Once upon a time, Hollywood movies were controlled by censors who prevented them from bringing subversive and controversial subject matters into theaters. Thankfully those days are long gone now. Now Hollywood movies are censored by the officials of the Chinese Communist Party. And it’s a censorship that begins at the script stage and affects what you see on the screen.
Hollywood executives are only now becoming familiar with the censorship board and its workings. A recent count by one of their advisers found that the board has 37 members, including representatives from government agencies and interest groups, like the Communist Youth League and the Women’s Federation, along with filmmakers, academics and professional bureaucrats.
At the top of S.A.R.F.T. is Cai Fuchao, a recent member of the Communist Party Central Committee. In a previous municipal post in Beijing, he was widely reported to have policed Web sites for banned material with the help of 10,000 volunteers, and to have joined in a roundup of a million illegally published books in 2004.
Finally Hollywood’s output is coming under the control of total party discipline. We’ve actually reached the point where the Communist Party determines what appears in a Hollywood movie.
When “Kung Fu Panda 3” kicks its way into China’s theaters in 2016, the country’s vigilant film censors will find no nasty surprises. After all, they have already dropped in to monitor the movie at the DreamWorks Animation campus here. And the story line, production art and other creative elements have met their approval.
This isn’t the traditional kind of censorship that involved the version being sent to China getting cut up for domestic consumption. This is a censorship that begins at the script stage and moves through the entire production process.
Co-productions like “Kung Fu Panda 3” draw close monitoring by the censors at every step. Scripts are submitted in advance. Representatives of S.A.R.F.T., according to Mr. Cohen and others, may be present on the set to guard against any deviation. And there is an unofficial expectation that the government’s approved version of the film will be seen both in China and elsewhere, though in practice it is not unusual for co-productions to slip through the system with differing versions, one for China, one for elsewhere in the world.
That practice will stop once China decides to punish those movies that use differing versions by delaying their release date.
Billions of dollars ride on whether they get it right. International box-office revenue is the driving force behind many of Hollywood’s biggest films, and often plays a deciding role in whether a movie is made.
China is on track to become the world’s largest film market and the Communist Party is gaining the power to decide which movies get made.
One production currently facing scrutiny is Disney and Marvel’s “Iron Man 3,” parts of which were filmed in Beijing in the last month. It proceeded under the watchful eye of Chinese bureaucrats, who were invited to the set and asked to advise on creative decisions, according to people briefed on the production who asked for anonymity to avoid conflict with government or company officials. Marvel and Disney had no comment.
Hollywood as a whole is shifting toward China-friendly fantasies that will fit comfortably within a revised quota system, which allows more international films to be distributed in China, where 3-D and large-format Imax pictures are particularly favored.
And no, you don’t get to sneak anything past the authorities.
In a 2011 Web post, Robert Cain, a producer and consultant who guides filmmakers through China’s system, described having worked in Shanghai on a romantic comedy that went off script; the director included a take in which an extra, holding a camcorder, pretended to be a theater patron taping a movie on a screen.
The next day, Mr. Cain and others involved with the film were summoned to the office of a Communist Party member who told them the film was being shut down for its “naïve” and “untruthful” portrayal of film piracy. Assuming they had been reported by a spy on their crew, the producers apologized and managed to keep the film on track.
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Some of the prohibitions were broad, barring violations of the fundamental principles of the Constitution and the harming of social morality. Others were more pointed. Disparagement of the People’s Liberation Army and the police were banned, as were “murder, violence, horrors, ghosts, demons and supernaturalism.”
Censorship like this from American authorities would have made Hollywood howl, but the New York Times can’t find a single quote from anyone critical of this arrangement. Not even anonymously. Not one quote.
But the good news is that we may finally get family friendly entertainment… courtesy of Communist censors in China.
Steven Soderbergh, whose film “Contagion” was shot partly in Hong Kong, said the participation of China’s censors simply added to the chorus of input that surrounds every big-budget filmmaker.
“I’m not morally offended or outraged,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “It’s fascinating to listen to people’s interpretations of your story.”
It’s not censorship when the left is censoring you. It’s censorship when Americans do it. It’s an interpretation when the Communist Party does it.
A fascinating interpretation.