Selling (to) China

Steven Zeitchik and Jonathan Landreth have a fascinating must-read article that explores how the Chinese market is affecting creative decisions made by Hollywood studios (also Check out Zeitchik’s blog post on the topic). Because of China’s growing middle class (and the further opening up of their movie quota system), studios are working harder to produce content that will satisfy the relatively strict censors at China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television while also working to court Chinese businesses for production funds.

Some of these changes are relatively minimal: The movie Battleship was tweaked to give Chinese scientists credit for first identifying the alien invaders. Others are more substantial. The remake of Red Dawn (which seems to have been in process for ages) was re-edited to change the U.S. invaders from Chinese to North Korean, while Chinese bioelectric engineers were added as “experts” to the movie Salmon Fishing in Yemen, when there were no similar characters in the original novel. In all cases, narrative and character decisions are being made with some awareness about how (and even whether) the film will play legally in the Chinese market.

Zeitchik and Landreth characterize these decisions as a form of “censorship” in a couple of places, but I’m not quite sure that’s the right way of describing what is happening (or I would at least like to qualify the concept of censorship here). Yes, undesirable images may be censored, and in some cases literally cut, from movies, as happened when Chow Yun Fat’s scenes were removed from one of the Pirates of Caribbean movies. And these decisions may shape the kinds of projects that get funded. I’d imagine, for example, that a studio might now be much more reluctant to finance a project like Seven Years in Tibet. But “economic censorship” is quite a bit different than state censorship, and filmmakers theoretically could reject working with Chinese companies, as Relatively Media did when it was threatened with a boycott by human rights groups angered that they planned to film in a location close to wehere activist Chen Guangcheng was being held under house arrest. And if this means that we will get fewer racist caricatures of Chinese people and cultures, then I think there is some value in respecting these markets. This doesn’t mean that state censorship isn’t functioning here–China’s censorship practices are well-documented–but it is still the case that most of the motivations for Hollywood for altring content are economic.

Still, I think the article is an important read if only because it illustrates the degree to which these forms of economic censorship function in shaping cinematic storytelling, and more significantly, how these changed storytelling practices are being driven not necessarily (or even primarily in some cases) by American sensibilities but by those of a wider, globalized audience and by the state and economic interests that seek to shape the content of Hollywood entertainment.

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