Questions about how Chinese forces are shaping American movies are now playing out in the making of Iron Man 3, which is set for release on May 3.
Disney and its Marvel unit want Iron Man 3 to gain co-production status, partly because the previous two Iron Man movies performed well in China. To work toward that distinction, Disney and Marvel made a deal last year for Beijing-based DMG Entertainment to join in producing and financing the film.
But they have taken a middle-of-the-road approach that appears intended to limit Chinese meddling in the creative process. A finished script was not submitted for approval and the companies have not yet made an application for official designation as a co-production. Rather, they are trying to show a heightened sense of cooperation in hopes the government will approve the status once that application is formally made in the spring.
The producers made a presentation to censors early in the process, describing broad strokes of the story, the history of other Marvel and Disney movies, and plans to integrate Chinese characters into the movie.
That won a conceptual sign-off for the film, which is being directed by Shane Black. Next, bureaucrats were invited to the set and were able to meet the star, Robert Downey Jr.
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 SARFT 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 1 million illegally published books in 2004.
In 2008, after an uproar over the release of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, whose story of wartime love and collaboration caused unease even after sex scenes were deleted, written censorship guidelines were circulated in China, in what filmmakers there took to be a crackdown.
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.”
In all, the standards would appear to clash with almost any American film, other than, perhaps, the PG-rated animated fare of a DreamWorks Animation. (Even Kung Fu Panda provoked objections by some Chinese, who saw the lead character as profaning a nationally revered animal.) But some who have dealt with SARFT say the censors are often pragmatic, and appear to walk a line between the demands of viewers, who want more global fare, and those of politicians, who are out to protect the status quo.
For example, 20th Century Fox managed to get Lee’s Life of Pi through with only the modification of the “religion is darkness” line, despite the movie’s spiritual themes — which tread close to a prohibition against the preaching of cult beliefs and superstitions — and the earlier trouble over Lust, Caution.