Avengers: Endgame didn’t just shatter box office records during its U.S. debut in April—it also made history in China, grossing more than $330 million on opening weekend and becoming the biggest foreign film to premiere there.
The movie’s success gives Hollywood more incentive to tap into China’s lucrative entertainment market. But its massive audiences and box office potential come with strings attached, and the American entertainment industry is increasingly rewriting scripts, blocking music, and erasing scenes to appease Chinese government censors.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar-winning Queen biopic, debuted in March in China with parts censored that portrayed lead singer Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality and AIDS diagnosis.
In Marvel Studios’ 2016 superhero film Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton, a white British actress, was cast to play the Ancient One, a character the original 1960s comic portrayed as an elderly Tibetan monk. The region of Tibet in western China has rejected Chinese authority throughout history. In an interview with Double Toasted, screenwriter C. Robert Cargil said, “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating 1 billion people.” He noted the added risk of “the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’” The movie instead portrayed the Ancient One as a Celtic sorcerer.
China accounted for $7.9 billion in movie ticket sales in 2017, according to a 2018 Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) report. While the United States and Canada face a declining cinema audience, China fueled a 7 percent increase in overseas ticket sales. MPAA chairman Charles H. Rivkin predicted the communist nation will soon become the world’s largest film market: “They’re building about 25 screens a day.”
The Chinese government is simultaneously tightening its grip on the media its people are allowed to consume. It recently eliminated its State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, placing media and entertainment censorship directly in the hands of the propaganda department. “There is a notion that its propaganda has not worked well enough,” Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, told the New York Times. “There’s a real sensitivity to the blockbuster power of Hollywood.”
China is bankrolling more top-tier Hollywood films than ever, and its strategy of portraying its government and history in a positive light is seeping into American films, television, and music. In effect, China is gaining control over what American audiences see and hear, and some are noting that criticism of its authoritarian regime is becoming harder to find.
The CBS All Access streaming platform recently blacked out from an episode of The Good Fight an eight-second animated clip that poked at Chinese censorship and the difficulty American companies face doing business there. The show’s cartoon snippets regularly feature controversial political topics, but Jonathan Coulton, a songwriter who makes the clips, told The New York Times that CBS removed the section out of concern for its Chinese employees and audiences.
Last month, Apple Music removed several pro-democracy singers and a song by Hong Kong artist Jacky Cheung referencing the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Several U.S. legislators reprimanded the tech giant. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., accused the company of turning “a blind eye to its complicity” in China in order to gain market access.
Other examples of the entertainment industry bowing to Chinese censorship include the 2012 Red Dawn remake—the Chinese army was changed to a North Korean army—and the 2015 film Pixels, in which Sony executives reportedly altered a scene originally intended to show aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall of China so the country would release the movie. The aliens blew up the Taj Mahal instead.
Two decades ago, Hollywood was producing films like Seven Years in Tibet, a 1997 top-grossing film that showed Chinese soldiers brutally beating Tibetans, and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, a movie about the Dalai Lama’s early life in the early communist China and his exile to India. Now, with Chinese revenue at stake, the American entertainment industry is poised to tell very different stories.