Hollywood sees dollar signs when they look at China. It’s the land of new opportunity, recording $15.5 billion in revenues from its film and TV business in 2011. The Chinese box office alone grew by 35% in 2011, passing Japan as the world’s second-largest market; it will soon outstrip the U.S.
But navigating this burgeoning market can be hazardous. The main issue is one that will never be resolved, not on the creative co-production side nor at the distribution end. And that is SARFT, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the government censorship entity which is set up to protect its citizens.
When people complain about Hollywood’s voluntary CARA ratings board–mostly filmmakers who want to reach the widest possible audience–they don’t realize what a nightmare we could have if local communities were weighing in on what should be able to play in what market. The Chinese have no ratings system. So they are looking to “protect” their citizenry, young and old, educated and non-sophisticated, rural and urban, from a wide range of things, from religious superstition presented in a way that could be misunderstood, to political incorrectness, sex and violence. That wide net of censorship looking to cover everyone from a five year old city boy to a 85 year old rural grandmother is the nub of an inflexible problem that will never be fixed or resolved.
Creatively, all filmmakers, Chinese or not, have to bend over backwards to meet the stringent SARFT standards that make any kind of authentic or rigorous storytelling impossible. And on the distribution side, SARFT can change its mind, as it did with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” about what cuts it deems necessary to show the film inside its borders. One set of cuts gave way to the film being pulled from theaters, and another round of edits were demanded and delivered before China agreed to let the film play on the big screen.
Sony, which handles the film internationally, got Tarantino to agree to the changes so that the film could be shown: “We are delighted that audiences throughout China will be able to experience ‘Django Unchained’ beginning Sunday, May 12th,” states Sony. “There is tremendous excitement, anticipation and awareness for the film and we thank the local authorities for quickly resolving this issue.”