hollywood self-censorship

A new report from the nonprofit PEN America slammed Hollywood studios and A-list directors for increasingly self-censoring its films “based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials.” The report digs into the troubling signs that Hollywood self-censorship is become increasingly “normalized,” as the industry tiptoes around any subjects — like the erasure of Tibetan characters in Marvel movie Doctor Strange, or removal of scenes that paint China in a bad light in World War Z — that could potentially put them in trouble with China’s government and thus lose out on the highly lucrative Chinese box office.

PEN America published a blistering report (via The Hollywood Reporter) condemning Hollywood for bowing to the regulations of the Chinese government with excessive self-censorship. The report states that major studios and A-list directors are increasingly making decisions regarding cast, plot, dialogue, and settings of their films to pass China’s censors, with the study even citing examples of studios inviting Chinese government regulators on film sets to advise “on how to avoid tripping the censors’ wires.”

The report specifically points out creative choices on films like Doctor Strange, World War Z and the upcoming film Top Gun: Maverick, all of which removed or avoided topics that would have put them in hot water with the Chinese government — in the case of Doctor Strange, a Tibetan character that was recast as Tilda Swinton; for World War Z, the removal of a scene in which the characters speculate the zombie virus originated in China; for Top Gun: Maverick, the”mysterious disappearance of the Taiwanese flag” on a flight jacket that was seen in the 1986 original. (The World War Z scene ended up being for naught, as the film never received a release in China due to the government’s dislike of themes of the undead, ghosts or time travel.)

“Our biggest concern is that Hollywood is increasingly normalizing preemptive self-censorship in anticipation of what the Beijing censor is looking for,” James Tager, PEN deputy director of free expression policy and research and the report’s author, said.

This report is especially interesting to note in the aftermath of pro-Tibet actor Richard Gere’s testimony to a Senate committee June 30 and U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s indictment of studios in a July 16 speech that claimed Hollywood has provided “a massive propaganda coup for the Chinese Communist Party.” A propaganda coup that may not even be working, as Chinese audiences show less interest in China-centric storylines shoehorned into superhero movies, or Disney remakes that are specifically catered to Chinese values.

The Chinese government has had stranglehold on the media within its borders for decades, with many news outlets and social media platforms banned, and most popular films from the mainland’s movie industry bearing proud nationalistic themes. But it was only in recent years that major Hollywood films began to tread more lightly around China’s censors, in major part due to the growing influence of the country’s box office. China accounts for the second largest movie market in the world after the U.S., with an annual box office revenue of roughly $9.15 billion. China’s box office can often make or break a movie’s success, especially ones that don’t do so well domestically. But PEN America worries that if Hollywood continues to put profit over politics — by flattering the Chinese government to lead to better release dates, incentives, etc. — the industry could suffer in the long run.

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