Marvel’s “Iron Man 3” stomped its way through the box office last weekend, raking in $175 million in North America in its first three days alone and more than $680 million internationally in less than two weeks. These were huge numbers, even for a superhero flick, second only to last summer’s blockbuster of blockbusters, “The Avengers” (another Marvel product).
It was a sound conclusion to the Iron Man trilogy, with a well-pitched sardonic tone, a thoughtful had-ya-fooled plot twist, and an enjoyably bombastic set piece finale. And, of course, there were the cameos. Remember Dr. Wu, the medical genius played by Wang Xueqi who was the only doctor who could un-Iron Man Tony Stark at the end of the film? And Fan Bingbing, who excitedly proclaimed, “He’s here!” when Stark arrived at the hospital?
Alas, if you were one of the many who flocked to see “Iron Man 3” in theaters across the U.S. last week, you don’t remember either of these characters–because you didn’t see them. In fact, these scenes were created specifically for the Chinese version of the film, and they were never meant to be watched–and probably never will be–by audiences anywhere other than China.
“Iron Man 3” in China is a story of studio pandering for the sake of cash, and the incomprehensibly byzantine process by which foreign films are allowed into the communist country. Even more so, it is a cautionary tale for Hollywood heavyweights as they try to break into what could potentially be a massive market–and almost certainly will be someday soon.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, as new “Iron Man 3” scenes were added for specifically Chinese audiences, the re-release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” featuring three minutes cut from the original (including nudity scenes), is flopping in China. The film originally hit Chinese theaters April 11, and was pulled within “minutes of its opening screenings… without official explanation,” per Deadline.
Hollywood desperately wants to break into the Chinese market, and for good reason: China last year passed Japan to become the number two market in the world, and is on track to beat out the United States for number one by 2020. According to John Horn of the Los Angeles Times, the only thing stopping China from taking the top slot right now is the country’s limited number of theaters: as Horn told PRI’s The World, China is currently building cinemas “at a frantic clip” and could conceivably overtake the U.S. even before the end of the decade.
Despite these limitations, China already promises big box-office numbers for American movies: “Iron Man 3” earned a remarkable $63.5 million in its first five days there, its best result in any foreign market. These dollar levels–and the potential for exponentially bigger returns in the future–only whets the appetite of Hollywood studio execs to grab a piece of this burgeoning market.
But American studios trying to get their films into China face an even bigger challenge than the limited number of theaters: the Chinese government’s arcane rules on how films can enter the country–and in what form. Chinese officials recently upped the quota of American films they would allow into the country each year from 20 to 34, but the government’s State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) censorship system continues to dictate what can and cannot appear in those films. Earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was pulled from theaters just minutes into the very first showings of the film on orders from SARFT –even though officials had previously OK’d the flick to play in Chinese theaters.
The Iron Man Plan
The holy grail for any Hollywood studio looking to make big profits in China is to have a project designated a co-production. U.S. studios typically receive only 20 to 25 percent of box-office grosses in China–less than in other markets–while co-productions are treated like domestic Chinese films and bring studios 38 percent of receipts.
It was big news, then, when Disney announced in April 2012 that it would be co-producing “Iron Man 3” with the Chinese company DMG Entertainment, thereby opening up the possibility for the studio to access the 38 percent return. The problem for American studios, though, is that China’s definition of what qualifies as a co-production is vague at best. Marvel later opted not to pursue the co-production route, choosing instead to release an alternate cut of the film in China with a few additional scenes added to cater specifically to the country’s moviegoers.
That’s where Wang Xueqi’s Dr. Wu comes in. In the Chinese version of “Iron Man 3,” according to Eric Jou, a Beijing-based writer for the website Kotaku, there are about four minutes of extra content featuring an additional storyline with the good doctor. In one scene, after watching Tony Stark challenge the Mandarin on TV, Dr. Wu calls Stark and speaks to his electronic butler, J.A.R.V.I.S, who in this scene alone speaks in Mandarin Chinese. “Tony doesn’t have to do this alone,” Dr. Wu tells him, “China can help.” At the film’s close, it is Dr. Wu (and only Dr. Wu!) who can remove the shrapnel from Tony’s chest in the film’s closing moments, right after Fan Bingbing has her seconds-long “He’s here!” cameo. (One puzzling added scene involves nothing more than a single, long shot of Dr. Wu pouring a glass of Yili brand milk.)
As the LA Times reported, neither Robert Downey, Jr. nor “Iron Man 3” director Shane Black had any involvement with the extra China-specific footage. The decision, it seems, was made entirely by Marvel itself to please Chinese censors. In another bow to government officials, the Chinese version also changed the problematic name of Ben Kingsley’s “Mandarin” villain, translating it instead–yes, it’s true–as “Man Daren.”
The problem for Marvel, and the lesson for any other American studio pondering its own pander-fest, is that Chinese viewers didn’t like the extra content that was made specifically for them. People’s Daily, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party, responded to the film with an article titled “Iron Man 3 Draws the Audience Ire: This Special Chinese Version Is Pointless.” An anchor on the talk show Shuo Tian Xia, according to Kontaku, opined pointedly that “a good way to get Chinese on board is just make a good movie.”
A Tale of Two Masters
With its Chinese “Iron Man 3,” Marvel decided to adopt a policy of over-placating Chinese officials, but then did a clunky job of adding in China-specific material and thereby created a film that some rank and file moviegoers seem to have rejected. As Horn stated in his interview with PRI: “There no such thing as artistic integrity when it comes to China. There are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made there.”
If there’s any lesson to be learned though–or at least some interesting semi-prediction of what’s to come–it’s this: Even if Hollywood does improve at navigating Chinese bureaucracy and getting its films into the People’s Republic, it could very soon find itself at the mercy of two masters. The first, of course, is the Chinese government: the censors and officials who quite literally hold the digital keys to the kingdom. But the second master is equally important: the very viewers American studios want to lure into the theaters to watch their films. Another question is how the exhibitors in China feel about their government’s control of the product they’re playing their theaters. They too want to bring in customers.
There’s a fundamental disconnect at play here that “Iron Man 3” may be at the forefront of revealing. To put it plainly, Hollywood may soon find itself the Yossarian in an unusual Catch-22: to get to Chinese viewers, you have to get past Chinese censors, but to get past Chinese censors, you may be adding content that Chinese viewers don’t like. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, that isn’t much of a plan for long-term success.
SARFT is also a huge stumbling block when it comes to the issue of co-productions, as it’s very difficult–as many Hollywood players have discovered–to come up with an approved script that is also a likely audience pleaser. This East/West cultural gap may prove insurmountable.