Just the latest example where Hollywood shows it no longer clings to artistic integrity when money is on the line.
The CBS television show “The Good Fight”, (available on the CBS All Access streaming service) is a spinoff of the previous CBS primetime hit “The Good Wife”. The program is a political-based drama that is fully immersive in real-time politics, with plots that involve real life named individuals in DC life.
In its desire to infuse contemporary storylines a recent episode was addressing the issue of China and the ruling government’s stronghold on that country’s cultural offerings. The show had a brief scene included mentioning the Chinese Communist party tendencies to censor and control the content, and in a bit dark irony CBS ended up censoring the scene. It appears the network decided late in the process that the brief scene was too sensitive to the liking of the Chi-Coms.
Viewers had initially believed the blacked out screen time was an inclusion by the writers, making a wry comment on the issue of censorship. One of the show’s writers verified that it was not a dose of intentional satire but an official move made by the network. This was eventually confirmed by an official comment from executives.
In a statement, CBS All Access said: “We had concerns with some subject matter in the episode’s animated short. This is the creative solution that we agreed upon with the producers.” A spokeswoman declined to comment further.
The animated short segment was a musical interlude, listing off a number topics that have been banned on the mainland. Supposedly, after receiving initial approval for the segment, it was decided it had to be removed just weeks ahead of the airing of the episode. This is but one example of American entertainment studios showing a growing acceptance for censoring their own products to appease the communist leadership in China.
The Quaint Days of Bold Artists
It was maybe a generation ago when Hollywood entities would rise up loudly at the mere suggestion that any type of dramatic content should be altered, or worse, removed and stifled as a result of possessing offensive content. There was a time when the phrase “In the name of artistic integrity” was almost a knee-jerk reaction to any level of criticism. The invoking of this phrase has almost fallen to disfavor, and that is a result of two factors — political correctness, and Chinese profits.
These offset influences reflect a willingness of Hollywood in recent years to actually impact its own artist freedom, but in two differing arenas; one domestic and one foreign.
Domestically the issue is usually political correctness. In days past Hollywood would almost sneer at those who might give a voice of disapproval to something portrayed on screen. The First Amendment would commonly be invoked, and the cry of “censorship” would follow, and most of the time that was all that was needed to squelch the complaints.
These days studios find that they are boxed in by their own messaging. For years now (decades?) celebrities and producers have been taking up the cause of oppressed groups and segments of our society. This leads today to the occasional conflict when activists from those same groups declare they are being oppressed by some selected or maybe an objectional portrayal on screen.
What choice does a studio have when a mouthpiece from a particular segment opposes specific content? Even if a targeted film or show does not itself go through the crucible of being censored it can affect decisions made on future content.
A case of this type happened last year when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson was tabbed to play the role of a transexual character in a film project. Trans activists loudly balked at the idea of the role going to a straight performer, and Johansson stepped away from the role. These activists though were short-sighted in their outrage, as the actress was also a producer on the film, so her removal meant the project itself has been killed off. Not only will their acceptable performer be denied work but a story centered on a trans character now will not be told.
The Yuan Thing More Important Than Art
The story in China is less social and more financial…or entirely so. The Chinese marketplace has exploded over the past decade, specifically with motion pictures. The Chi-Com government has worked hard to greatly expand the number of theaters across the country, all of them state-run. This means they also control the content shown on those mushrooming screens. Currently, Hollywood, while salivating at the prospect, is only permitted to have a few dozen titles released on the mainland each year.
The result of this fertile but challenging market is not only are studios jockeying for limited slots and currying favor with the Chinese film authorities they are also willing to capitulate. If the Chi-Com film board dictates that certain content in a film is unacceptable to them they will demand it either be removed, or the title is denied a release. Growingly Hollywood opts for the former choice, artistic freedom be damned.
By example, Disney was willing to trim a character out of one of its “Pirates of the Caribbean” titles because the Chinese pirate was deemed offensive. In order to play in China “Iron Man 3” watered down the character Mandarin to make him palpable for the Chinese censors, and an additional four minutes of footage made with Chinese performers was spliced into the Chinese cut. In one ridiculous example, a Tom Cruise chase scene from the “Mission Impossible” franchise that was actually filmed in China was ordered to be cut out of the film; scenes in a neighborhood showed laundry drying on clotheslines, and the censors did not want the rest of the world to now most citizens do not own washers and dryers in their homes.
The leverage the Chi-Coms have over Hollywood is more than simply access to their theater marketplace. Most studios are part of multinational corporations, and if the Chinese authorities are angered enough they could also dictate that access to other markets is impacted. If a Disney-owned Marvel film provokes them enough, maybe permission for a theme park is denied. If a Sony Entertainment film offends then possibly imports from its electronics division could be embargoed. The desire to stay on the good side of the ruling party could be felt across numerous divisions of a corporation.
The starkest example was seen with the remake of the film “Red Dawn”. MGM produced the new version in 2009, with the United States being invaded by the Chinese military. The struggling studio could not release the film on its own, and as a result it faced a massive problem; no other company would distribute their film. Though an entirely MGM-made product all studios and distributors declined to release “Red Dawn” out of fear of angering the Chi-Com authorities. This meant MGM had a completed film that it could place in theaters, so they had to go through the expense of digitally “scrubbing” all Chinese iconography from their film and converting the invading army to the North Koreans.
CBS did not need the MGM example to arrive at its decision — it had its own history to look back on for reference. “The Good Wife” found itself banned in China following an episode that had a negative portrayal of Chinese authorities. Currently “The Good Fight” is not under a ban. According to one person affiliated with the show:
He was told that CBS had concerns for the safety of its employees in China if the segment were included. CBS also has a Chinese audience, and when releasing content that is critical of China, American entertainment companies often have to weigh the risk of having their shows or movies blocked in the country.
These are the kind of moves on the finished product that not so long ago were unthinkable. Hollywood now appears more than willing to let their artistic integrity take a back seat to a chance at bigger profits, and it should only continue to do so. Within the next couple of years, the Chinese annual box office gross is expected to exceed that of North America for the first time. As the studios have shown they are more than willing to bow to the pressure of the Chinese censors in order to preserve access to a booming marketplace.
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