Movies

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.

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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.

NEXT: Long, Long Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, a Star Wars Actor Wore an Atlas Shrugged T-Shirt

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  1. If bankable directors won’t stand for it, there will be no problem.

    1. Bankable directors are guys like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder who have no integrity or talent. Studios deciding who gets to direct what will determine who becomes bankable in the future.

      1. What was the last blockbuster you directed? THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT.

        Just for this, I’m going to quote Armageddon all the rest of the day.

        1. Armageddon, the movie that brought a 20mm vulcan gatling gun to a lifeless asteroid. Michael Bay is an insane genius.

          1. You’re good people. Your name will go on the list of those to be spared in the coming new world order.

      2. National Review had a positive review of Bay’s 18 Hours yesterday.

        1. Especially the scene where it turned out to be Hillary Clinton in a hijab leading the attack on the embassy.

        2. To be fair, Bay may have accidentally made a good movie– even if it does question Hillary’s narrative of events.

      3. Speaking of Snyder, I’m kind of pumped for Batman vs. Superman, which is looking like it has serious potential to be the most disastrously awful movie ever made.

        1. It’s going to be hilariously terrible.

          Who made the decision to reveal the big twist in the trailer? That guy deserves a medal for being a total maroon.

        2. I went over to the Youtubes and watched the trailer. Why is Groot in it, and why is he a bad guy? And did Aflac have throat surgery or something?

          I don’t think I can get past my visceral dislike of Eisenberg to watch that at any rate.

  2. Ah the Heckler’s Veto in action.

    1. And begging your pardon, sir, but it’s a big-ass heckler.

  3. Gresham’s law applies to more than currency.

    1. But now that I think a bit more, the Euro-luddites haven’t stopped the development of GMOs, so maybe there will be a “US-cut”, and a Euro-Weeny-cut”.

      1. All movies should be Un-cut. IF they want to be cut, they can decide when the Criterion Collection version comes out.

        1. That’s just genius funny right there.

  4. 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

    WTF? Made-For-Pay-Cable is arguably the least bowdlerized content of anything coming out of Hollywood – meaning they DON’T act like Hollywood movie studios. Deadwood and The Wire probably don’t translate to Asian audiences at all.

    The difference with Netflix is they are in debt up to their eyeballs and will suck government cock for cashflow. Just like the movie studios. There will always be filmmakers that refuse to do that, they’ll just have to release their product via smaller outlets. Just like it’s been for centuries.

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

    Yes. I’m surprised this question even gets asked. We have this thing called the Internet where Google and other people have to play “nice” with foreign governments. I think it’s unlikely it has no effect here at home.

  6. Interesting. You know, this might also be why we’ve seen so little success for SJWs in Hollywood while smaller mediums like comics have all but bent over backwards. When you are forced to pander to foreign markets with extremely different social scenes than your own, you can’t also pander to the special interests back home.

  7. It would be terrible if foreigners willing to do violence stifled freedom of thought in the West. So, Reason, are you planning to show those Mohammed cartoons you wanted everyone to draw back in the day? Cuz if not, I hope we don’t hear any sort of nonsense about Je Suis anything today.

  8. No problem here. The kind of qualities that movies used to have will move to TV and things like Netflix. It’s already happening. Leave the big orange and blue CGI action films to the rest of the world.

    1. And filmmakers will release “renegade cuts” to same, which will then be torrented to the rest of the world.

  9. “the thrust of what we’re trying to do is have the artistic vision be consistent through the world.”

    Why would this be the choice they would make, rather than having an artistic vision actually be carried out in the places where it’s allowed and, if really necessary, censored elsewhere? It’s an international heckler’s veto for no apparent reason, as if consistency is more important than actual…art.

    1. It’s cheaper to make one bland product for everyone everywhere than to make a good product for locals and chop it up for foreigners.

      1. Bingo. If you’re the studio exec about the greenlight $150 million to make an action film, you’re not going to make anything but the most acceptable global version.

      2. Why do I, as a filmmaker, have to insert a Sad Clown of Life into my summer blockbuster just to appease French audiences?

        1. Make the clown trans and you get the US critics on board.

          1. Fuck the critics, I want box office receipts! I can get U.S. critics on board by appealing to French audiences, trans or no trans.

        2. You, as a filmmaker, don’t really get to decide “summer blockbuster” status. The money behind the project decides that.

          1. Inserting a Sad Clown of Life may also help decide that.

      3. Usually people don’t bother to call that “artistic vision.”

        1. It can work both ways. Rumour has it that Jabba The Hut Harvey Weinstein wanted to chop up the Chinese-made Hero for U.S. Audiences and Tarantino (who wanted to bring the film to the U.S.) implored Weinstein not to touch it. Weinstein reluctantly agreed, but demanded the movie open with “Quentin Tarantino Presents”.

        2. On the other hand, re-branding “profit motive” as “artistic vision” has a good chance of duping Democrats.

          1. For example, the artistic vision of the Chicago Police Department is a frightened populace, relieved to pay higher taxes for enhanced police salaries.

            1. I hear higher pusec salaries begets better people.

              1. That’s the artistic vision anyway.

      4. It’s cheaper to make one bland product for everyone everywhere than to make a good product for locals and chop it up for foreigners.

        That’s true, yet that’s not how it has it worked for video games. Localization of plot elements, violence, imagery is a well-known and common practice in the industry. We have our version of Wolfenstein and the Germans have theirs.
        I suspect Hollywood will go the same way.

        1. OK Brad, now I want you to do it again, except this time say “We will let 100 flowers bloom!”

    2. “”Why would this be the choice they would make, rather than having an artistic vision actually be carried out in the places where it’s allowed and, if really necessary, censored elsewhere?’

      Same point i made below. Fragmentation is just as (if not more) likely than Homogenization in catering to a ‘new consumer’. There is already a category of internationally marketed-‘spectacle films’; it doesn’t detract from US-targeted cinema, and if anything simply makes ‘less profitable’ films less risky.

    3. Not to worry Nikki. If hollywood starts cranking out pap it will create a niche for others to make movies tailored to the US market.

      1. Hollywood does crank out pap, and Netflix was part of that niche.

  10. ” 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”

    I made this same point the other day

    However, i’d hesitate before assuming that the Globalificationizing of cinema means that US films will be ‘censored’. I think they’ll just make so much money from selling the Chinese Neo-Michael Bay movies that they’ll have plenty of money left over for niche, US-market-only films.

  11. “Feel the Bern” next to an “Evolve” fish on a Volt. Believes in evolution, economic creationism.

    1. Believes in evolution, economic creationism.

      Hey man, coexist.

        1. Or fish without feet.

  12. Gangs of men of North African and Middle-eastern descent rob, assault and rape women on New Year’s Eve…and this is a bigger fucking problem?

    Reason, your bias is showing. Again.

    1. It’s the internet. Ones and zeroes aren’t rationed, and you can publish multiple stories on all different issues on your site without running out of digits.

      1. Has Reason posted anything on the New Year’s Eve rape gangs yet, though? We hear about everything Trump says in breathless detail, but nothing on this yet. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume somebody is doing in depth reporting that requires actually calling folks up and interviewing them.

        1. Well, if thousands of children raped and abused in Rotherham rates a story about every, what, 9 months, I suspect its going to be a long wait for a story about mere dozens being abused and handful of rapes.

        2. I did, but Reason doesn’t accept me as a staffer.

        3. Weissmuller posted an article on it earlier, right?

          *goes back and looks*

          Nope. He is pitching letting in tens of thousands of widows and orphans.

          The fuckwittedness of people on this issue is astounding.

        4. Illocust, I said the exact same thing, almost verbatim, about Rotherham and John, to his credit told me the story didn’t fit their narrative and they wouldn’t write anything about it. I didn’t believe him and made him a bet. I still owe him drinks if/when he ever gets to NYC.

          Seeing as this involves only score of people and they are adult women (who should know better than to go out on New Year’s Eve) who were mostly just assaulted and robbed, with a rape here or there, Reason will at best give it a passing mention. At best. They won’t write anything substantial about it because it doesn’t fit their open borders dogma.

          1. “Seeing as this involves only score of people”

            The NYT reported on the story in detail

            they also say, “scores” but cite 90 complaints. and the perps were said to have numbered in the “hundreds”

            “The police in Cologne say they believe several hundred men, ages 15 to 35 and visibly drunk, were involved in the violence, which began when they tossed firecrackers into the crowd that had thronged the square.”

            My read = Woman-stuff trumps “diversity”.

            The story notes in its backhand-slapping way, “Its not just the far right saying unkind things about Arabs anymore”

            1. Damn, I’m actually surprised by that. I was expecting the number of perpetrators to go significantly down as more details came out, but it turns out that there were hundreds of these guys (saying a thousand isn’t that big of an exaggeration if at all). Yeah, this is becoming too big of a news story not to cover. Even the commenters over on slate are getting antsy about the lack of coverage (they had a single story over there, but it was off the main page in five minutes).

              1. UK media seems to have published the most

                “A local newspaper reported that fifteen asylum-seekers from Syria and Afghanistan were briefly held by police on New Year’s Eve in connection with the sex attacks but were released.

                The Express newspaper quoted an unnamed police officer who said his squad had detained several people who had “only been in Germany for a few weeks”.

                “Of these people, 14 were from Syria and one was from Afghanistan. That’s the truth. Although it hurts,” he said.

                I am a little peeved that use of the term “SEX MOB” doesn’t require royalties paid to Steve Bernstein & Co

            2. they also say, “scores” but cite 90 complaints

              Four score and 10 complaints ago…

          2. Google “news germany” for an update on numbers and locales involved.

            1. What i don’t quite understand about the story is how they seemed to congregate in such large numbers and affected so many people but there’s not even a single arrest or any published video. it seems the most-reported on action was at the Cologne train station. Are we to believe that the officials don’t have any footage even a week after the fact?

              1. Why would I believe an official anyway?

          3. We’ll have to wait until these refugees go to college for Reason to cover it.

            1. Or possibly a Netflix Original Series.

      2. Ones and zeroes aren’t rationed

        The FCC disagrees.

  13. Pretty sure American censors have had input on content, too.

    You can’t tell me Michael Bay being summoned to the CIA was for shits & giggles.

    1. He was summoned so he could help them fight the terrorists

      1. What do we call it when the government inserts content into your movies?

        1. Strategic influence?

    2. I envision that meeting as more like the Office Space consultant interviews.

      What if – and believe me this is a hypothetical – but what if you were offered some kind of a stock option equity sharing program. Would that do anything for you?

  14. Kinda like how stupid gun laws in CA result in all new firearms having these STUPID “safety” devices, like the retarded magazine disconnect?

  15. Just make different versions of the movie for countries where the original would get censored.

    So I imagine Darth Vader would be the hero in Russian Star Wars, instead of the separatist terrorists.

    In All the President’s Men, the Chinese version would have investigators from Beijing expose a cover-up by a corrupt local official.

    The China Syndrome in China would be retitled “We Just Call it a Syndrome.”

    etc.

    1. Rebel scum are rebel scum everywhere.

  16. So I’m about 1/2 way into season 3 of House of Cards. I really loved season 1. I loved the first and last episodes of season 2 and hated everything in between (what in the world is interesting about watching a man go to one meeting after another with the same people over and over and over?).

    Season 3 is a bit more interesting than season 2. But I’m still waiting for those “WTF?” moments, like season 1 had in spades.

  17. The next big blockbuster will be just as vacuous as the previous big blockbuster. Can it be more vacuous.
    But will will miss out on those little gems that make movie watching so enjoyable.
    Don’t worry, they were able to make the ‘Human Centipede’ and two sequels – and the all make money.

  18. Are we in the Great Afternoon Reason Siesta?

    1. SSSSHHHHHH. they’re having a libertarian moment.

  19. 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

    LOL

    “All hail shitty art, courtesy global capitalism! Michael Bay-ing every movie is a good thing, really”

    This is not the way you sell classical liberalism to people who care about this subject.

    1. People who care have already been sold.

  20. This is old. A couple of years ago two books came out about how Hollywood pandered to the Nazis because
    Germany was one of their biggest overseas customers.

    1. That was mostly a case of Stalin telling them to be pro-Nazi, since they were allies. Once that changed, though…all gloves were off

  21. I think this is an example of Marx’s capitalists selling communists the rope to hang the capitalists with.

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