This fall, Hollywood will roll out a remake of "Red Dawn." The 1984 original depicts a band of high school students defending their hometown from a Russian invasion. With the Soviet Union long gone, the new script casts China as the great menace – at least that was the plan.
Partway through production, someone reminded the filmmakers that offending Beijing would not only get "Red Dawn" banned from China, but also might push government censors to reject other films from the same studio.
Big popcorn flicks earn up to 70 percent of their money overseas. Now that China is the second-largest film market in the world, Hollywood has gone to extraordinary measures to cater to Chinese audiences.
The "Red Dawn" crew "spent a million dollars or so digitally changing the language of the bad guys to make them North Koreans," says Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "They couldn't quite get rid of everything; but they changed uniforms, flags, and things like that."
Chinese regulators allow in only 34 foreign films a year. With such a quota, some studios have sneaked little winks into their films, touches that Americans probably won't notice but Chinese viewers love.
" '2012,' which was a big hit in China, went out of its way to make China look good," says Mr. Rosen. In the film, John Cusack leads a group that must escape apocalyptic natural disasters. They eventually find refuge in massive arks that can ride the rising waves. Guess who built the arks?
As the film reveals these ships, Oliver Platt, playing the White House chief of staff, says in a moment of admiration, "Leave it to the Chinese. I didn't think it was possible, not in the time we had."
While China regularly rejects movies or deletes scenes with Chinese villains, the government also balks at more subtle topics, such as vampires, ghosts, insults to neighboring countries, and time travel (especially if it suggests that things were better before communism).