China is stepping up censorship of U.S. films as producers make movies with an eye toward pleasing Beijing yet without isolating the global audience, industry insiders say.
The roughly 25-year-old practice of cutting scenes that don't conform to Communist Party ideals from Hollywood movies has expanded.
"Now it's kind of escalated in the sense that they're much more direct in banning films outright rather than just tampering or asking for scenes to be removed," said Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California political science professor who follows China's film industry.
Industry observers say censors are also asking that versions of movies for audiences outside China follow Beijing's script.
Hollywood movies, Chinese censors
It is unlikely that censors will allow the 2022 Marvel Studios movie "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" to be shown in China. The state-affiliated Global Times tabloid published a scathing op-ed on the film Sunday, saying that it contains nods to Falun Gong, a spiritual movement Beijing has banned and labeled as a cult. According to the op-ed, a news rack for The Epoch Times, a publication the writer calls "the mouthpiece of the Falun Gong," appears in the frame as Doctor Strange battles a tentacled monster.
Liu Pengyu, spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in Washington, said, "As a country under the rule of law, China regulates the film industry in accordance with the Film Administration regulations." Liu, however, did not describe the process in detail.
Marvel Studios did not reply to VOA's questions about "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."
The China Film Administration, an oversight body for the $7.4 billion market, banned Marvel Studios' 2021 superhero films "Eternals" and "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," which were released last year.
The 2021 superhero film "Spider-Man: No Way Home" missed Chinese approval because authorities wanted Sony Pictures to remove images of the Statue of Liberty from the film, several news outlets reported.
The 2015 sci-fi movie "Pixels" made it into China after removing a scene of aliens blasting a hole into the Great Wall, news reports said at the time.
"As the dragon gets bigger, its leverage gets bigger, and no one's pushed back yet," said Chris Fenton, Hollywood executive and lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
An increase in Sino-U.S. tensions since the administration of former U.S. president Donald Trump may have exacerbated China's treatment of American movies, said James Tager, research director at the free-speech advocacy group PEN America in New York.
Film studios stuck in the middle
Film studios have been operating under the pressure of satisfying censors in China — a massive market in normal times, when cinemas are not closed because of COVID-19 — while appearing before American audiences and legislators as supporters of artistic freedom, Tager said.
Hollywood doesn't want a "pinball"— a situation in which both U.S. and Chinese officials take aim at the film industry, he said.
Hollywood companies are pre-censoring films to avoid losing access to China's lucrative box office market, PEN America said in a 2020 report.
Refusal of a Chinese order to cut a scene would risk the studio's future business in China, such as the next Disney or Marvel film or other assets, Tager said. Walt Disney Co., for example, has a 47% stake in Shanghai Disneyland, according to the PEN America report.
"You may get a reputation as someone who doesn't play ball, which could have even further knock-on effects, possibly for other films or possibly for other business relationships that large studios have in China," he said.
Self-censorship is getting worse, Fenton said. Some studios even worry that China will punish them for leaving objectionable scenes in film versions for audiences outside China.
"To me, the bigger issue is when China tells us we can't have stuff in movies for other markets," Fenton said. "That's where we're suddenly allowing them to spread their narrative rather than the narrative of the filmmakers or the studio or of Hollywood — or the U.S. or the Western side of things. Who gives them that right to tell us we can't have that in a movie that someone in Argentina sees?"
China wants its view of the world to resonate worldwide, said James Gomez, regional director of the Asia Centre, a Bangkok-based think tank.
"It's competing powers, it's competing narratives," he said. "It's a different world view, and China wants to be able to shape the world view."
Objections to Chinese-tailored films
The Philippines pushed back against studios' attempt to woo China in the case of the 2022 American action movie "Uncharted." The Southeast Asian country's cinemas yanked the movie at the request of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. The department objected to a scene that showed Beijing's nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea, which Manila vigorously disputes. The nine dashes demarcate China's claim to about 90% of the sea.
Manila moved earlier to block the showing of "Abominable," a 2019 animated collaboration between a U.S. and a Chinese production company, because the same nine-dash line was shown in the cartoon.
Some studios may eventually forego the China market to be seen elsewhere as "celebrating artistic freedom elsewhere on the globe," Tager said.
Hollywood is slowly factoring in the "arbitrary" demands from China, Rosen said. One thing it has learned, he said, is to avoid making Chinese-themed films such as "Shang-Chi" because those can be better done in China.