China's Great Firewall of Internet censorship has become household knowledge in recent years, but the extent to which the country controls all forms of media is less well known. It has, however, become a huge headache for Hollywood lately, as movie studios struggle to break in to the world's second largest film market. It's a struggle because every single film bound for Chinese theaters has to make it past China's all-powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) whose guidelines for what is and isn't acceptable is more or less subjective and entirely unpredictable. All the studios can do is hire consultants who are familiar with the ins and outs of censorship in China and hope for the best. But even after a script is approved and the film is shot and edited, SARFT can swoop in and block the film for any reason.
That's exactly what happened to director Rob Cohen, who explained the travails of working with China's censors to The New York Times in a story set to hit the paper's front page on Tuesday. One of Cohen's recent films is The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor -- we didn't realize they were still making The Mummy series either but whatever -- which was filmed in China in 2007 after the country's censorship bureau had approved the script. However, after watching the film, Cohen says that the censors landed on a problem that the filmmakers "didn't have any way of seeing, or any way of fixing." Cohen put it bluntly: "White Westerners were saving China." Although the film was approved, Cohen says its release was delayed until after it had been seen by everyone else in the world.
Bringing in consultants does help movie studios frame projects in a censor-friendly manner, but after filming begins the filmmakers have to be very careful not to deviate from the plan. As Cohen explained, SARFT sends spies to the set to make sure everything is going as planned. "There were points where we were shooting with a crew of 500 people," said Cohen. "I'm not sure who was who or what, but knowing the way the system works, it's completely clear that had we deviated from the script, it would not have gone unnoticed." This is even more believable when you realize that China has tens of thousands of volunteer spies, monitoring the Internet and helping to identify which sites should be blocked.
Like we said, any little detail can be cause for blocking a movie. In The Karate Kid, SARFT didn't like the fact that the villain was Chinese so the filmmakers had to change the story to make it acceptable. They took issue with Kung Fu Panda simply because the main character was a nationally treasured animal. Censors ordered nearly 15 minutes of footage to be cut from Men in Black 3 because the movie referred to Chinese censorship. God forbid the Chinese people find out that their government is controlling.