The global box office is more important than it ever has been. With the pandemic coming to a close, we're trying to find ways to bring new money into theaters. Movies that travel all over the world have never been more important. But what happens when the country where the movie needs to make money has a lot of laws and a review process? What happens when studios start changing stories and characters and casting to appease others? 

Well, that's sort of where Hollywood is now with China. Until 1994, almost all the movies in Chinese theaters were state-sponsored. They told stories about their history and usually were there to endorse the Communist Party. But in 2010, Avatar was given a rare release in China. That movie went on to make $200 million and turned every head in Hollywood. Suddenly, they wanted to get every big movie into that market, but to do it, they had to get past their censors. 

In a new book called Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Battle for Global Supremacy, Erich Schwartzel writes about how the Chinese Communist Party has changed Hollywood. Recently, Schwartzel sat down with Vox to talk about the relationship between the country and Tinseltown. 

Let's go over some of the answers in the interview and dissect what's going on in Hollywood. 

Avatar'Avatar'Credit: 20th Century Fox

How is China influencing Hollywood's movies? 

One of the first things addressed is what kind of content bumps the Chinese censors. When Hollywood submits a movie, they're looking for a few things. Schwartzel says,

"They watch the movie, and a couple of things can happen. They can say, this is approved for release with no changes. Or, this will be approved for release if you cut these three things. Or, it’s not being approved at all, and we’re not going to tell you why. But you can imagine the reasons why. Obviously, there are political topics that are complete nonstarters for this group. No studio is going to get in a movie about the Dalai Lama, or that has any Tibetan characters, or any reference to Chinese history that the authorities would rather their people not see. But there are other less obvious concerns that the party has had over time. One is movies involving time travel, because a world where there’s time travel means there’s also a history that might be different than the one the party puts forward. There’s also been a lot of scrutiny and, frankly, the rejection of any homosexual elements, or stories involving same-sex couples or homosexual characters in movies."

If you've been paying attention to what's been happening, you've probably seen Disney making a ton of money in China. Marvel movies have been very popular there, inflating their budgets and even getting Disney to add scenes for the Chinese market to satisfy them

But not everything is rosy there. Star Wars movies actually don't do well, thanks to the original not being widely seen. And the subsequent sequels have so much calling back to the originals that Chinese audiences found them to be confusing. They were baffled by The Force Awakens, which had so many homages, they did not connect. 

The_force_awakens_0'The Force Awakens'Credit: Lucasfilm

So, how is this changing movies? 

Schwartzel says that once big money got involved, stories started being tweaked to make sure they could make it to China. He said:

"When the studios started to realize how much money was to be made in the Chinese market, not only did they avoid storylines that would be politically problematic, but they also thought to themselves, 'How can we maximize revenue or our interests there?' One thing that they started doing was casting Chinese actors and actresses in these films. It started around 2012 or 2013—the X-Men movies, the Transformers movies. Often, they were cast in very bit parts or cameo roles, Chinese actors and actresses who were hugely famous in their home country but unknown in America. Then they’d use those bit parts to market the film in China."

These lessons were learned early on. When MGM remade Red Dawn, they didn't want to make Russia the invader, so they went with China. The movie was shot and almost done, but MGM realized that they also had a new James Bond movie coming out. They got worried that in retribution for making China the villains in Red Dawn, they would have China censor and ban the Bond movie, which they needed to make money on.

So what did MGM do? 

Schwartzel said, "Ultimately, they decide to send the finished film to a special effects company. They had to take every reference to China—every Chinese flag, every line of dialogue referencing China, every Chinese military uniform—and change it to North Korea. It cost the studio a million dollars, and took hours and hours of overtime to get it done."

Original-vs-remake-red-dawn-1984-vs-red-dawn-2012'Red Dawn'Credit: MGM

Where are we now? 

These conversations happen all the time when movies are marketed to China. Look at what Marvel had when they tried to send Eternals to China. Old comments from Chloé Zhao were dug up, and there was a careful line everyone had to walk. The same happened with Simu Liu and Shang-Chi, who also had made comments disparaging China in the past. Well, neither of those movies got released in China, hurting both of their box offices in the long run (while they each did well across the rest of the world). 

We even saw them pulling Keanu Reeves movies a few weeks ago.  

So with those sensitivities and budgets in mind, it will be interesting to see how studios react and who they hire. This goes past content and might extend to packaging and bigger names on films in the future. There's a lot to keep track of, and it's not all just about Hollywood. It's about the U.S. and China in general. 

According to Schwartzel:

"The movies have become a proxy for the broader rivalry forming between the U.S. and China. I think it ultimately becomes a story of values, and what values are shipped around the world. For a hundred years, Hollywood’s movies have been considered the default global entertainment; someone once said that the movies helped turn America into 'an empire by invitation,' a gravitational pull toward the country and its way of life. I think China, which sees its turn at dominating a century, wants to copy that playbook."

All of this has led to China pulling back on the release of American films abroad. We'll try to keep track of all of this as it develops further. 

Let me know what you think in the comments.