The news broke yesterday that the Chinese government is censoring Cloud Atlas in advance of its Chinese theatrical exhibition. That in itself is not a surprise, as the Chinese government has a history of censoring US films. Usually its a case of material that is deemed insulting/inflammatory/etc. to the Chinese, such as the complete omission of Chow Yun Fat's murderous pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Also reported is the fact that Skyfall will run in China with several edits and changes in subtitled dialogue, among other bits omitting a scene where a Chinese nationals are murdered (while Bond sits on his ass and does nothing about it) and changing dialogue involving Javier Bardem's history of being captured and tortured by the Chinese government. Ironically changing Severine from a former child sex slave to merely a member of the mob makes Bond slightly less dick-ish for setting her up for murder, but I digress. Again, no big deal or at least nothing unusual. Other countries have different standards of censorship and often change US films when they eventually arrive on respective shores (fun tip: click HERE and do a search for "Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles").
What's different this time, or at least what feels different, is the quantity and motive. Cloud Atlas will arrive in Chinese cinemas with 40 minutes hacked out. This involves the trimming of sex scenes and violence, as well as pretty much the entire story line involving a homosexual romance between James D'Arcy and Ben Whishaw (who ironically of course plays Q in Skyfall). If you want to make cracks about how this makes the rather lengthy film into a more "appropriate" length, don't. If you want to somehow equate this with the American MPAA ratings system, don't. If you want to somehow state that this is a similar situation like The Gangster Squad, where a studio made the choice to edit or reshoot a film based on current sensitivities, don't. It's not the same and you know it. You want to know what to compare this to? How about the long-brewing controversy over the Texas school textbooks. Long-story very short, the state of Texas in 2009 passed new statewide curriculum requirements which had some pretty iffy ideas about science and history. Since Texas is a huge state and it's awfully expensive to make separate textbooks for every state, many companies opt to do a one size fits all textbook for large portions of the country, one specifically adhering to Texas State Board of Education's overtly conservative philosophies about science (evolution is bad), social studies (Ronald Reagan was awesome), and history (the Crusades didn't happen).
Well, right now we all know that China is a huge market for international box office grosses. You can arguably chalk up the higher grosses of The Dark Knight Rises versus The Dark Knight to the fact that the latter did *not* get banned in China since it had no plots involving Hong Kong gangsters working with the Gotham mob. You can see the obvious influence of overseas dollars in Fox' The Life of Pi, a very expensive movie that barely crossed $100 million in America but has just crossed $500 million worldwide. Yes it played in China, but with a line defaming religion omitted, which is ironic since the whole film is an ode to faith. As foreign box office becomes more and more important, especially Asian markets, governments like China, which only choose a select number of US films to distribute in a given year, will arguably hold more and more sway over the content of these films. It's one thing for US films to have Chinese-friendly plots or cast Chinese characters in pivotal roles, as in Iron Man 3 this summer (which was partially shot in China and co-produced with Chinese backing and may include several prominent Chinese characters) or with the release of Looper, which had a minor subplot set in Shanghai which actually had additional footage set there inserted into the film for theatrical play in China. This is a case where big-scale productions may end up tailoring their politics and/or morality to the biggest elephant in the room, with this case being China.
That millions of Chinese will arguably be able to download the uncut version on Bit Torrent makes little difference is Warner Bros is being denied box office grosses from those who would have otherwise seen the film in theaters in its "original" form.This isn't about how evil the Chinese government is for censoring homosexual content in an American film. They just happen to be the big men on campus at the moment. If you're making a big-scale blockbuster, you're going to think twice before including material that may cause consternation in the Chinese government, just as a school textbook company is likely to make sure they don't fashion a textbook that won't pass relative muster in Texas. China only accepts around 34 films per year, so if you spent $200 million to produce your tentpole project, you damn sure want to be among the ones selected in a given year. What we may be seeing is a film industry that is beholden to the values and philosophies of whatever international market happens to be dominant at the moment. China may have a problem with homosexuality at the moment, but what happens if, say, Saudi Arabia becomes the premiere international box office market?
Say what you will about the American film industry and its sometimes bass-ackwards MPAA ratings system, but we do not live in a nation where the government actively censors content at the behest of whatever morality happens to be fashionable according to those in power. But our relative artistic freedom may be less and less potent if big studio productions become dependent on foreign box office for profitability. When I was a teenager, the fact that I didn't have a curfew was pretty much irrelevant because most of my friends did. While I was given relatively unrestrained freedom, it was mostly for naught as those I was in business with and depended on for socialization were beholden to stricter standards than I. This is what we may be seeing in Hollywood. I sincerely hope that Cloud Atlas's censoring, as well as the not-as-funny as you'd think revision of last year's Red Dawn (where the invading Chinese was changed to the invading North Koreans), is merely a fluke or a periodic occurrence in the industry. But those who would laugh this off or shrug it off are making a mistake. And that's the true true.