This week's issue of the Hollywood Reporter hit shelves with a fascinating exclusive entitled "How Hollywood Helped Hitler", which explains in excruciating detail how American entertainment executives killed specific projects, modified scripts, and re-edited movies in order to maintain access to lucrative German film markets during the 1930s. This particularly shameful chapter of the American entertainment history is one that — to the say the least — Hollywood's heavily Jewish community would prefer to leave firmly in the past.
Unfortunately, however, this historical episode bears striking resemblance to the present-day relationship of collusion that is unfolding between Hollywood film executives and the Chinese government, which controls all foreign access to the ever-growing Chinese film market.
The troubling legacy of collaboration between 1930s-era Hollywood executives and Hitler's censors relied on a section of German film regulations called Article 15. Article 15 clearly stated that if any motion picture company produced a film that these censors deemed anti-German, both the film in question and any other movies produced by the same motion picture company could be banned in all Nazi territory. Germany's film market was the second largest in the world during the 1930s, so production companies like Paramount, Universal, and 20th Century Fox voluntarily chose to manipulate their films in order to appease German authorities and avoid being blacklisted from Nazi controlled theaters. These manipulations first began with a re-cut of the classic All is Quiet on the Western Front, but quickly grew to isolate individuals in the film industry who hoped to produce material that criticized the practices of both Hitler and his Nazi regime.
Amongst these individuals was Herman J. Mankiewicz, the future writer of Citizen Cane, whose The Mad Dog of Europe was never greenlit because it condemned Hitler's treatment of the Jews. In this atmosphere, even films produced in the United States and for American audiences were tailored from the ground up to appease Germany's authoritarian Nazi regime; a trend that, in the long run, helped keep public opinion weary of war with Germany even as the Nazis invaded their European neighbors and plotted the holocaust.
This same trend of collusion has reemerged in the present-day relationship between Hollywood and Beijing's state media censors. China recently surpassed Japan as the world's second largest foreign market for American films, and, as a result, entertainment companies are desperate to cultivate a good relationship with the Chinese government in order to ensure that their movies will reach the country's massive audiences in coming years. This task, however, is easier said than done due to the fact that China's State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television currently only allows 34 foreign films into the country each year. Films are either approved or denied on a variety of ambiguous criteria that seem to center around the political implication of minute details. However, films that take place in China, feature Chinese products, showcase Chinese actors, and — most importantly — refrain from criticizing the Chinese government have the best chances of gaining regulatory approval.
In order to navigate this complex process of approval, many American studios have begun modifying their films to appease China's propaganda censors. With some movies, like Django Unchained, this effort was rather contained, including only a re-edit that produced a different version of the movie for Chinese theaters. Unfortunately, this effort failed at the last minute, as Beijing yanked the movie from theaters even after it had been approved by censors. This was a move that many observers in the U.S. credit to the film's legitimization of violence in the name of individual liberty. With these finicky authorities in mind, other movies have been partially rewritten to more thoroughly appease Chinese regulators. For example, in the book that inspired World War Z, the virus that prompts the zombie apocalypse originally emerges in China. When adapted to film for Paramount, however, the company's executives removed this detail in beliefs that it alluded too closely to a jab at either China's food safety issues or its 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.
Other companies have taken this effort much further by building their films from the ground to feature Chinese cities, companies, and actors in a light that will appease the country's regulators. Blockbusters like Looper, Pacific Rim, and Iron Man 3 were all shot at least partially in China with these aims in mind. Furthermore, many American production companies have also entered joint ventures with China's state-run or heavily state-influenced media, producing entities like "Legendary East" and "Oriental DreamWorks" that will integrate direct Chinese government control into the entire film making process.
As this relationship between Hollywood film executives and Chinese censors continues to deepen, Americans should remain mindful of the troubling history that accompanied Hollywood's last episode of collusion with an authoritarian government, whether or not the modern-day Chinese government approaches the vileness of the Nazis. This collusion helped bolster the reputation of Nazi Germany, one of the most evil regimes in human history, and with this tragedy in mind, it would be shameful if Hollywood — and indeed even many of the same production companies — were allowed to repeat these mistakes as they work to enter the Chinese film market.