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Society & Culture

Say It Ain’t So: Hollywood and Self-Censorship

Aug 19, 2015

It’s been a bad year for Sony Hollywood – getting hacked and exposed before the world’s media – but as leaked emails show, a considerable portion of the damage has been self-inflicted. A company adrift, it has vacillated between extreme bad taste and extremely unctuous efforts not to offend, resulting in an anemic box office that puts it in the basement: last place in the majors.  Between The Interview (2014) which went out of its way to riddle and rile North Korea, and Pixels (2015) which was so afraid of offending China that it pre-emptively cut all China-related content, Sony has become a case-study of a company adrift, lacking the common sense and confidence to produce films that entertain and educate without provoking either gratuitous fear or favor.

China is now the world’s second largest film market; perhaps it will be number one in a few years time. Hollywood is still the world’s leader in producing movie entertainment with global appeal and will probably remain so if it remains true to its core values of art-inflected commerce. It knows better than anyone how to take chances artistically while still showing respect for the cultural values of its audience.

Judging from early returns, China is enjoying a blockbuster summer at the cinema, its newly built movie theatres packing in more newly affluent customers than ever before. After a spring season dominated by Hollywood action films such as Furious 7, The Avengers and Jurassic World the unexpected box office hit of the protectionist summer season is Monster Hunt a Hong Kong-produced a light-hearted family picture featuring a cuddly baby monster. The film’s better than average blending of animation and live action derived from the director’s experience working on Hollywood films such as the Shrek franchise. This expertise helps the audience overlook a subpar storyline; the fact it’s not up against any American juggernauts probably helps too.

When peak season theatrical restrictions are relaxed and foreign product is back in the game this coming September, Sony will at last launch it’s much talked about Pixels in the hopes of making up for a thoroughly lackluster season. It will be interesting to see how the China market reacts, given the documented efforts Sony has made to tailor the nonsensical special effects picture to serious political sensibilities.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Sony, given the black eye it got from the faltering release of the righteously irreverent stoner film, The Interview and the lose of face from the associated hacking scandal that broke in its wake. The massive hack, considered by U.S. government analysts to be the work of North Korean operatives unhappy with the film, brought Sony to its knees in the court of world opinion. One doesn’t have to be a xenophobic communist to understand why a film dedicated to the premise of killing the living leader of a real country was in poor taste; yet the real damage of the hack was the exposure of juicy inner deliberations at Sony as to how they think about real people and real problems.


The Sony hack raised hackles in Hollywood and has already caused corporate heads to roll. It continues to raise eyebrows, especially on the thorny question of self-censorship.

An email by Sony international executive Stephen O’Dell, for example, reveals the thinking behind cuts made to please China’s film censors in the film Robocop: “Hope to get through it with only shortening up the scene a bit. Don’t think we can make a stand on it either way, too much money on the line…”

According to other emails released, the pre-emptive cuts to Pixels include a fantasy battle scene set at the Great Wall, a shift of action to Shanghai and references to China as a potential hacker. O’Dell sums it up bluntly, saying that Sony should heed the advice of its China consultant and “get all China references out of Pixels.”

This kind of hypersensitivity to “Asian values” stands in stark contrast to the macabre email discussions about just how graphic and gory the exploding head of the Kim Jong-un character should be. This schizophrenic policy reflects the fact that North Korea has no box office to offer, of course, but Sony managed to make a film in such poor taste that even American theatre owners hesitated to take it, though it was clearly the associated online threats that got this liability lawyers working overtime. No film territory in Asia wanted to exhibit The Interview either, not even Japan which spars politically with North Korea on a regular basis.

What makes Sony’s Pixels a picture to watch is the twist to the China-friendly censorship; it’s not just a special cut for China but the same final cuts have been applied across the board to all markets, in effect, seeking to broadly placate purported Chinese values at home and abroad. The consistency of the self-censorship is admirable in the limited sense that the blatant production of different versions for different markets would reek of marketing hypocrisy, but what does
across-the-board self-cutting bode for quality films with artistic integrity in the global market?

Judging from early returns, “Pixels” has failed to impress at home. The NY Daily News called its special effects “un-special” while a review in Vulture said the film is even “worse than it looks.”

“’Pixels’ Continues Adam Sandler’s Losing Streak in the U.S.” screams a recent Hollywood Reporter headline. The article goes on to say that the film hopes to make up lost ground overseas.

Enter China, stage left. Will the Sino-sanitized “Pixels” sell?

Pixels is not a serious film, of course, but it raises serious issues.

Will the real Sony please stand up? Is this the same Sony that lobbied to get Obama on board the “freedom of expression” wagon in defense of a political snuff film made for cheap laughs? Between these two films, Sony has adopted a lose-lose strategy; on the one hand it shows no cross-cultural sensitivity or respect when not forced to, on the other hand it shows little backbone when there are big bucks on the line.

It’s as if the studio has lost all ethical mooring and gone tone deaf, being as cavalier to one national constituency as it is pandering to another. Given the crude ethnic stereotyping, the The Interview is insulting to Koreans, and not just those in the admittedly odd, sequestered nation of North Korea, whereas Pixels has been scrubbed, scraped and erased of all content that might possibly give offense to North Korea’s neighbor, as if China suffered from some kind of acute cultural vulnerability akin to a peanut allergy.

No one would mistake either of the films as a work of art and that speaks to another problem. What happened to the Hollywood that produced films such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca? Or The Godfather and Schindler’s List? Why does Hollywood produce so much childish fare, so many tired sequels and vacuous actions flicks these days?

There are myriad reasons for this, perhaps the zeitgeist has changed, and the inroads of serial TV are proving serious competition. But at least one factor for the low cultural level has direct bearing on how film business is conducted in China.

The world’s second largest market is nothing to sniff at, and it is not unreasonable to consider this market when drawing up the production budget for an ambitious film, yet this market is a highly regulated environment with protectionist practices in place. Given existing constraints, lowest common denominator films high in action,
low in political impact stand the best chance of slipping past China’s censors and winning exhibition on Chinese screens.

The China market is indeed big. It recently surpassed Japan as the most important ancillary market to the U.S., and it looks juicy, but it’s not an easy place to sell popcorn. Of the 34 foreign films permitted theatrical exhibition annually, it is stipulated that 14 must be 3D style extravaganzas.

Submitting films to censorship boards is time-consuming, humiliating and nerve-wracking to creative types and bean counters alike. Studios outlay huge funds and have risky investments to recoup, but it is difficult to get profits out of China. The Hollywood film distributor not only has to bear extensive publicity costs, but it must yield as much as 75% of box office revenue to local partners, (something close
to 50/50 is the usual arrangement) What’s more, even Hollywood blockbusters have to settle for second-best release dates and deal with peak season blackouts.

These plainly protectionist, lop-sided arrangements reflect outdated fears about subversive cultural influences, and need to be changed. Given its buying power, China has a unique opportunity to raise the bar for film product both for its own market, and indirectly for Hollywood as well. By relaxing the Byzantine controls and regulations that distort China’s film market, Hollywood can put its best foot
forward instead of force-feeding the burgeoning market with hack films and action films.

If China is confident enough to end the Cold War of cultural values that keeps the best America has to offer at arm’s length, then Hollywood should reciprocate by helping raise the production values of Chinese films and creating space for them in America’s huge domestic market. It’s time for the number one and number two film powers in the world to engage in some mutually beneficial cultural exchange on the
big screen, building on the sturdy China-America symbiosis that props open the doors of trade and underpins so much of today’s prosperity.

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