HONG, KONG/LOS ANGELES – In a 2013 script for the movie “Pixels,” intergalactic aliens blast a hole in one of China’s national treasures — the Great Wall.
That scene is gone from the final version of the sci-fi comedy, starring Adam Sandler and released by Sony Pictures Entertainment last week in the United States. The aliens strike iconic sites elsewhere, smashing the Taj Mahal in India, the Washington Monument and parts of Manhattan.
Sony executives spared the Great Wall because they were anxious to get the movie approved for release in China, a review of internal Sony Pictures emails shows. It is just one of a series of changes aimed at stripping the movie of content that, Sony managers feared, Chinese authorities might have construed as casting their country in a negative light.
Along with the Great Wall scene, out went a scene in which China was mentioned as a potential culprit behind an attack, as well as a reference to a “communist-conspiracy brother” hacking a mail server — all to increase the chances of getting “Pixels” access to the world’s second-biggest box office.
“Even though breaking a hole on the Great Wall may not be a problem as long as it is part of a worldwide phenomenon, it is actually unnecessary because it will not benefit the China release at all. I would then, recommend not to do it,” Li Chow, chief representative of Sony Pictures in China, wrote in a December 2013 email to senior Sony executives.
Li’s message is one of tens of thousands of confidential Sony emails and documents that were hacked and publicly released late last year. The U.S. government blamed North Korea for the breach. In April, WikiLeaks published the trove of emails, memos and presentations from the Sony hack in an online searchable archive.
“We are not going to comment on stolen emails or internal discussions about specific content decisions,” said a spokesman for Sony Pictures, a unit of Tokyo-based Sony Corp. “There are myriad factors that go into determining what is best for a film’s release, and creating content that has wide global appeal without compromising creative integrity is top among them.”
Chinese government and film-industry officials didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
A palatable ‘RoboCop’
“Pixels” wasn’t the only Sony movie in which the China content was carefully scrutinized. The emails reveal how studio executives discussed ways to make other productions, including the 2014 remake of “RoboCop,” more palatable to Chinese authorities.
In a 2013 email about “RoboCop” Steve Bruno, the senior vice president at Sony Pictures Releasing International at the time, proposed relocating a multinational weapons conglomerate from China. His solution: Put it in a Southeast Asian country like Vietnam or Cambodia. Ultimately, that change wasn’t made, a viewing of the movie shows. Bruno has since left Sony.
The Sony emails provide a behind-the-scenes picture of the extent to which one of the world’s leading movie studios exercised self-censorship as its executives tried to anticipate how authorities in Beijing might react to their productions. The internal message traffic also illustrates the deepening dependence of Hollywood on audiences in China, where box office receipts jumped by almost a third last year to $4.8 billion. Revenues in the United States and Canada shrank.
Other studios have made changes to movies in a bid to get them approved by Beijing, altering the version that is screened in China. A scene showing a Chinese doctor who helps the main character in “Iron Man 3,” for example, was lengthened in the Chinese version and included popular Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, a comparison of the Chinese and international versions shows. Produced by Marvel Studios, “Iron Man 3” was the second top grossing movie in China in 2013. Marvel declined to comment.
Logic of self-censorship
In the case of “Pixels,” in which the aliens attack Earth in the form of popular video game characters, the Sony emails point to the creation of a single version for all audiences — a China-friendly one. The logic behind Sony’s thinking was explained by Steven O’Dell, president of Sony Pictures Releasing International, in a September 12, 2013 email about “RoboCop.”
“Changing the China elements to another country should be a relatively easy fix,” O’Dell wrote. “There is only downside to leaving the film as it is. Recommendation is to change all versions as if we only change the China version, we set ourselves up for the press to call us out for this when bloggers invariably compare the versions and realize we changed the China setting just to pacify that market.”
Efforts by the U.S. motion-picture industry to woo China come as the ruling Communist Party under President Xi Jinping is engaged in the biggest crackdown on civil society in more than two decades. About a dozen human rights lawyers were taken into police custody this month, and hundreds of dissidents have been detained since Xi took power in late 2012.
As China rises, its efforts to contain civil liberties at home are radiating outward. The removal of scenes from “Pixels” thought to be offensive to Beijing shows how global audiences are effectively being subjected to standards set by China, whose government rejects the kinds of freedoms that have allowed Hollywood to flourish.
“I think the studios have grown pretty savvy,” said Peter Shiao, founder and CEO of Orb Media Group, an independent film studio focused on Hollywood-Chinese co-productions. “For a type of movie, particularly the global blockbusters, they are not going to go and make something that the Chinese would reject for social or political reasons. That is already a truism.”
Sony’s emails were hacked ahead of the release of “The Interview,” a comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. When Sony halted the film’s release in response to threats made against movie theaters, U.S. President Barack Obama warned of the dangers of self-censorship. (A Sony spokesman said the studio cancelled the theatrical release “because theater owners refused to show it.”) Ultimately, Sony released the movie.
“If somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like,” Obama said at his year-end White House press briefing. “Or even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That’s not who we are. That’s not what America is about.”
Fast & furious growth
For Hollywood studios, the allure of the Chinese box office has become increasingly difficult to resist. While box office receipts in the United States and Canada combined fell 5 percent last year to $10.4 billion compared with 2013, box office receipts in China jumped 34 percent to $4.8 billion in the same period, according to the Motion Picture Association of America Inc.
China is on course to set a new record this year: Box office receipts were $3.3 billion in the first half of 2015, China’s state-run media reported. Action movie “Fast & Furious 7” was the best ticket seller in China by early June, grossing $383 million — higher than the $351 million in the United States and Canada combined. It was followed by “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Jurassic World.”
Last November Wang Fenglin, the vice president of the China Film Producers’ Association, said the Chinese film market will overtake the United States to become the largest in the world within three years.
The importance of the China market appears to have informed decisions taken by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. in its 2012 remake of the action movie “Red Dawn.” MGM changed the nationality of the soldiers who invade the United States from Chinese to North Korean in post-production, according to “Red Dawn” producer Tripp Vinson. MGM did not respond to requests for comment.
Apparatus of control
To get on the circuit in China, a movie must win the approval of the Film Bureau, which is headed by Zhang Hongsen, a domestic television screenwriter and senior Communist Party member. “Foreign films come to China one after another like aircraft carriers; we are facing great pressure and challenges,” Zhang said last year. “We must make the Chinese film industry bigger and stronger.”
The Film Bureau is part of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), which reports directly to the State Council, China’s Cabinet. The administration controls state-owned enterprises in the communications field, including China Central Television and China Radio International.
Censorship guidelines are included in a 2001 order issued by the State Council. The order bans content that endangers the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, harms national honor and disrupts social stability. Harming public morality and national traditions is forbidden.
SAPPRFT guidelines also include bans on material seen as “disparaging of the government” and political figures. The broadening scope of these guidelines can be seen in an email sent last November by Sanford Panitch, who has since joined Sony as president of International Film and Television, to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton.
The email outlines new measures that were being implemented by SAPPRFT officials: “What is different is now they are clearly making an attempt to try to address other areas not been specified before, decadence, fortune telling, hunting, and most dramatically, sexuality,” Panitch wrote.
Studios also have to work with China Film Group Corp., a state-owned conglomerate that imports and distributes foreign movies. In some cases China Film also acts as an investor. In the emails, Sony executives discussed a co-financing arrangement whereby China Film will cover 10 percent of the budget of “Pixels.” China Film is run by La Peikang, a Communist Party member and the former deputy head of the Film Bureau.
Too much on the line
A total of 34 foreign films are allowed into China each year under a revenue-sharing model that gives 25 percent of box office receipts to foreign movie studios. Fourteen of those films must be in “high-tech” formats such as 3-D or IMAX.
The censorship process in China can be unpredictable, the Sony emails show. In early 2014, the studio was faced with a demand to remove for Chinese audiences a key but disturbing scene from “RoboCop,” the story of a part-man, part-machine police officer.
“Censorship really hassling us on ‘RoboCop’ — trying to cut out the best and most vital scene where they open up his suit and expose what is left of him as a person,” reads a Jan. 28, 2014, email written by international executive O’Dell. “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, cross fingers we don’t have to cut the scene out.”
The political climate under Xi may also be playing a role, one email indicates. “As to greater flexibility, I am not so sure about that,” Li wrote in early 2014, commenting on a media report that Beijing was mulling an increase in its foreign film quota. “The present government seems more conservative in all aspects and this is reflected by the repeated cuts to “RoboCop.” Lately, members of the censorship board seem uncertain, fearful and overly careful.”
In the messages in which “Pixels” is discussed, Sony executives grapple with how to gauge the sensitivities of the Chinese authorities.
In a Nov. 1, 2013, email, Li suggested making a number of changes to the script, including the scene in which a hole is smashed in the Great Wall. “This is fine as long as this is shown as part of a big-scale worldwide destruction, meaning that it would be good to show several recognizable historical sites in different parts of the world being destroyed,” she wrote.
She also advised altering a scene in which the president of the United States, an ambassador and the head of the CIA speculate that China could be behind an attack using an unknown technology. In the final version, which moviegoers are now getting to see, the officials speculate that Russia, Iran or Google could be to blame.
“China can be mentioned alongside other superpowers but they may not like ‘Russia and China don’t have this kind of technology,’ ” Li wrote in the email. “And in view of recent news on China hacking into government servers, they may object to ‘a communist-conspiracy brother hacked into the mail server . . .’ “
“The unwritten rule”
In mid-December 2013, Li suggested doing away with the Great Wall scene altogether, saying it was “unnecessary.”
Around the same time, the emails show Sony executives also discussed relocating a car-chase scene involving the video-game character Pac-Man from Tokyo to Shanghai, and whether that might help with the release date in China.
Li Chow advised against the change. “As to relocating the Pac-Man action from Tokyo to Shanghai, this is not a good idea because it will involve destruction all over the city and may likely cause some sensitivity,” she wrote in a Dec. 18, 2013, email. “In other words, it is rather hard to say whether it would be a problem because the unwritten rule is that it is acceptable if there is no real intention in destroying a certain building or street and if it is just collateral damage. But where would you draw the line?”
Ultimately, all references to China in the movie were scrubbed. That decision appears to have been made in early 2014. “It looks like Doug is going to heed Li’s advice and get all China references out of Pixels (including not using the Great Wall as one of the set pieces),” international executive O’Dell wrote, referring to then-Columbia Pictures President Doug Belgrad.
The cost of not winning approval to distribute a movie in China is also evident in the Sony emails.
In February 2014, a Sony marketing executive circulated an email: “Please note that CAPTAIN PHILLIPS will not be released theatrically in China” — a reference to the movie in which Tom Hanks stars as Capt. Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009.
Budget discussions about “Captain Phillips,” contained in the emails, show Sony executives had expected to earn $120 million globally from the movie, but that changed when they didn’t get approval for it to be screened in China. “We are short $9M and we won’t be getting into China,” emailed notes from a conference call read. “We need to grab every dollar we can to meet our objectives. It is incumbent on all of us to try to figure out how we can get more money from this picture.”
In a December 2013 email, Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony Pictures, had speculated that “Captain Phillips” was unlikely to be approved by China’s censors. In the film, the U.S. military rescues the ship’s captain. That plot element, Bruer noted, might make Chinese officials squirm.
“The reality of the situation is that China will probably never clear the film for censorship,” wrote Bruer. “Reasons being the big military machine of the U.S. saving one U.S. citizen. China would never do the same and in no way would want to promote this idea. Also just the political tone of the film is something that they would not feel comfortable with.”
Beijing shows every sign of being comfortable with “Pixels.” Recently, Sony had some good news: “Pixels” has been approved for release in China.
It opens there on Sept. 15.