Hollywood takes censorship in stride

Cuts to films that enter China seen as part of doing business

Sony’s “Men in Black 3” was a hit in Chinese theaters this summer, but it wasn’t the same film American moviegoers saw.

Some 13 minutes were trimmed, including one scene in which Will Smith erases the memories of a crowd of onlookers in New York’s Chinatown. According to China Southern Daily, the government may have censored that part of the film because it evoked the image of the Chinese government’s tendency to censor.

The “Men in Black” cuts got plenty of coverage on the blogosphere in the U.S., but evoked very little discernible outrage from the Hollywood institutions that have so zealously professed a defense of free speech.

As the Onion AV Club noted, wryly, “It is, indeed, the most glaring example of Hollywood films kowtowing to Chinese censorship since the last one.”

Another blogger, Sonny Bunch of Doublethink, saw irony in the furor that greeted the MPAA’s R rating for the documentary “Bully,” yet little over the many times Hollywood blockbusters have been edited to meet the demands of Chinese film authorities.

Of course they’re right, but censorship is seen as a part of doing business in China, and for the studios, it’s a price they’re willing to pay to avoid missing out on an exploding market.

While the studios allow edited movies in other territories to respond to cultural sensitivities, and more often than not with little attention, the practice takes on a higher profile due to the size and potential of the market, market, and by what can sound to Americans like stringent, even bizarre rules. (For instance, films allowed to enter the market are not permitted to depict or mention time travel).

Moreover, Hollywood, like many other industries, is measuring success in China by access to the marketplace, not by the content it can get past authorities.

Earlier this year, a deal to ease China’s quotas on foreign films was hailed as a trade breakthrough by the Obama administration, the MPAA and studio moguls. There was little mention of any demand for relaxation of content standards.

Chris Fenton, president of DMG Entertainment Motion Picture Group, which is co-producing “Iron Man 3” in China with Disney and Marvel, says that acceptance of Chinese edits has much do to with the way studios and producers gain entry into the market: The challenge is to establish trust, not to push the envelope.

And while the uninitiated may look with puzzlement at the way business is done there, he says, the attitude is one of partnership — to make each other look good, not to offend.

“It is relationship-based,” Fenton says. “It is (about) understanding the other side and having them understand you. It comes down to a strategic approach to what you are pushing into that market, why you are pushing it and how you (can push) it.”

Nevertheless, the increasing profile of the Chinese market will undoubtedly draw greater attention to the treatment of censorship there vs. here.

A decade ago, the Directors Guild of America and the MPAA expressed outrage and filed suit against CleanFlicks, a Utah company that edited DVDs for content it considered objectionable to children and families. Now, at least publicly, neither the DGA nor MPAA is raising its voice against China’s mandated cuts to “Men in Black 3” or snips to any other recent studio films allowed to enter China. Asked to comment on this story, spokeswomen for the two orgs said they had nothing to add.

It’s been a delicate dance. In formal reports to U.S. Trade officials, studios have complained about China’s censorship reviews, but the World Trade Organization reportedly has not taken action because other countries also have restrictions that allow them to police for “public morals.”

Of course there’s an obvious difference between CleanFlicks’ cuts, which were made without studio consent, and China’s cuts, which are done with the tacit approval of Hollywood. And while studios aren’t required to enter the Chinese market, parent company shareholders might consider such a decision to demure to be a form of fiduciary malpractice.

Certainly, the studios aren’t the only business group that have found it difficult to say “no” to China. Last year, in the bitter battle over anti-piracy legislation, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd dinged Google for claiming it couldn’t do more to combat piracy from rogue sites overseas. “When the Chinese told Google that they had to block sites or they couldn’t do (business) in their country, they managed to figure out how to block sites,” Dodd told Variety.

Still, going forward, the question remains which culture will more influence the other: Will Hollywood’s zest for creative freedom spill over into China, or will the Chinese quest for creative control influence American moviemaking decisions?

Fenton says that the Chinese have come a long way in a short amount of time. “Try pushing ‘Men in Black’ in theaters in 1990,” he notes. Moreover, the Chinese have an interest in producing movies that will travel commercially outside the mainland, which will require more liberal standards. Mike Medavoy, who was born in Shanghai and is embarking on production of a historical feature to be shot in China, says the Chinese are studying how to make movies that everyone else wants to see.

On the other hand, studios, with an ever-increasing desire to cater to overseas box office, also could be tempted to tailor scripts and concepts to suit Chinese sensibilities. As the Los Angeles Times reported last year, MGM digitally altered a remake of “Red Dawn” so that an invading Chinese army was changed into one from North Korea. The move was made not at the behest of Chinese censors, but rather as a sop to worldwide distributors who feared leaving the film as it was would sour their relationships with Beijing, the Times reported.

There’s also another way to look at Chinese censorship, and that’s through the lens of piracy. A visitor to Shanghai or any other major Chinese city will see that they can get just about any Hollywood release in any number of stores. Those versions may very well be uncut — but Hollywood would rather have paying customers watching the adulterated versions in theaters.

World Report: China 2012
Filmmakers play by China rulebook | H’wood takes censorship in stride | Real estate boom brings movies to the masses | Studios, exhibs get China boost | Regime change carries warning signs | TV a tiny share of China market | H’wood needs no introduction | Top mainland mavens own inside scoop