It's a very far cry from the days of Charlie Chan movies. Hollywood is now in full, panting pursuit of the Chinese film market, the world's second largest, and it's prepared to alter scripts, recast baddies, and transplant entire productions to win the business.
Paramount Pictures signed the latest in a lengthening list of deals between the American and Chinese film industries last week. In order to produce the fourth instalment of its blockbuster Transformers franchise, the Hollywood studio is buddying up with two Beijing-based businesses, one of which, China Movie Channel, is owned and operated by the Chinese State Radio, Film and Television Administration. As part of the agreement, laid out in a press release, the Chinese firms will assist with "selection of filming sites within China, theatrical promotion and possible post-production activities in China, as well as casting of Chinese actors and actresses".
On the same day, news emerged that Paramount had altered the script of its forthcoming zombie epic, World War Z, so as not to alienate or enrage Chinese audiences and the Communist Party censors who control their viewing habits. In the movie, Brad Pitt plays a United Nations worker in search of a cure for a global zombie pandemic, which one character mentions may have originated in China. The offending reference was reportedly removed, and replaced with the name of another country. A tiny change, maybe, but symptomatic of a trend in Hollywood, which has increasingly
been forced to compromise its content to satisfy the world's fastest-growing movie market.
Rob Cain, a producer who has been doing business with China for more than 15 years, says: "There are always strings attached to money, no matter where it comes from. I don't think there's anybody who makes films in China or anywhere else that likes the system of censorship there. But it's a reality and you have to deal with it. If you want to make movies, you just shut up and try to get away with what you can. Film-making is a business, and the business is moving towards China."
Last month, an annual report from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) showed that China surpassed Japan in 2012 to become the world's second-biggest box-office market behind the US, with combined box-office revenues of $2.7bn (£1.8bn) – a 37 per cent rise on the previous year. With $10.8bn in takings, the North American market remained the world's largest by some distance, but research by Ernst & Young has found that, at its current growth rate, the Chinese box office could outpace the US by the end of the decade. Speaking at the release of his organisation's report, MPAA chairman and chief executive Christopher Dodd said: "China is building something like 10 screens a day. There is a voracious appetite for product."
Historically, the Chinese government has allowed no more than 20 non-Chinese films to be released in the nation's cinemas per year, but a trade deal agreed with the US in 2012 allowed for another 14 foreign releases annually, provided they were in 3D or Imax format. In December, the 3D Oscar nominee Life of Pi, by Taiwanese director Ang Lee, became the second Hollywood film to fare better in China than it had in the US, grossing $84.3m in Chinese ticket sales. The first to perform that feat was James Cameron's recent 3D re‑release of Titanic; his previous film, the grand sci-fi Avatar (2009), is the most successful American movie to date in China, where it made $294m.
Last year, the Chinese media mogul Bruno Wu announced plans to build "Chinawood", a $1.27bn movie studio in Tianjin, partially funded by the local government, and intended to generate US-Chinese co-productions. DreamWorks is planning to animate Kung Fu Panda 3 at a new studio in Shanghai, with the help of Chinese investors. Meanwhile, back across the Pacific, China's Dalian Wanda group recently purchased the AMC cinema chain, America's second largest, for $2.6bn. There is even speculation that a wealthy Chinese firm might soon shell out to buy its own Hollywood studio, as Japanese companies did in the 1980s and 1990s.
But as Hollywood expands into the Middle Kingdom, it has also learned the cost of crossing the country's strict censors. In 1997, Disney, Sony and MGM studios released Kundun, Seven Years in Tibet and Red Corner, a trio of films critical of China's human rights record; Beijing temporarily cut off business dealings with all three companies. They're unlikely to make the same mistake again. Cameron agreed to cut shots of Kate Winslet's breasts
from the Chinese version of Titanic 3D, telling The New York Times: "As an artist, I'm always against censorship … [But] this is an important market for me. And so I'm going to do what's necessary to continue having this be an important market for my films. And I'm going to play by the rules that are internal to this market."
He is far from alone. Bond producers excised the death of a Chinese security man from Skyfall before its release there, as well as several mentions of Javier Bardem's baddie having been tortured in a Chinese prison. Chinese villains were edited out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and Men in Black 3. For last year's remake of 1984's Red Dawn, in which a group of American teenagers formed a resistance against a Russian invasion, writers began by replacing the original villains with a dastardly Chinese army. But when a backlash began to brew in China, MGM spent $1m to alter digitally every offending flag, symbol and line of dialogue in the movie, transforming its invaders into North Koreans instead.
Film-makers have not merely removed unflattering references to China; they have also inserted flattering ones. A 2010 remake of The Karate Kid was transplanted to Beijing in its entirety, and Japanese karate replaced with Chinese kung fu. The imminent superhero sequel Iron Man 3 was partly shot in Beijing, and partly financed by Chinese firm DMG Entertainment; its producer Marvel (a Disney subsidiary) announced last week that it would release a specially tailored cut for Chinese audiences, featuring a cameo by the popular Chinese actress Fan Bingbing. Rian Johnson, writer-director of time-travel thriller Looper, moved much of his screenplay's action from Paris to Shanghai to secure Chinese funding.