Pixels is currently going through a critical mauling at the moment, and no ones quite sure who to blame. Is it Adam Sandler's fault? What about the director, Chris Columbus? Could it even be the fault of the poor video-editor who made the original short which inspired the big screen movie in the first place?
Well, it turns out it could be China's fault. Kind of.
According to some of the emails leaked from Sony, the studio heavily edited the movie to ensure it didn't fall foul of the ever-present Chinese censors. Reuters is reporting that the original script for the movie, which made frequent references to China, was 'sanitized' after executives felt it could hinder its global box office appeal.
For example, one scene, which featured pixelated aliens blasting a hole into the Great Wall of China, was decided to be too inflammatory for Chinese censors. Li Chow, chief representative of Sony Pictures in China, explained that although the film featured other landmarks being destroyed, it was simply better to lose the scene. He stated in a December 2013 email:
Even though breaking a hole on the Great Wall may not be a problem as long as it is part of a worldwide phenomenon, it is actually unnecessary because it will not benefit the China release at all. I would then, recommend not to do it.
You can watch the Pixels trailer below:
The original script also apparently contained references to a "Communist Conspiracy brother" hacking an email server. As you can expect, this was also stripped in an attempt to pass the movie for the Chinese market. In fact, by the end of the cull, there were no references to the authoritarian nation left in the script. Initially, it seemed Sony execs toyed with the idea of releasing both a Chinese and international version of Pixels. Ultimately they decided this would likely backfire, especially once those pesky bloggers realized what they had done. Steven O’Dell, president of Sony Pictures Releasing International, claimed in an email:
Changing the China elements to another country should be a relatively easy fix. There is only downside to leaving the film as it is. Recommendation is to change all versions as if we only change the China version, we set ourselves up for the press to call us out for this when bloggers invariably compare the versions and realize we changed the China setting just to pacify that market.
Hollywood: Made in China
Of course, the motivation for these changes are purely financial. China is now the second biggest movie market in the world, and increasingly more American blockbusters are adjusting their stories to appeal to Chinese audiences. However, the Chinese film industry is protected by strict censorship and a quota on foreign movies. This means state officials have no qualms with blocking or banning the showing of a movie if it does not fit or support their doctrine.
For example, other Sony emails also reference Captain Phillips, a movie which performed less than expected in the global box office. Sony decided one of the main reasons for this was the fact Captain Phillips did not muster with the Chinese censors. In December 2013, Rory Bruer, President of Worldwide Distribution at Sony Pictures, suggested the movie would be hindered by its story:
The reality of the situation is that China will probably never clear the film [Captain Phillips] for censorship. Reasons being the big Military machine of the U.S. saving one U.S. citizen. China would never do the same and in no way would want to promote this idea. Also just the political tone of the film is something that they would not feel comfortable with.
This pandering to the Chinese market is likely only something which will increase in the future as movies such as Transformers: Age of Extinction and Furious 7 have shown that massive amounts of money can be made in the Chinese market. Both of these movies actually made more money in the Chinese market than the domestic U.S. market, however, American studios can only get a small slice of this amount.
Chinese rules dictate that foreign film studios can only take 25% of the money generated by ticket sales, meanwhile domestic Chinese studios can take up to 43%. As Chinese movie-goers contribute more to the gross box office of American movies, it seems inevitable the foreign studios will want a bigger mouthful of money pie. In order to take 43% of the ticket sales, the movie must be a co-production with a Chinese studio, and this adds even more limitations.
To qualify as a co-production a movie must generally feature positive depictions of Chinese culture as well as scenes set in China. Furthermore, the story must adhere to Chinese censor rules. This includes no storylines pertaining to homosexuality, the over-throwing of authority or racial oppression. Robert Cain, partner in film co-production company Pacific Bridge Pictures (which works extensively in China) told the Telegraph:
Of course, any sort of political movie or political discourse is really prohibited, whether it’s critical of the Chinese government or critical of other governments, that’s just not allowed, [as is] excessive violence – although that seems to fluctuate with what they’ll allow – and anything that appears to make fun of Chinese culture or doesn’t honour Chinese culture properly.
Did you ever wonder why Transformers: Age of Extinction shoehorned in those scenes set in China? Well, that's because it was a co-production with a Chinese studio. And what about that deleted Iron Man 3 scene which featured Chinese superstar Fan BingBing? Well, that was an additional 4-minute scene which was only included in the Chinese release of the movie. It was added purely to qualify the film as a co-production. However, the criticism resulting from this decision probably means 'Chinese versions' are already a thing of the past since, as the above email suggests, they generally only attract negative press. With this in mind, it's likely they will simply censor the international version, as is the case of Pixels.
You can watch Chinese Iron Man 3 scene below:
The result is a mainstream movie market which will increasingly adjust its story, casting and production to meet the strict demands of an authoritarian, but increasingly lucrative, regime with a history of human rights violations. Needless to say, this is not good for cinema as a free and artistic medium.
Now, I realize mentioning Pixels and the word 'artistic' in the same breath is fairly ridiculous. Pixels was never anything more than an attempt to draw cash out of people's appreciation for nostalgic retro video-gaming. The original viral video resonated with fans, and Sony hoped to turn that resonance into cold hard cash. Furthermore, if Pixels was released unhindered by the rules of Chinese censors, its unlikely it would have been much improved. Despite this, the point remains.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with creating a movie which has a global appeal. In fact, there's many things right with creating a less America-centric film industry. Unfortunately, the decisions being made in Hollywood are not driven by any kind of empathy for other cultures, they are purely financial in basis. Essentially, it seems like Hollywood might just be selling its soul for a sniff of those Chinese dollars.
Currently, Pixels is bombing in the American box office, while it's due to open in China on September 15th. You should hope Chinese cinema-goers also have the good sense to give this movie a wide berth, because if it does do well and helps Pixels become profitable, we can only expect more lazy, derivative movies like it in the future.