If aesthetically jarring, the gambit has paid off handsomely. “Iron Man 3” raked in more than $64 million in its first five days and broke Chinese records with its May 1 opening-day haul of $21 million.
It’s a sign of how eager Hollywood has become to court China’s Communist Party leaders, who maintain an iron fist over the country’s booming movie market.
This is how an invading swarm of Chinese soldiers in last year’s “Red Dawn” suddenly became North Koreans. And how Bruce Willis’s character mysteriously came to spend much more time in Shanghai than Paris in last year’s “Looper.” And why the outbreak sparking the zombie apocalypse in Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” this summer has been rewritten to originate from Moscow instead of China.
U.S. producers often spin such tweaks as an attempt to appeal to Chinese viewers. But experts say their more crucial target is the Chinese government’s 37-member censorship board, which each year approves just 34 foreign films for Chinese screens and reviews all their content. With China becoming the world’s second-largest box office market last year, failing to make that list can mean the loss of tens of millions of dollars.
U.S. film executives have described a process that involves heavy negotiation and wooing as they try to win approval. To please the authorities, studios have been willing to add Chinese actors, locations and elements to their cast, adjust release dates and tweak plot points to flatter or at least avoid offending Chinese officials.
It has been tough, however, to predict exactly what will tick off Chinese party censors, who often flag scenes not only for violence and nudity but also political sensitivity.
They have at times fixated on small details such as shots of unsightly laundry hanging from Shanghai residences in “Mission Impossible 3” and a passing reference to the Cold War in one line of a James Bond film. Time-travel dramas were inexplicably but effectively banned in 2011 by Chinese authorities, who called it “disrespectful of history.”
But the government board has sometimes surprised as well, raising eyebrows for instance when it greenlighted last year’s “Hunger Games” — a movie about an authoritarian government that represses its people using a combination of propaganda and brutal force.
The latest cautionary tale came last month when Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was yanked from some Chinese theaters as the movie was rolling on opening night in China.
Was the problem those geysers of blood in the revenge fantasy flick? (Tarantino had already toned down the color and splatter to a more modest fountain, a Sony official told a Chinese newspaper.) Was it the scenes of repressed slaves rising to overthrow masters (always a touchy subject here where party leaders live in fear of revolution)? The exact reason has not been explained, but the film’s release has been rescheduled for May 12.