Last week, NPR released an intriguing report on how certain political ideologies are currently changing the content of big budget film productions. The segment was called “How China’s Censors Influence Hollywood,” and its primary focus was exactly what it said on the tin: exploring the ways major studios have been willing to alter aspects of their product in order to appease the Chinese government’s censors and gain access to the country’s increasingly lucrative movie market.
But if you read between the lines, the report is also a look at the ways in which capitalism influences film. Hollywood execs are willing to meet the demands of a communist society because they need to make money in a capitalist one.
I’m not about to defend the role that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China, the government’s agency in charge of censorship, conducts itself. The ways in which — and the degree to which — SAPPRFT is able to control China’s presence in films like Mission: Impossible III, Skyfall, and Iron Man 3, as detailed in the NPR piece, range from the bizarre to the disconcerting. But I’m just not convinced that it’s any more troubling than any of the other concessions that the creative and business forces behind major motion pictures face when trying to fund and profit from a film. Is there really any significant moral or artistic difference between appeasing global corporations for the sake of product placement money and appeasing a communist regime for the sake of a shot at their box office?
Realistically, no art form or medium is 100 percent pure from money under capitalism. Whether it’s a film producer who needs to pay for the enormous resources and crew necessary to make a blockbuster or a poet struggling to pay their rent, no act of creation comes without some sort of cost. The notion of art divorced from all financial consideration is lovely, but it exists only in the heads of the most idealist DIY fantasies — and maybe in the lives of the most privileged. For everyone else, there’s always going to be some sort of battle between art and commerce, and the more a project costs, the more complicated that relationship becomes. Which means that films, with their almost prohibitively expensive budgets, face a particularly challenging struggle to balance the two.
Hollywood has been navigating this minefield with varying levels of success and compromise since its inception. This isn’t even the first time that the film industry has waded into politics and altered its product to gain advantages in foreign territories. In the 1940s, the Motion Pictures Export Association (a wing of what is now called the Motion Picture Association) negotiated a deal called the Canadian Cooperation Project. It ended up being a bit of a swindle on the MPEA’s part, and a particularly embarrassing misadventure in Canadian history. The MPEA initially promised to produce news reels, shorts, and features about the great white north in exchange for unlimited and untaxed access to Canadian cinemas, but they had little intention of following through on that. They did, however, make a series of films in which they mentioned Canada in some way. Usually positively. The theory was that this would make the country look more appealing to potential tourists. It’s silly (and humiliating, and infuriating to me as a Canadian who actually cares about a domestic film industry), but it’s really not that different from what we’re seeing in the NPR story. It’s still about altering movies to appease foreign nations in the name of business.
The bad news is that this kind of behavior in moviemaking has been going on in some form or another for well over half a century and there’s no feasible way of stopping it. The good news is that this has been going on for well over half a century and artists and entertainers have managed to find all sorts of ways to work in and around the systems in place and still develop films that appeal to more than the censor board or the bottom line. And they will continue to do so.
It won’t always work. That scene that Iron Man 3 added for the Chinese market will never make any sense. But it won’t always fail, either. And there will always be audiences who will fight for the chance to see the results.
The most interesting part of the NPR’s report, however, is its conclusion, in which Peter Shiao from Orb Media, a film production and financing company that works in both the US and China, suggests there are reasons to be optimistic about China’s increasing role in the global movie market.
“The things we can see on the screens in China right now versus what was allowable 10 years ago are very, very different,” he said. He believes that China’s audience is becoming increasingly sophisticated and that they will demand better movies, regardless of what the censors want them to see.
It’s an exciting prospect, both artistically and politically. If black market episodes of Dallas (and Dallas fanfiction!) in Estonia could play a small but pivotal role in ending the Cold War, as the 2010 documentary Disco And Atomic War argued, then who knows what’s possible for China?