Tony Earnshaw: Chinese money talks as blockbusters are given an airbrushing

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Six years after he out-bid Leonardo DiCaprio for the rights, Brad Pitt is close to seeing his all-consuming dream project World War Z hit movie screens. It opens in the UK on June 21– more than six months after its original slated release date and following a series of expensive reshoots, rewrites and a new ending.

Yet the biggest compromise has seemingly been at the behest of the Chinese censor, which baulked at several key plot points, one of which was setting the origin of the apocalyptic zombie outbreak in China.

Max (son of Mel) Brooks’s novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War traces the source of the contagion to a small Chinese village. And in the original film – the one to be seen by western audiences – the plot point remains intact. However studio chiefs at Paramount Pictures felt strongly that to alienate such a significant fanbase would not assist the film in clawing back its reported $125m budget. Thus the “Chinese Edition” was initiated, a sibling version of the film constructed specifically for a Chinese audience.

The movie has already undergone considerable reshoots. The ditching of the original finale and its replacement with a new one also hints at a panicky reaction from executives who are seeking a franchise in the manner of the phenomenon that is TV’s The Walking Dead. Star/producer Brad Pitt is in the minority of Hollywood A-listers in that he does not drive his own franchise vehicle. A series of epic zombie films could be it, and World War Z needs to end with more of the tale to tell.

But back to the Chinese connection. World War Z is just the latest film to fall foul of increasingly nervous reactions to Chinese policy, censorship and strong-arm tactics. The remake of Red Dawn – America is invaded by a foreign power – was edited in post-production to swap its villains from Chinese to North Korean in order to maintain vital access to the Chinese box office.

One of the villains of the forthcoming Iron Man 3 had his origins airbrushed out so as not to offend the Chinese. Mandarin, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, no longer has his roots in the imperial Han dynasty – not in the Chinese edition, at least. What’s more this version will include a key cameo by Fan Bingbing. Not heard of her? She only happens to be China’s ultimate domestic megastar.

Unhappy at scenes of New York’s Chinatown, Chinese censors also cut 13 minutes from Men in Black 3. They removed even more from the Wachowskis’ meandering Cloud Atlas – around 40 minutes. And the new Transformers flick, being partly shoot in Beijing this summer, is said to be hiring local performers who will not be seen outside of China.

Money talks. And seemingly it talks loudest in Hollywood where all ears listen out for the comforting sound of the cash register. Even if its in Beijing.