Hollywood Bows Before Growing Chinese Box Office Might, Experts Say

Is Hollywood really that afraid of China?

MGM, fearing financial retribution from the Chinese distribution market, has digitally altered the final cut of its remake of the 1984 Cold War cult classic “Red Dawn” to feature villains of North Korean descent, instead of Chinese.

With the Chinese market poised to provide even more lucrative international returns for American films in the coming years, offending the Chinese government and audiences made film distributors jittery, according to the Los Angeles Times.

So for less than $1 million, through the magic of digital technology, the studio has been able to convert most of the Chinese bad guys to North Koreans.

North Korea, for numerous reasons, doesn’t represent a booming market for American film.

The original “Red Dawn,” which starred Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey as teenagers who battle an invading force of the Soviet Union and their Latin counterparts in an impending World War III scenario taking place in Middle America, received mixed reviews and middling box office returns. In creating the remake, filmmakers had to find a new “red” villain since Russia  is no longer red or a major threat to United States’ security.

Producers opted to make the villains the Chinese.

That was in 2009.

Two years later, the Chinese market is even more of an asset to American filmmakers, who are looking to squeeze money from all possible avenues amidst dwindling American box office returns.

“China is one of the fastest growing markets, so yeah, it is a big deal,” says Hollywood Reporter senior film writer Pamela McClintock. “‘Avatar did $200 million there and the Chinese box office brings in $1.47 billion annually.”

That $1.47 billion represents all films shown in China—Chinese and American. But America’s slice of that pie is set to grow. Prior to this year China has only allowed 20 international films to compete in their market. Among the American films released in China over the past couple of years are blockbusters like “Inception,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and both the “Lord of the Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises. According to one report, one of the films that did not make the cut was “The Dark Knight,” due to the fact that it contained a Chinese villain.

But later this month that handful of movies could grow exponentially. On March 19th, due to a World Trade Organization ruling, the Chinese government is addressing how it plans to open the film market to greater foreign participation.

It seems unlikely that “Red Dawn” would be a major hit in the Asian country even with the digital adjustments. But the changes are bigger than just one film for MGM. They are about creating good faith with the Chinese market as a whole.

“Given the limited number of outside films released in China, I don’t think ‘Red Dawn’ is the caliber of picture that would make the cut in China,” Denise Rice, President of Visio Entertainment and former President of marketing at Miramax told Fox411. “Making the public gesture of recognizing China as a good business partner could be a factor in this decision. It shows that MGM is being mindful and respectful of China by not characterizing them as the bad guy, so that maybe down the line they will look more favorably on movies like ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘James Bond”—films that have a chance to make it into Chinese theaters.”

It may be a smart monetary decision, but the “Red Dawn” incident indicates a disturbing self-censorship that could chill creative license in future projects, experts say. If writers are forced to keep movie villains and jerks to the countries who don’t spend a lot of money at the box office, could all future villains hail from North Korea and Iceland?

“This could be a definite danger and could have a chilling effect on future decisions for writers who now have to think about who they can portray in a negative light that won’t affect the box office,” says Hollywood.com box office analyst Paul Degarabedian. “Do we just pick those who contribute least to the box office and always make them the villain? We can’t live in a world where the only villains come from outer space.”

Unless, that is, Hollywood finds out Martians buy tickets, too.