An expert's point of view on a current event.

What if ‘The Interview’ Took Place in China?

When it comes to censorship, it's Beijing -- not Pyongyang -- that poses the real threat to Hollywood.

Sony Pictures' "The Interview" Opens On Christmas Day
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 25: General view of the Plaza Theatre marquee during Sony Pictures' release of "The Interview" at the Plaza Theatre on, Christmas Day, December 25, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. Sony hackers have been releasing stolen information and threatened attacks on theaters that screened the film. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

The television host Dave Skylark, played by James Franco in The Interview, wants to know why people hate him and what he represents. Why do some people detest his right to host a trashy talk show about Eminem’s sexual preferences and Rob Lowe’s baldness? “Do they hate us because they ain’t us?” he asks his longtime producer Aaron Rapoport, played by Seth Rogen.

Seen in the context of the tempest that The Interview created, it’s tempting to pose that question about American popular culture. Did the shadowy terrorist group Guardians of Peace — the allegedly North Korea-backed organization that threatened Sony, and caused them to pull The Interview from theaters — do what they did because they hate America’s right to produce trashy movies featuring gratuitous sex scenes and jokes about camel toes? And was Sony’s decision to reverse course and release the film a victory for “us” against our haters? (Rogen, who tweeted “Freedom has prevailed!” after Sony announced their new decision, certainly thought so.)

But like so much about this dumb buddy comedy and the controversy it caused, those questions are misleading. Hollywood’s biggest worry about freedom of expression is not North Korea, or terrorist groups, or those who make anonymous threats to movie theaters. And celebrating our “freedom” over North Korea, an impoverished state of 25 million, is both sad and laughable.

The far bigger worry is self-censorship — and there’s no bigger threat here than China. The Chinese don’t hate us because they are like us, or because they are not. In fact, they don’t hate us at all. Beijing poses a major censorship threat because the ruling Chinese Communist Party is keenly sensitive to criticism and has the economic muscle to punish those in Hollywood who make films that displease it.

In other words, the bizarre series of events that caused The Interview to be briefly censored are a distraction from China, Hollywood’s biggest censorship problem.

Consider what would have happened if Rogen and Franco had pitched a movie about two bumbling journalists contracted by the CIA to assassinate Chinese President Xi Jinping — another authoritarian leader who is the commander of a massive army, sits atop a massive nuclear arsenal, and poses a strategic threat to the United States. 

Would China’s army of hackers have unleashed a far more devastating cyberattack? Would Beijing have railed against the insult, threatening a stern response? No and no. Because the movie wouldn’t have gotten past the pitch meeting.

No major studio today would dare greenlight a film that would be that offensive to the Chinese Communist Party: The financial costs could be immense. A film studio that was even known to have publicly floated an idea such as this could expect to be effectively blacklisted from working with Beijing — and China is where Hollywood studios will make an increasingly large percentage of their money in coming years.

China’s box office revenue surged to $3.57 billion in 2013, a 27 percent increase from 2012. The country is already the world’s second-largest film market, and the most important source of growth for Hollywood releases: “Box office receipts in the U.S. are sliding nearly 20 percent compared to last year, while China’s is booming in 2014, up 33 percent in the first quarter alone,” according to Yahoo Finance. “Every mainstream studio is keenly aware of not offending the Chinese market, because it’s become such an important revenue stream,” Tom Nunan, a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television, told Bloomberg.

Chinese film studios are increasingly seen as the gatekeepers by which Hollywood can enter this 1.4 billion-person market. Ryan Kavanaugh, the chief executive of the media company Relativity Media, has successfully made co-productions in China. But he noted recently that one of the differences between making films in the United States and China is that, in the latter, films have to be “meaningful both to the government and the Chinese people.” In other words, don’t offend Beijing.

Consider the case of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which several years ago released a remake of Red Dawn, the 1984 cult classic about Soviet, Cuban, and Nicaraguan troops invading the United States. Originally, the script had Chinese soldiers tromping through the United States — but the producers switched them to North Koreans. “The movie was changed because we couldn’t get distribution for the movie from any of the distributors here,” Red Dawn producer Tripp Vinson told USA Today. “They didn’t want to offend the Chinese, I am assuming.”

Or consider The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which Chinese censors tweaked before release: Producers were reportedly cautioned that the ancient ruler in the film wasn’t allowed to resemble China’s liberator and dictator Mao Zedong. Or Iron Man 3, a film in which Chinese government officials were reportedly allowed onto movie sets to monitor the filming and ensure plot lines wouldn’t offend Beijing. Or World War Z, a 2013 movie based on a popular book of the same name, where a zombie epidemic starts in China and spreads throughout the world. According to the entertainment website The Wrap, the producers dropped the reference to China as the source of the plague.

After Sony cancelled the release of The Interview, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the studio, saying, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” Yet in the case of China, this has been happening for years: Hollywood studios have opted to censor their films to appease a foreign political party. Hatred — and North Korea — have nothing to do with it.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish