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Hollywood's China syndrome

Studios go to great lengths to avoid alienating the nation’s moviegoers … and its censors

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In September 2009 MGM began production on a remake of the popular ’80s action film Red Dawn. The original followed a group of feisty Colorado teenagers fighting off a Soviet invasion in their hometown. But in the remake, the young infantry (which includes a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth and a pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson) was going to take on Chinese troops. At least that was the plan, until MGM filed for bankruptcy in 2010, and the remake, which was scheduled to be released in November of that year, got shelved.

Three years later Red Dawn is seeing the light of day — but with one major difference: The Chinese soldiers have been digitally edited into North Koreans (by altering their uniforms and flags, not their faces). The filmmakers say the change was made to help Red Dawn find distribution — and to avoid angering the Chinese government. ”No one else wanted to distribute the movie, given how politically sensitive it was and [because of] the emerging Chinese market,” producer Tripp Vinson says of the film, which eventually landed with fledgling studio FilmDistrict. ”It was a business decision.” China has recently become a key territory at the international box office (theater revenues in the country are up 40 percent this year alone). Studios are understandably eager to cash in — especially since the China Film Group (CFG), the government organization that oversees the film industry, passed regulations earlier this year allowing 14 more IMAX or 3-D foreign movies to play in China each year, bringing the annual total to 34. But distributing there presents its own set of challenges.

Films must get past China’s notoriously difficult censors. And the CFG, which determines the release dates of foreign films, has been accused of trying to torpedo the prospects of international blockbusters by forcing them to open on the same day. Earlier this year The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man were released simultaneously. In early 2013, Skyfall and The Hobbit are expected to go head-to-head. Now that the country is showing more foreign films, ”it is…inevitable that several films will be put on show at the same period of time,” Tian Jin, vice minister for the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, told reporters on Nov. 11. A fair point, but it’s also possible that China — which has reportedly seen its domestic market share shrink from 60 to 41 percent over the past two years — could be gaming the schedule to shore up revenues for its own films.

Given the tenuous relationship between Hollywood and the CFG, studios appear to be erring on the side of caution. Sony reportedly removed references to ”New Asia” from this year’s Total Recall remake. Disney’s upcoming Iron Man 3 (a planned co-production with the Chinese studio DMG Entertainment) has British Ben Kingsley playing the traditionally Chinese villain the Mandarin. A movie source insists Kingsley was cast because he ”happens to be the best villain for the job.” And if the job requires making money around the world, best not offend 1.3 billion people in the process.