As you may have already heard, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is set to be released in theaters and on Disney+ soon, and as the first Marvel movie that features a Chinese superhero as the lead, it’s almost guaranteed to be a big hit among Chinese audiences. However, just because a movie is centered around Chinese culture and has a predominantly Chinese cast doesn’t automatically mean it will premiere in Chinese cinemas, because like many other Hollywood films, it has to pass certain criteria first.
How foreign films enter the Chinese market
China has a quota for the number of foreign films that can be shown in cinemas in a year. The Chinese government only started allowing foreign films to premiere in 1994, with a limit of 10 films per year. The number was later increased to 20 films in 2002 in preparation for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Now, the number currently stands at 34 films per year, with 14 of the slots reserved exclusively for movies in 3D and IMAX formats.
There are two ways that foreign movies can be shown in China, the first one is called the Import Quota, which means that selected films are “imported” and shown in Chinese cinemas, and the generated revenues are then shared between the studio and the Chinese distributor. Renowned Hollywood studios like Disney, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. are guaranteed to have a spot here because the films they produce usually reel in big bucks.
As for the lesser-known films, they still have a chance of premiering in China cinemas through a process called Flat Fee or Buyout. As the name suggests, Chinese distributors pay a flat fee for the distribution rights of the film, and they get to keep all of the generated revenues once the film has premiered. There’s a separate quota for Flat Fee/Buyout films, but there doesn’t appear to be an official number.
So how do foreign films make it into the Import and Flat Fee quota? Well, first they have to comply with China’s censorship laws. It’s probably a well-known fact that China censors most of the popular social media sites, so it’s no surprise that they do the same with movies and TV shows as well. While most countries rate movies depending on whether they are suitable for children, teenagers, or adults, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television agency (SARFT) judges movies based on whether they are appropriate for the general population, regardless of their age. And since China is a communist country, the word “appropriate” comes with a strict list of censorship laws that both Chinese and foreign film producers have to follow.
A quick overview of the rules
Most of China’s film censorship laws can be summarized by 3Gs: no gays, no ghosts, no gore. The homophobic law that bans the portrayal of LGBTs relationships on screen is one of the latest additions to the censorship list, stating that they are “unnormal sexual relationships” and are therefore not suitable for the Chinese audiences. There have recently been a lot of Chinese shows and movies that found creative ways to skirt around this law, but foreign LGBT+ films are usually more explicit. Call Me By Your Name, a film that centers around a same-sex relationship was immediately banned and pulled from the Beijing International Film Festival, and while Bohemian Rhapsody was allowed to premiere, the scenes that show Freddy Mercury kissing men were edited out. They even went as far as censoring the Oscars acceptance speech of Rami Malek (the actor who portrayed Mercury) when he mentioned the words “gay man.”
China also doesn’t allow ghosts to show up on screen, so horror movies have a low chance of premiering in Chinese cinemas unless they are willing to censor the ghosts, which defeats the purpose of a horror movie. It might seem unreasonable for China to be afraid of ghosts, but apparently, Chinese folktales used to refer to corrupt officials as “evil ghosts,” so they don’t exactly censor ghosts out of fear. They’re just making sure that whatever they show on screen doesn’t have underlying metaphors that reflect badly on the government. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was one of the victims of this law. Despite the popularity of his other film Pacific Rim among Chinese audiences, Crimson Peak was banned due to supernatural elements as well as incestous relationships. Any films related to Frankenstein are also banned for featuring “abnormal science.”
Lastly, graphic depictions of violence are also not allowed to be shown on screen. There’s no specific reason why, but the censorship laws do tend to ban everything that’s excessive, such as excessive drinking, excessive smoking, excessive sexual content, and many more. Although most films that have graphic violence are still able to premiere after editing out some of the scenes, films such as Suicide Squad and Deadpool are banned because censoring the violence will change the mood of the story (although the unedited version of Deadpool was eventually allowed a limited screening for some reason).
Of course, the overarching rule that encompasses all the censorship laws is the law that bans any form of content that disparages the image, the history, and the officials of China. The metaphorical ghosts already fall under this category. Films that acknowledge Taiwan and Tibet as countries or criticize the Tiananmen Square Massacre will immediately be banned or censored as well. The same goes for films that show rebellion against the government or portray China as the enemy. Whether or not a movie passes this test largely depends on the interpretation of SARFT, and sometimes even minor details are deemed offensive. An example is the film Skyfall, in which the scene that showed James Bond killing a Chinese security guard was edited out because it seemed to imply that China can’t defend itself. There are a lot more censorship laws that haven’t been mentioned, and you can read more about them here.
Why Hollywood is willing to comply with strict censorship
As you can tell, there’s a long, exhausting list that you have to follow before your film will be allowed to premiere in Chinese theaters, so why do foreign filmmakers still go through all the trouble? Well, it’s because China has the second largest film market in the world next to the United States (recently taking over the top spot in 2020), so having your movie premiere there can easily turn it into a cash cow. The previously mentioned Pacific Rim wasn’t even very popular with the US audience, but it became a box office hit in China. The promise of good box office results have led some filmmakers to modify their own content to make it more appealing to the Chinese market, and some even deliberately portray China as the heroes of their story to secure a spot in the Import Quota. An example would be Marvel’s 2016 movie Doctor Strange, which received a lot of backlash for whitewashing a Tibetan character called The Ancient One. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige claims that the decision was made to avoid portraying Asian stereotypes, but other sources claim that changing the ethnicity of a Tibetan character was done to appease Chinese censors. Another example would be The Martian, which showed China’s National Space Administration successfully delivering supplies to a stranded US astronaut after NASA failed. Of course, that movie became a big hit in China.
Upon first glance, China’s censorship laws might seem like an absurdly long list for filmmakers for the sake of pleasing one country, but given how profitable China’s box office market has proven to be, more filmmakers are willing to take the extra step and comply with the censorship laws just for the chance of finding success in China. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if this becomes the new norm in filmmaking. In fact, some experts say it’s already happening.