In Hollywood, the screenwriter William Goldman once observed, “nobody knows anything”. Now, however, everybody knows at least one thing: whatever you do, be nice to China.
If your movie features a Chinese villain, change his nationality. If your plot omits a scene in China, insert one – preferably with gleaming skyscrapers. If your production deal lacks a Chinese partner, find one. If Beijing’s censors dislike certain scenes, cut them.
Kow-towing to China has become a reflex for actors, writers, producers, directors and studio executives in pursuit of the world’s second-biggest box office, a trend set to intensify as China overtakes the US as the No 1 film market.
Recent blockbusters such as Iron Man 3 and Django Unchained, and others in the pipeline such as Transformers 4 and Brad Pitt’s World War Z, have been modified to please Chinese authorities and audiences, prompting accusations of artistic surrender.
“It’s got to the point where everyone is thinking: how are we going to make a movie that, at the very least, is not offensive to the Chinese public?” said Peter Shiao, chair of the US-China Film Summit and founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based Orb Media Group.
Screenplays look beyond China for baddies, he said. “People from the Middle East seem to be taking the brunt, and will probably continue to do so until it has its own rising film market. Sad but true.”
Where Asians villains do appear they tend to be North Korean, as in the recent action films Olympus Has Fallen and Red Dawn.
China’s market is booming. Box office revenues rose 30% last year to $2.7bn, overtaking Japan. With about 10 new cinema screens opening daily, China is expected to overtake the US within a decade.
The other reason is Chinese government control. To nurture domestic film, it allows only 34 foreign films to be shown annually, an increase from the previous cap of 20 but still a tiny number. To stand a chance of inclusion in the quota, a film must please, or at least not offend, the authorities.
The only way to circumvent the quota is to turn a film into a Chinese co-production, meaning Chinese elements in the story, production and funding. Such ventures give Hollywood 43% of the profits versus the usual 25% – a big added incentive.
“I’m working on the script right now, and if someone came to me and said: ‘We’re looking into doing a chunk of this in China’, well, I’d have to think about it,” Joss Whedon, who is working on Avengers 2, told Entertainment Weekly. “China is on my radar. It can’t not be at this point.”
James Cameron said he was considering inserting Chinese elements into two sequels to Avatar, saying it would be “logical” to have Chinese characters on the planet Pandora.
The upcoming World War Z deleted dialogue sourcing a zombie virus outbreak to China. Transformers 4 will recruit Chinese actors through a television contest expected to attract thousands of hopefuls. Jurassic Park IV will reportedly feature dinosaurs found in China.
The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall found reasons for Batman and James Bond to visit China. Cloud Atlas cut 40 minutes. Quentin Tarantino approved multiple changes to Django Unchained.
Iron Man 3 went further than most, adding scenes for the Chinese version that showed a Chinese surgeon saving Tony Stark and lines for the leading female actor Fan Bingbing. Chinese links were expunged from the “Mandarin”, a comic villain played by Ben Kingsley.
Robert Downey Jr, who plays the lead, told a press conference in Beijing: “I’m interested in all things Chinese, and I live a very Chinese life in America.”
Dreamworks has thrived in China with family films devoid of taboo sex and violence, but many studios stumble with the censor or putative Chinese partners, resulting in delays, frustration and cancelled co-productions.
“Filming in China was a great experience, but it was beyond my skillset to understand or fathom the inner workings of the Chinese government,” the producer Marc Abraham told the Hollywood Reporter.
Shiao said studios often blundered by thinking they could turn any film into a coveted co-production with a few cosmetic tweaks. “You have to have the right project.” China, he said, wanted Hollywood to help showcase its culture and build a homegrown film industry with global appeal. “It seems pretty far down that track.”
Hollywood’s traditional support for the Dalai Lama has not slowed its scramble for the yen, said Alistair Currie, a UK-based activist with Free Tibet. “Every time a movie shows skyscrapers in Shanghai instead of secret police arresting people, China has scored another propaganda victory.”
Kate Saunders, of the International Campaign for Tibet, said many celebrities remained committed, notably Richard Gere, who wore a Tibet tie-pin at the Oscars. “Even small, symbolic gestures of support by Hollywood stars can say a lot in today’s world of instant communications.”
Critics have accused film-makers of letting communist censors butcher their work, prompting defensive responses. A Sony spokesman for Tarantino said the “adjustments” to Django Unchained were “progress rather than a compromise”.
The satirical site Hollywood & Swine has mocked the kowtowing. “Film schools to begin teaching students how to pander to China,” said a recent headline.
The article included a faux quote from Dreamworks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg. “We used to blacklist screenwriters for being communists. Now we’re taking script notes from a communist government. That’s real progress.”