Hollywood's China syndrome: Plots and characters changed to suit huge new audience

Asian giant is now the second-biggest box-office market – so producers are altering movies to make them more appealing to film-goers there

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition