China is increasing its number of movie theatres and the number of American films that can be shown in them. And China is already the second largest market for American films in the world. So Hollywood is anxious to take full advantage of China’s potential and is busy making, and changing, its fare to appease the notoriously sensitive Chinese government. Bob talks to USC professor Stanley Rosen about what Hollywood's appeasement of China looks like at the movies.
So, there you are, sometime later this year, watching the 2012 of “Red Dawn.” You might recall that the 1984 original told the story of some plucky American high school students who fend off an invasion by the Russians.
[“RED DAWN” CLIP]:
MAN: This is the emergency broadcast system. We are under attack by conventional forces of the Russian Army. [SOUND OF EXPLOSION] Communications have broken down in other parts of the country. Large areas of the Midwest may have been overrun.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: In the 2012 remake the invaders won’t be Russian, they’ll be North Korean. What you'll unwittingly be watching is actually one of the many ways that Hollywood is – you’ll pardon the expression – kowtowing to the Chinese. Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, is a longtime watcher of Hollywood and its relationship with China, and he joins us now. Stanley, welcome to the show.
STANLEY ROSEN: Thanks [LAUGHS] very much, happy to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So let’s start with “Red Dawn 2012.” The invaders are North Korean, and this has to do with China, how?
STANLEY ROSEN: Originally, the plan was to have the invaders be Chinese.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha.
STANLEY ROSEN: And, in fact, it was done with them speaking Chinese, until somebody told the filmmakers that you know, that might not be a good idea since China now has the second-largest film market in the world and you may want to play this film there. So they spent, as I understand it, about a million dollars to digitally change what needed to be changed, in terms of the language, in terms of some of the insignias on the uniforms, and so on, so that China would be a minor character.
BOB GARFIELD: There are, as it turns out, many red lines for story content for US films going to China, and some of them are just bizarre [LAUGHS]. You can’t have time travel in a movie?
STANLEY ROSEN: That’s actually changing a bit but, in general, yes, it goes back in some ways to Chinese tradition. When you couldn’t criticize what was going on in the present, you set the action in the past. People would understand what they’re really doing is criticizing the corruption going on in the present. Science fiction, at one point, was redlined, superstition was redlined.
But when you have films like “Harry Potter,” now “Men In Black III” - you know, the first “Men In Black” was banned in China, the second “Men In Black” wasn’t even submitted to be shown in China, but “Men In Black III” was allowed. So the red lines are changing.
Certainly too much violence, sex, anything at all possibly that could be construed as critical of China and also critical of other countries that China wants to be on good terms with. One example, “Pirates of the Caribbean.” When Chow Yun-fat played a pirate in Singapore, his opening line was –
CHOW YUN-FAT AS CAPTAIN SAO FENG: Captain Barbossa, welcome to Singapore.
STANLEY ROSEN: That was eliminated because the government felt that people would get the idea that Singapore was a den of pirates. Some of it’s quite ludicrous.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a time in the eighties and the nineties when the plight of Tibet was a favorite Hollywood subject.
STANLEY ROSEN: Mm-hm. [AFFIRMATIVE] Back in the late nineties with “Seven Years in Tibet,” “Kundun,” Martin Scorsese’s film, “Red Corner,” about the Chinese legal system, the Richard Gere film, all three films came out around the same time, and all those studios were banned for a number of years from distributing movies in China. But in those days studios could feel free to make films that might be unappetizing to China.
Now, it’s the opposite. “Pandering” perhaps, would be a word. Take a movie like “2012,” which was a big hit in China, in it, when they build the arks to save the world, Oliver Platt, one of the characters, says -
OLIVER PLATT, AS CARL ANHEUSER: Leave it to the Chinese. [LAUGHS] I didn’t think it was possible, not in the time we had.
STANLEY ROSEN: When they land in China after escaping from a North America, which is being destroyed by natural disasters, the People’s Liberation Army greets the group coming, salutes and says “Welcome to China.” And, and in Shanghai, in the audience in one of the theatres, everybody stood up and applauded.
BOB GARFIELD: Are the stakes that high to prompt Hollywood to be so subservient?
STANLEY ROSEN: Hollywood, as you know, is always concerned with the bottom line, not concerned with politics. They can be embarrassed; they have been in a number of cases recently. One of the production companies, Legendary, was making a film in China in the very county where Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist, was being housed and brutalized. They didn’t realize. They were praising the local officials as, as to how cooperative they were.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s not just content we’re speaking of. There’s an ongoing Securities & Exchange Commission investigation –
STANLEY ROSEN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: - of bribes possibly paid by Hollywood studios to secure distribution or financing or filming rights in China. Are these content concessions related to that activity, as well?
STANLEY ROSEN: They’re certainly related to the fact that there’s been a quota in place. There used to be 10 international films a year. Then it went up to 20. Now there’s an additional 14 more, 3D and IMAX films. So the studios are very much trying to get their numbers within that quota.
If you invite some leading official in the Chinese film industry to visit Hollywood, all expenses paid, to discuss negotiations on this, that or the other thing, if you help a son or daughter do their application for an American university, at what point does, quote/unquote “friendship” and “being helpful” cross the line into actually being a bribe?
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned the quotas. There is now a maximum of 34 films, which does not seem like a huge number on the face of it. Tell me how significant those 34 films are to the overall economics of Hollywood and its future.
STANLEY ROSEN: Hollywood makes about 5% of its box office in China, on average. But China is seen as a growing market, growing over 30% a year, whereas the North American box office has been pretty stagnant, by and large. China’s also building large numbers of new screens. Every week the top film with the box office in China has been a Hollywood film; 64% of the box office this year in China has been Hollywood films. Since February it’s 77%.
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, let’s just say for a moment that the sort of self-censorship you described with “Red Dawn” and other content is morally contemptible, let’s just say. Does it matter? Are there consequences?
STANLEY ROSEN: In a perverse way, it matters in a positive way because there’s a lot of feeling in China that in foreign policy the United States is doing its best to be the policeman of the world and to keep China weak. Hollywood films that make China look good, in, in fact, help America’s soft power. Almost the opposite of, of what you're suggesting, I think an argument could be made that by doing what they’re doing Hollywood is actually building a stronger set of feelings toward the United States than if they were showing China in a very negative light.
BOB GARFIELD: Stanley, thank you so much.
STANLEY ROSEN: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Stanley Rosen is a professor of political science at the University of Southern California.