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.
The lure of access to China’s fast-growing film market — now the world’s second largest, behind that of the US — is entangling studios and moviemakers with the state censors of a country in which American notions of free expression simply do not apply.
Whether studios are seeking to distribute a completed film in China or join with a Chinese company for a co-production shot partly in that country, they have discovered that navigating the murky, often shifting terrain of censorship is part of the process.
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. Studios rely on consultants and past experience — and increasingly on informal advance nods from foreign officials — to help gauge whether a film will pass censorship; if there are problems they can sometimes be addressed through appeal and subsequent negotiations.
But Paramount Pictures just learned the hard way that some things won’t pass muster — like US fighter pilots in dogfights with MiGs. The studio months ago submitted a new 3-D version of Top Gun to Chinese censors. The ensuing silence was finally recognized as rejection.
Problems more often affect films that touch the Chinese directly.
“Any movie about China made by outsiders is going to be very sensitive,” said Rob Cohen, who directed The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, among the first in a wave of co-productions between US studios — in this case, Universal Pictures — and Chinese companies.
One production 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.
Another prominent film, Ang Lee’s (李安) Life of Pi, which was nominated last week for 11 Academy Awards, made it through the process mostly unscathed, but got some pushback over a line in which a character declared that “religion is darkness.”
“They modified the translation a little, for fear of provoking religious people,” Lee said.
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.
At the same time, it is avoiding subject matter and situations that are likely to cause conflict with the roughly three dozen members of a censorship board run by China’s powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, or SARFT.
In addition, some studios are quietly asking Chinese officials for assurance that planned films, even when they do not have a Chinese theme, will have no major censorship problems.