As Hollywood's International Market Grows, Will Foreign Censors End Up Controlling U.S. Content?

Big movie studios are already tweaking their films, and online services like Netflix may follow.


There's a revealing moment in Tad Friend's great, telling New Yorker profile of startup movie studio STX, in which the studio's chief executive Adam Fogel asks a screenwriter to rewrite a screenplay in order to appease Chinese authorities:

The Chinese market required constant attention. John Zhao, the founder of Hony Capital, told me, "STX's films will incorporate Eastern elements, and then, if they're a hit, we can roll out derivative products—television shows, user-driven content, and so on." To get foreign films shown in China, however, you have to trim out anything remotely problematic: after an outcry in the local media, the makers of "Red Dawn," a 2012 invasion thriller, digitally transformed its villains from Chinese into North Koreans. So last summer, when Fogelson heard a screenwriter's pitch about an Italian-Chinese couple, he suggested that they switch the backstories of the couple's parents: "What if the Chinese mom had passed away, and the Italian dad had divorced?" When the writer said, "Divorce is also a really big deal in the Catholic Church," Fogelson gently replied, "But it doesn't prevent a movie from being made."

Two decades ago, Hollywood studios made most of their box office money domestically. Films were made for, and sold to, American audiences. But over the past few years, the international market has become a major source of revenue for Hollywood, with China as the biggest international market, followed by Russia.

The films that Hollywood produces have changed accordingly. Lavish visual spectacle plays well overseas. Nuanced dialogue does not. As an example, the Transformers films were among the first to do better business internationally than at home, and have continued to do strong business there. Avatar did amazing business overseas (more than $2 billion in box office) in part because it was a chiefly visual experience that translated well across languages.

This shift has given rise to a predictable wave of complaints and worries about how Hollywood is de-prioritizing dialogue and, essentially, no longer making movies for Americans, or for or about any particular culture, in hopes of appealing to the widest international audience possible, especially when it comes to movies with very large budgets (typically special effects driven blockbusters). I admit I don't always love the simplified dialogue or narrative incoherence that seems to define some of these films (though there are also times I do!). But the overall shift strikes me as essentially unobjectionable and arguably even a good thing, as cultures meld and global influence over entertainment shifts and blends and transforms. Indeed, this sort of cultural blending and evolution is always happening at some level; here it's just happening on a global scale.

What worries me is not that American movies will come to reflect the tastes of international audiences, but that they will be retrofitted and redesigned to reflect the rules and requirements of foreign governments—that they will either be censored explicitly, or, more likely, that they will be censored implicitly, as studios go out of their way to make films that don't upset foreign censors.

As Friend's report in The New Yorker makes clear, this is already happening. Studios are so reliant on foreign box office, especially for very big budget movies—which are increasingly what studios are focused on producing, at the expense of all else—that they simply will not make films that have any chance of pushback from the Chinese government.

One might be inclined shrug this off as a minor issue. After all, we're mostly talking about superhero movies and adolescent sci-fi blockbusters. These were never going to be particularly politically potent.

Except that as film content moves online, foreign censors are going to be a factor in other, smaller productions as well. In a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas yesterday, industry leading video-streaming site Netflix announced that it would be launching its service globally, going live in more than 130 countries.

That is a testament to the power and promise of the Internet to bring high end communications and entertainment services to an underserved global audience. But it also comes with some dangers. When questioned during the presentation, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings pointedly declined to say that Netflix would refuse to cooperate with foreign censors, and instead indicated that he was possibly open to certain forms of alterations. Hastings seemed to indicate that Netflix would be open to tweaks, but not to compromising the artistic core of a show.

Regarding "different versions like 'airplane cuts,' we'll have to see and we'll have to learn," said Hastings, according to The Verge. "I think entertainment companies have to make compromises over time… the thrust of what we're trying to do is have the artistic vision be consistent through the world."

My worry here less that programming will be tweaked slightly for different audiences and more that as Netflix—which, with its increasing emphasis on original content, is behaving more and more like an online version of a pay-cable network—will, like Hollywood studios, simply not make shows that might offend foreign governments, and that as other networks move online and into international distribution, they will follow.

The growth of the international market is in many ways something to be celebrated. But it also brings with it the worrying possibility of a kind of de facto censorship, in which the big governments least friendly to free speech and free artistic expression rule.