How China's Censors Influence Hollywood : Parallels Huge box office numbers underscore how essential the Chinese market has become to Hollywood's bottom line. Money is power — meaning the Communist Party has increasing influence over big U.S. movies.
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How China's Censors Influence Hollywood

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How China's Censors Influence Hollywood

How China's Censors Influence Hollywood

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have a story of how the global marketplace may influence the movies Americans watch. Hollywood wants its films shown in China. There's a lot of money at stake. Just to give an example, the new Avengers movie "Age Of Ultron" took in more than $150 million in China over the past week. To have a chance at that kind of payday, Hollywood movies must portray China in the way that China's government wants. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III")

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In "Mission: Impossible III," there's a nice scene setting shot that captures the contrast of Shanghai. Tom Cruise walks past the winking lights of the modern cityscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) (Inaudible chatter).

LANGFITT: And then past underwear hanging from a clothesline. It's totally accurate, which was part of the problem.

TJ GREEN: The censors felt that it did not portray Shanghai in a positive light, so that scene was removed from the movie.

LANGFITT: This is TJ Green. He runs APEX Entertainment, which owns and builds movie theaters in China.

GREEN: The censorship always goes back to the Communist Party. They're in charge, and they're always looking at how China is portrayed. They didn't want to see something that portrayed it, you know, that it's a developing country.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKYFALL")

LANGFITT: Or one where Chinese can't defend themselves. In the latest Bond movie, "Skyfall," an assassin walks into a skyscraper in Shanghai's showcase financial district and shoots a security guard with a silencer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SKYFALL")

LANGFITT: Chinese audiences didn't see that scene either.

GREEN: My speculation would be that they didn't like the fact that a foreign perpetrator comes in and the Chinese security guard just gets shot and looks weak.

LANGFITT: Is that scene about face?

GREEN: I believe so. You're saying that they can't secure some of their most prized assets in China.

LANGFITT: Green's company estimates the Chinese movie market will surpass North America as the world's largest within a few years, so filmmakers are adding scenes to appeal to Chinese audiences. Take "Iron Man 3" - for the Chinese release, moviemakers inserted a scene of Chinese doctors discussing surgery on the superhero.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRON MAN 3")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: The actors are big stars here, but the scene made no sense and seemed like it was from a different movie. Again, TJ Green.

GREEN: The "Iron Man" one was - OK, it's a blatant attempt to try to get more Chinese audiences into the movie to make a quick buck. And then some in the industry took offense to that - for that and saying that you're belittling Chinese actors and talent.

LANGFITT: Foreign filmmakers are also going out of their way not to offend the government, which decides which movies are screened here and which aren't.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED DAWN")

LANGFITT: For instance, the 2012 remake of the Cold War action movie "Red Dawn" featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town. After filming was complete, the moviemakers went back and gave the attacking army a different nationality, one that seemed - at least before last year's hack of Sony Pictures - a safer target.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RED DAWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As News Pundit) North Korea is like a spoiled child.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As News Anchor) North Korea is a danger to the world.

LANGFITT: Chinese diplomats ask Peter Shiao to arrange a conversation with the makers of "Red Dawn." Shiao runs Orb Media Group, a film production and financing company with offices in China and the U.S.

PETER SHIAO: They were not interested in their country being perceived as a violent military threat to the lives of the average American.

LANGFITT: By then, though, Shiao says the filmmakers were already erasing references to China in post-production.

SHIAO: You pick up the scenes where the Chinese flag may be on a uniform and you have to go ahead and retroactively paint them as something else. You would literally have to go through the movie frame-by-frame and change words and change visuals that would convey that this was China.

YING ZHU: I'm Ying Zhu. I am a professor of media culture in the City University of New York.

LANGFITT: Zhu grew up in Shanghai and studies Chinese film. She worries China's growing market power is giving the Communist Party too much leverage over Hollywood.

ZHU: The Chinese censors can act as world film police on how China can be depicted - a Chinese government essentially - can be depicted in Hollywood films. And therefore, films critical of Chinese government would be absolutely a taboo. It would be a no-no.

LANGFITT: In the late 1990s, when Chinese box office was still small, Hollywood did make movies that angered the Communist Party, such as "Seven Years In Tibet" about the life of the Dalai Lama and "Red Corner," a thriller which criticized China's legal system. I asked Zhu, would these movies ever get financing today?

ZHU: I don't think so. I don't believe it will precisely because of the concern for the Chinese market.

LANGFITT: When it comes to free expression, the situation in China is not encouraging these days. But Peter Shiao of Orb Media is optimistic about the long-term future of film here.

SHIAO: The things that we could see on screen in China right now versus what was allowable 10 years ago is very, very different.

LANGFITT: Shiao thinks China's increasingly sophisticated audiences will demand better movies and not just the ones the censors want them to see. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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