aynne Kokas, USC’s Stanley Rosen, and the PEN America report’s lead author James Tager.

The interests of Chinese investors are yet another factor driving content decisions such as sometimes incongruous product placement. Rui Zhong noted another case of this on Twitter last week, from “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018):

The report weighs two recent legislative proposals targeting China-driven film censorship. Representative Mike Gallagher has called for a legal requirement for studios to disclose changes made “to fit the demands of the Chinese Communist Party.” “The idea has merit,” PEN America comments, while acknowledging that such disclosures “would only reveal one aspect of Beijing’s censorship, since it would presumably not apply to acts of anticipatory self-censorship from Hollywood studios.” Indeed, “it may push Hollywood studios to double down on anticipatory self-censorship as a way of avoiding potential requests from Beijing that it would then need to disclose. Still, PEN America supports the concept of disclosures as a proactive step toward bringing the issue out into the open. Censorship thrives in murky conditions, and transparency is a necessary first step toward any industry response to it.”

The report takes a less favorable view of Senator Ted Cruz’s “Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity, Protecting Talkies [SCRIPT] Act,” which would block Department of Defense and other federal support if studios alter movies for China or engage in joint productions. “Currently, the bill’s attempt to target studios altering content even ‘in anticipation of’ a governmental request is far too broad and extends far too far into the realm of creative choice for filmmaking professionals, failing to comport with the First Amendment and equating genuine appeals to a global audience with political censorship. Further, the bill places Department of Defense officials in the position of essentially evaluating the political messaging of American movies.”

Other prominent Republicans have also challenged Hollywood as part of a more broadly confrontational stance toward China. Attorney General William Barr attacked studios and other U.S. companies as “pawns of Chinese influence” in a speech last month. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo echoed this criticism in another address later in the month, while Republican senator Josh Hawley leveled similar accusations at the NBA.

PEN’s recommendations echo some of those made in its earlier reports on censorship of Chinese editions of foreign books, conditions for foreign journalists in China, and controls on social media content and communication. It calls for “a more honest, public, and transparent conversation about Hollywood’s role and its responsibilities,” and “more obvious and proactive action against such censorship,” highlighting the contrast between Hollywood’s strong rhetoric on these issues at home and its typically meek compliance in China.

PEN America believes that wholesale withdrawal from the Chinese-film market is neither realistic nor desirable. Hollywood should not wholly forego its opportunity to offer its stories to Chinese theatergoers and nor would it be positive for the Chinese people to be denied all access to American filmmaking. There is still substantial space for Hollywood to offer important, provocative and resonant stories even within the restrictions set by Beijing.

[…] PEN America recommends that all Hollywood studios pledge that, if they comply with anticipated or actual censorship from Beijing, either in response to a direct request from regulators or in an anticipatory effort to self-censor, that they do so only for the version of the film made available within mainland China, not for the film’s global release.

PEN America recommends that Hollywood studios commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by government regulators for their films.

The issue of Chinese governmental influence in Hollywood will remain under-examined and under-discussed as long as Hollywood decisionmakers continue to discuss it only behind closed doors. Yet, while this outcome may sound ideal to some Hollywood executives, practices in other industries demonstrate the value of transparency both as a good in and of itself and as a means of heading off bad press. Accordingly, PEN America recommends that Hollywood studios commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by government regulators for their films. Such information would go a long way toward making visible this semivisible phenomenon, illuminating the contours of Beijing’s censorship and giving film professionals and laypeople alike a better understanding of where the redlines truly lie—thus reducing the uncertainty that enables self-censorship. [Source]


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