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Hollywood embraces censorship in China while opposing it at home

- - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hollywood continues its collaboration with Chinese censors even as it pushes back against U.S. attempts to limit violent content in film and television in the aftermath of the mass killing in Newtown, Conn., last December, experts observe.

The Hollywood Reporter reported Tuesday that Michael Mann's latest feature will revolve around a joint U.S.-China task force tracking down a hacker in the Balkans—a surprising collaboration, given the Chinese army's role in hacking governments and news agencies around the world.

Additionally, according to the Hollywood Reporter, Quentin Tarantino agreed this week to slightly mute depictions of violence for the release of his latest film, Django Unchained, in China. Tarantino was a vocal defender of the film's violence and of Hollywood's artistic freedom in the aftermath of the shootings last December.

The Wall Street Journal also reported earlier this month that Paramount Pictures will change the location of the zombie apocalypse' origin from China in its upcoming film World War Z and that Iron Man 3 will have two versions for the American and Chinese audiences.

Skyfall's producers removed a reference to Macau's sex trade, Cloud Atlas removed sexual scenes, and Men in Black 3 removed scenes of New York's Chinatown.

"This depiction of a productive collaboration between the U.S. and China would be the latest in a string of onscreen working relationships between the two countries," noted the Hollywood Reporter.

"For an industry that promotes free expression and alleged liberal values to work with totalitarian government that is the antithesis of the values we hold dear as Americans is in many ways a hypocrisy," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.

"They often mask what they do with other values such as the First Amendment, but if indeed they are working with China's censors, then obviously they don't believe in those values," said Fitton.

Dan Harris, an attorney with Harris & Moure, an international law firm that represents American companies involved in China's film industry, said China's State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) must approve all films prior to release.

"Growth in viewership of movies has slowed in the United States, but in China, with 1.3 billion people and more people emerging into its middle class all the time, movie viewership is skyrocketing," said Harris.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.) introduced the Violent Content Research Act in January. The bill would compel the National Academy of Sciences to study the effects of violence in the media on children. The bill has bipartisan support but the entertainment industry is working against its passage.

"The censoring of content is simply 'good business' as far as the studios are concerned," said Stephen Tropiano, an associate professor of screen studies at Ithaca College and author of Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned, and Controversial Films.

According to Frank Couvares, an expert on censorship and the film industry in America at Amherst College, legislative interest in Hollywood is nothing new.

Movies were considered commerce, not art, until 1952 and were therefore not afforded First Amendment protection.

Pressure from religious groups, women's groups, and other public interest groups led to the establishment of local and state censorship boards, said Couvares.

"There were real threats of government censorship. Every year, there were calls for federal censorship, which were never passed, but the threat was there," Couvares said.

Hollywood studios created the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to head off calls for federal censorship. The MPAA established the Production Code Administration to assign film ratings and internally censor questionable material.

Couvares also noted Hollywood compliance with foreign censors while pushing back on U.S. regulation is nothing new.

"Hollywood has been doing this for a hundred years."

Gabe Rottman, legislative council and policy adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Hollywood's relationship with China's SARFT is not its only tie to censorship.

The MPAA was a prominent supporter of last year's proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Rottman acknowledges the industry's commercial need to protect its intellectual property but said the bill went to far.

"SOPA was a conduit to censorship," Rottman said. "It implicated takedown of content from the internet, which is a direct First Amendment problem."

The bill was defeated after the technology community organized a vigorous grassroots opposition.

When asked whether Hollywood's relationship with China will give U.S. politicians leverage in pressing down on the film industry's use of violent content, Fitton said not to worry.

"I think federal regulations of the content of films is something the courts will be very skeptical of. I just don't see it happening."

Couvares also agreed Hollywood's work with China will not bolster the case for censoring violent content, noting Hollywood's practice of censoring movies for foreign audiences is business as usual.

"It's par for the course. This is nothing new in this."

But Tropiano is wary. He said Hollywood's commercial interest in censorship might damage the artistic quality of films, and studios are stepping into "dangerous territory."

"I am sure it is easy for a studio to justify making a minor cut in a film so it could be released in China. But censorship alters the content of films, and when you alter the content, you alter the meaning."

Although the MPAA declined to comment, former Sen. Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.), who is now chairman and CEO of MPAA, told reporters at this February's National Press Conference that regulating content is a "slippery slope."

"Movies do matter," said Dodd.

• Mary Anne McElroy is a co-founder of The Tammany, a New York City cultural blog, and is a former Deloitte consultant and USA Student Ambassador to the Shanghai World Expo.