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Hollywood yielding to China's growing film clout

Coming soon to a theater near you: China's Communist Party.

From demanding changes in plot lines that denigrate the Chinese leadership, to dampening lurid depictions of sex and violence, Beijing is having increasing success in pressuring Hollywood into deleting movie content Beijing finds objectionable.

It's even getting American studios to sanction alternative versions of films specially tailored for Chinese audiences, like "Iron Man 3," which debuts in theaters around the world later this week. The Chinese version features local heartthrob Fan Bingbing — absent from the version showing abroad — and lengthy clips of Chinese scenery that local audiences love.

There's no secret to what's driving Hollywood's China policy, which has burst on the scene with meteor-like intensity in the past year. Already the second-biggest box office in the world, China seems set to surpass the U.S./Canada market by 2020 at the latest. And with traditional movie funding sources drying up, Hollywood studios increasingly see Beijing as a bankrolling destination of choice, with Chinese counterparts ponying up on glitzy co-productions, including "Iron Man 3" and next year's "Transformers 4," and films without a direct China connection as well.

"Movie attendance in the U.S. is down because of global piracy and audience indifference," said Los Angeles-based film historian Leonard Maltin. "So the explosion of the China market is a boon to the industry. I'm sure the studios are not excited about making the China-inspired changes but they're in the business to make a buck and they're finding it hard to resist."

Published reports have pinpointed at least a half dozen recent films where Hollywood has given in on demands from Chinese censors to alter content for political or other reasons, ranging from the James Bond feature "Skyfall" — where unflattering references to the sex trade in the Chinese territory of Macau supposedly landed on the cutting room floor — to "World War Z," starring Brad Pitt, in which the Chinese origin of a plague of apocalyptic zombies was said to have been excised.

And that doesn't take into account ostensible instances of self-censoring, like last year's remake of the 1984 film "Red Dawn," where producers changed the nationality of bloodthirsty soldiers invading the United States from Chinese to North Korean, apparently to cater to their perception of Chinese political sensitivities.

The American film industry is extremely reluctant to discuss the China concessions Hollywood is making, and the industry's main lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association of America, tries to portray the practice in the best possible light.

"The adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognize China's right to determine what content enters their country," said MPAA spokesman Howard Gantman in an email. "Overall, our members make films for global audiences and audience's tastes and demands evolve and our members respond to those changes. But we also stand for maximum creative rights for artists."

Taiwanese film critic Tsai Kuo-rong said that artists themselves could help rein in Chinese censorship, by insisting that content not be altered to conform to Chinese political or aesthetic demands.

"You cannot expect regulators to relax restrictions on their own," he said. "But I would hope that artists might be bold enough to press the case for artistic integrity."

Frank Couvares, a professor of history and American Studies at Massachusetts' Amherst College, said that rather than something new, Hollywood's readiness to cater to Chinese demands on content reflects business practices the American film industry has had in place for more than seven decades.

"If back in the 1930s or '40s the French objected to portraying the Foreign Legion as being overly harsh on Africans, or the British were unhappy that they were being shown as too colonialistic, then Hollywood would make the edits it needed to market its product," he said.

Still, the scope of this latest iteration seems to dwarf that of its predecessors, not only because China's economic and political clout is so immense — successive years of GDP growth rates around 8- 10 percent have made its economy the second largest in the world — but also because the country's communist masters seem obsessed by the way Beijing is perceived abroad.

"There's no question that China is very sensitive to its image," said Stanley Rosen, an expert on the Chinese film industry, and director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "And as it has become richer over the past several years it's been in a position to do something about it."

Rosen said the ultimate arbiter of what makes it onto the screen of China's 12,000 movie theaters is a board of 30 to 40 censors under Communist Party control, representing different constituencies in Chinese society — women, for example, or the military. He said that while there were some indications the board was becoming slightly more liberal — last year's showing on Chinese television of the 2005 political adventure "V for Vendetta" was seen as a notable step forward — it remains beholding to sensitivities that makes its decisions sometimes hard to fathom.

That was underscored earlier this month when Chinese theaters pulled Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" at the last minute, despite widespread reports that Tarantino had bowed to censors' demands by dampening the film's violence. China said only that the film's screening had been halted for "technical reasons" without elaborating what that meant.

Nitin Govil, a specialist in Asian cinema at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, said instances like the "Django Unchained" cancellation were especially unnerving to the American film industry, because they underscored the problems of dealing with the seeming caprices of China's censorship bureaucracy.

"Hollywood really doesn't have a problem with Chinese censorship," he said. "The problem it has is with Chinese unpredictability."

Still, said Stephen Tropiano, professor of screen studies at a Los Angeles-based program run by New York's Ithaca College, American film makers may find that they have little choice but to adapt to the new Chinese reality, particularly as the country's box office take — $2.7 billion in 2012, 60 percent from foreign films — climbs irrevocably past the current U.S./Canada figure of some $10 billion.

Tropiano said there was no doubt that as China's box-office clout increased in coming years, so too would its already substantial ability to influence Hollywood's decisions on film content.

"The bottom line for any studio is what its films do at the box office," he said. "None of them has ever succeeded in taking a moral stand on content. And the Chinese know to exploit this."

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