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Stephen Colbert’s ‘Pander Express’ is a brilliant takedown of how Hollywood sucks up to China

Beijing's censors have way more influence than you might realize

Stephen Colbert has promised to follow Hollywood's example in sucking up to China -- a practice that has become a huge moneymaker for American film studios. In an episode of the "Late Show" this week, the host fawned over China's achievements and vowed to get himself some of that "sweet and sour renminbi."

Colbert launches his segment by talking about "The Martian," the sci-fi thriller that has been a huge hit so far in the United States. The film took in around $150 million in box office revenues in its first weekend, according to entertainment data company Rentrak.

And it's expected to rake in far more going forward, says Colbert. People think the film will do particularly well when it is released in China, in part because the Chinese space program plays a key role in the film.

Colbert implies that "The Martian" includes a Chinese plot point as a way to crack into the country's huge and lucrative film market. He may be a little off here -- as people who have read the book point out, the book also includes mentions of China, and it seems doubtful that author Andy Weir was thinking about Chinese box office revenues when he wrote it.

Still, the phenomenon that Colbert is talking about -- Hollywood casting the Chinese in a flattering light in order to do better in that box office market -- is definitely real. There are lots of recent Hollywood films that Colbert doesn't mention that are designed to appeal to China, some more subtly than others. In fact, the Chinese government and its support of censorship now has a surprisingly big hand in shaping the movies that Americans make and watch. Films like “Transformers IV,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Looper,” “Gravity,” "Iron Man 3" and many more appear to have adapted their plots to woo Chinese censors and audiences.

The reasons are obvious: There is a ton of money at stake. Global revenue data gathered by research firm Rentrak shows that China is solidly in place as the world's second-biggest box office market, after surpassing Japan in 2012. For the first time, Chinese box office revenues even surpassed those of the U.S. for one weekend in 2014 -- Chinese New Year, one of the busiest times of year for Chinese movie theaters.

What’s more, there's still a lot more growth potential in China. Chinese box office revenues rose by almost a third last year to $4.8 billion, even as revenues in the U.S. shrank. In just the first half of 2015, Chinese box office receipts had already reached $3.3 billion, according to state media.

Only a select number of American films are allowed to compete in China. To protect its own film industry and keep censorship controls in place, China caps the number of foreign films that reach theaters to 34 per year -- creating an environment of tough competition for Hollywood studios. The films that China lets in tend to be the big animated movies, like "Kung Fu Panda" or "Wall-E," or big-budget action films -- relatively safe and simple plot lines that don't require a lot of subtitles, dubbing or cultural understanding for audiences to enjoy.

For Hollywood movies trying to get on this select list, portraying China in a positive light is key. Any foreign film that is shown in theaters in China must be approved by the Film Bureau, part of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which reports to the highest levels of the Chinese government.

Aynne Kokas, an assistant professor of media studies at University of Virginia, says Chinese censors reject films with sex, violence, anything that puts the Chinese government in a bad light, and even supernatural content, since the Communist Party has a long tradition of combating superstition.

These limitations are actually leading Hollywood to try to provide more family films for China, especially after the huge success of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, says Kokas. “Then you don’t have to say that you’re changing your film substantially with the censors, because the censors wouldn’t have a problem with your film in the first place."

Observers have called out some Hollywood studios for making substantial changes to their films in recent years to please Chinese censors.

Some of these changes are subtle. The creators of “Iron Man 3,” for example, lengthened some scenes featuring a Chinese doctor and added Fan Bingbing, a famous Chinese actress, to the cast for the film's Chinese version. And for the 2012 film “Looper,” the filmmakers ultimately changed the location of the city of the future from Paris to Shanghai.

Others attempts to appeal to China are more blatant -- for example, recent plot changes Sony Pictures Entertainment made to several movies, which were revealed by leaked e-mails now housed on WikiLeaks.

One e-mail exchange shows that Sony decided to cut scenes of aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall of China from the 2015 movie "Pixels" with Adam Sandler, in order to improve the chances that their film would be shown in China. The aliens ended up blasting the Taj Mahal, the Washington Monument and Manhattan, instead.

Leaked Sony e-mails show a similar calculus for 2014 film "RoboCop." "Changing the China elements to another country should be a relatively easy fix," Steven O’Dell, president of Sony Pictures Releasing International, wrote in an exchange about some elements in the film that might anger Beijing's censors.

But the most egregious example of a Hollywood movie pandering to the Chinese government is probably Paramount's brainless 2014 blockbuster "Transformers: Age of Extinction." The film, which one critic describes as director Michael Bay’s "wet kiss" to Beijing, was made as what's called an "officially assisted production," with Paramount working in partnership with Chinese company Jiaflix Enterprise and China's official state broadcaster, CCTV.

Part of the movie's action is set in Hong Kong -- a former British colony that is now officially a special administrative region of China, and the site of recent pro-democracy protests. In the film, a sea captain in Hong Kong appeals to the central government in Beijing for help, and China's defense minister earnestly vows to defend Hong Kong -- what Justin Chang, a critic at Variety, calls  “a mainland-pandering scene that the movie dares to put across with a straight face.”

A lot of the changes that Hollywood movies make to increase their appeal in China -- adding a Chinese star, for example -- are totally harmless, and maybe even a helpful dose of cultural exposure for American audiences. But other changes made to please Chinese censors are more questionable. And few Americans seem to realize that the Chinese government, and their strict regulations regarding censorship, are increasingly shaping the movies that Americans create and watch.

Bill Bishop, an author and China expert, suggested in a recent e-mail newsletter that these films ought to come with a warning -- "This content has been modified to appease Beijing" -- just as the movies shown on airplanes sometimes carry a disclaimer that certain parts of the films have been removed. "I understand the business imperative, but viewers have a right to know," he says.

Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the 1984 movie "Red Dawn" as showing the Chinese invade the U.S. That was the Soviets.

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