There is no denying that Chinese audiences are becoming more and more important to consider in Hollywood, especially when it comes to churning out summer blockbusters that are going to slay at the box office.
With a rapidly growing middle class who is enjoying the social mobility of increasing incomes and 1.3 billion potential cinema-goers to draw in, appeasing Chinese government censors can make or break a movie.
This pressure is even shaping the way that we see some movies in America itself. In the words of one Los Angeles Times reporter:
"The net effect [of Chinese influence] is a situation that movie-business veterans say is unprecedented: The suppressive tendencies of a foreign nation are altering what is seen not just in one country but around the world."
While it's not just a desire to please the Chinese that can lead to edits that have potential to make it to global audiences, there is no denying they are a huge force in Hollywood, but just how much do they influence the editing of movies?
1. Iron Man 3 — Milking It
If you thought the product placement in Sex and the City was bad (I'm looking at you Jimmy Choo!) this brazen Chinese edit to Iron Man 3 will have you reeling from the shamelessness of it all.
In order to allow Iron Man 3 to blast into the profit stratosphere by selling its red and gold ass to China, a rather bizarre additional four minutes were somewhat haphazardly crammed into the movie, and we need to look at the politics of the time to understand why.
A year before Marvel released Tony Stark's third adventure, a Chinese dairy firm recalled all of its baby formula over fears that it contained mercury. Parents were right to be concerned because in 2008, six infants died from a similar case of contamination with over 300,000 becoming seriously ill.
Concerned Chinese citizens flocked in droves to Hong Kong to purchase their baby formula due to mistrust of the dairy industry, and government censors decided that Tony Stark was just the dude they needed to reassure them.
When the curtains pull back in Chinese cinemas, one of the first things the audience sees is the question: "How Does Iron Man Revitalize His Energy?" and the answer, of course, is a popular (or once popular, considering the dairy crisis) Chinese milk drink named Gu Li Duo. Quelle surprise!
Needless to say, Chinese cinema-goers aren't idiots, and this blatant attempt at government reassurance to boost the economy pissed a lot of people off. D- for subtlety.
2. Pixels — The Great Windfall Of China
Chinese government officials are greatly concerned with how their country and its people are represented in foreign movies, which — although it has positive points that I will cover later — can lead some knee-jerk reactions about things many outside China see as inconsequential.
A great example of this is Adam Sandler's Pixels. Before the movie was released, Sony self-censored its own scenes to try and avoid a potentially profit-draining feud with China. The offensive moments were a scene that showed the Great Wall of China being destroyed and a throwaway line that mentioned China as a potential hacking threat.
Interestingly, Pixels was also partly funded by China Film Group, the state-owned agency that chooses which foreign films are deemed suitable for Chinese theaters. This fact probably explains why Sony was so desperate to avoid causing offense
3. The Hunger Games — A New Dimension
Being set in a fictional world has its perks and The Hunger Games franchise has remained largely unscathed when it comes to editing for Chinese audiences — except that time it was forced to change its entire format!
3D movies are hugely popular in China (despite their waning popularity in the US) and at least 14 of the 34 foreign movies allowed into China per year must be presented in this format.
This meant that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I received its own 3D conversion for the Chinese market, as did Mockingjay — Part 2, which was only released in a traditional 2D format in America.
4. The Karate Kid — Calmed By Ancient China
Renamed The Kung Fu Kid for Chinese audiences (because Karate is Japanese), The Karate Kid was subject to some pretty snip-happy editing that essentially changed the entire message of the movie.
Despite the fact that the movie was made in association with China Film Group with a Chinese sanctioned script, The Karate Kid managed to offend officials with its suggestion that Chinese children were capable of being cruel playground bullies and the fact that the Big Bad was a Chinese character.
To solve this, 12 minutes were cut from the movie, and an American blogger living in China at the time noted that instead of a tale of an underdog rising up to prove his worth, The Karate Kid became a tale of an angry American who became a calmer, better person through ancient Chinese martial arts.
5. Transformers: Age Of Extinction — BIG In China
Transformers: Age of Extinction was made with not one, but two major Chinese sponsors, and the entire production was skewed to try and milk as much cash out of China as possible.
One of the Chinese bodies that helped fund the film exists exclusively to ensure entertainment represents government values, so it's perhaps not surprising that Chinese officials in the movie are shown as firm, rational and fair, whereas American agencies look indecisive, emotional and corrupt. For example, in one scene an American government official holds a gun to the head of the hero's daughter to extract information.
There is also a huge amount of product placement for Chinese items (some of which bizarrely show up in scenes shot in America) and a hell of a lot of Chinese locations.
All of this clearly paid off though, because Transformers: Age of Extinction is one of the highest-grossing films in Chinese history. Hurrah?
6. Red Dawn — A Common Enemy
The remake of this 1984 classic underwent huge changes that delayed its release by almost a year, and all of them were part of a massive drive to appease the Chinese and reap the financial awards.
In the original movie the villains were Chinese but the edit saw them becoming North Korean to make the film more appealing to Chinese cinema-goers.
Editing the flags, uniforms etc. in post-production cost $1 million dollars, but it didn't pay off. Red Dawn was basically a flop around the world.
7. Skyfall - Taboo Turncoat
Skyfall received some pretty heavy edits to allow it to prevent it being banned in China, which include three key scenes:
- A Shanghai-based scene where a French assassin kills a Chinese security guard in a hotel lobby is totally cut.
- Another scene based in a Chinese casino is heavily edited. Daniel Craig’s Bond is talking to a hostess named Severine and asks her if her tattoo is the result of her being forced into prostitution at an early age. Although the lines remain intact on the English-speaking talk track, the Chinese subtitles have been altered to suggest that 007 is asking her about her connections to the mob.
- All references made by the film's villain Raoul Silva about how he was tortured in China also ended up on the cutting room floor.
Are There Any Positives To Working With The Chinese Movie Industry?
Although most of the changes above are all examples of regimented government control that hampers creative freedom in an arguably negative way, there are also some positives to be gleaned from Chinese involvement in producing Hollywood blockbusters.
One of the most crucial aspects is the inclusion of actors of Chinese descent in major roles, a luxury that would probably not be afforded to them without Chinese intervention if the recent trend of whitewashing characters that are Asian on the page is anything to go by.
As Aziz Ansari pointed out in his awesome Master of None series, minority actors often receive stereotypical and minor roles, but Chinese intervention is at least helping actors of Chinese descent break this mould and step into the driver's seat in huge blockbusters (although, sadly black actors seem to be more censored in China). Hopefully proving that people will actually watch movies starring non-white characters (as Hollywood repeatedly insists is not the case) will encourage more studios to embrace more diverse casts.
8. Looper - Increasing Asian Representation
Looper had 40 percent of its budget provided by DMG, a Chinese media company, but this financial helping hand came with the cost of handing over some creative decisions.
Luckily, this actually worked out for the best in a number of ways. For example, the world's new capital was changed from Paris to the much more plausible Shanghai and a Chinese actor was written in and given a major role in the predominantly white cast.
Qing Xu, who was previously only well-known in China nailed the part of Old Joe's Wife and helped increase minority representation in the movie.