The New York Times reports today that AMC Theatres, America's second-biggest movie theater chain, may soon be purchased by a Chinese company, the Wanda Group, which, as one of the biggest theater operators in China, is no stranger to the Chinese government's longstanding practice of censoring American movies. So what happens if they come to own such a large part of the American movie market?
The movie industry is booming in China, and this would be the first significant expansion it has made into the States. And while there have been plenty of Chinese companies that have bought big American ones -- Lenovo gobbled up IBM's personal computer business -- this might be the first time a Chinese company became a player in the U.S. entertainment and media sector.
There's no deal yet -- The Times says the talks are, for now, just talk -- but "according to people briefed on the discussions," the Wanda Group could buy or take a large stake in AMC, which is valued around $1.5 billion, from its current owners, a collection of financial firms including Apollo Investment Fund, J. P. Morgan Partners, Bain Capital Investors, the Carlyle Group. All parties are, no doubt, practical minded businesspeople, but one thing that private equity firms rarely have to deal with is Chinese censors' complaints about Hollywood movies. Wanda, as a successful theater operator, presumably has, and it seems like a situation ripe for professional awakwardness if Wanda were to show a censored version of a film in its Chinese venues while the unedited film plays at its American houses.
The Chinese government's reasons for censorship are myriad and sometimes peculiar. They objected to Kate Winslet's breasts in Titanic 3D, expressing concerns that "viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing." We don't know how rowdy people get in Chinese movie theaters, but when we went here, none of the weeping teenage girls in our audience tried to cop a 3D feel. Guarding the people's morals can often result in silly decisions -- just ask the MPAA.
But Chinese officials are also on the lookout for more subtle political readings of Hollywood blockbusters, keen on finding anything that might be insulting of China or its people. The 2007 Disney hit Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End was censored in China because the pirate character played by Hong Kong action legend Chow Yun-Fat was deemed "demonizing" to Chinese and Singaporeans. Similarly, parts of Mission: Impossible III were censored because the state-sponsored China Film Group determined that the film showed Chinese people to be "insensitive to a hostage situation" and one scene made light of the Chinese military. Chinese censors may even be looking out for their Cold War buddies, if reports of references to Russia being excised from Iron Man 2 are to be believed.
Five years ago there was much fanfare about Casino Royale skating past the censors and becoming the first James Bond film to play in China, remarkably without any cuts or edits. But one of the film's stars, Dame Judi Dench, claimed that the film was in fact censored and that she had to re-record lines referring to the Cold War. The Chinese government is clearly quite sensitive about the way the nation is portrayed in foreign movies, and will dig down to a film's minutiae to make sure they are not impugned. The American film industry is aware of these sensitivities and has even begun to preemptively alter its own movies so as not to offend the sensibilities of the world's second biggest movie market: The filmmakers of an as-yet-to-be-released Red Dawn remake (Communists invade Amurrica, teens bravely rush to her defense) went back and digitally altered the Chinese invading army to make them North Korean, perhaps in response to a complaint in a state-run Chinese newspaper.
This isn't to suggest that AMC being bought by a Chinese corporation will mean that the heavy-hand of the China Film Group or any other state censoring entity will somehow extend across the Pacific and start meddling with American films. But the arms length distance between American studios and Chinese theater owners means that government censors can be mad at the former while the latter plays hapless bystander. What happens when the Wanda Group executive has to listen to the China Film Group censor complaining about all the horrible things Michael Bay has done to impugn the Chinese military in Transformers 4: America Rises?