It’s no secret Hollywood has long coveted the Chinese market and has gone as far as re-editing movies to appeal to Chinese audiences.

When Iron Man 3 was released 10 years ago, the filmmakers created a version of the movie specifically for China, in which Tony Stark travels to the country for heart surgery and it is revealed that the source of his power is Gu Li Duo, an inner Mongolian milk drink.

More recently, the flags of Taiwan and Japan were notably absent on Tom Cruise’s jacket when the first trailer for Top Gun: Maverick was released in 2019. At the time, the Chinese tech firm Tencent Holdings was helping finance the film. The Taiwanese and Japanese flags mysteriously reappeared after Tencent backed out of the production.

Now the Defense Department has a new rule prohibiting the U.S. military from providing support to any film and television productions that are edited to appease Chinese censors.

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First reported by Politico, the change was recently incorporated into an existing Defense Department instruction, which now prevents the department from assisting film, television, and live productions, “When there is demonstrable evidence that the production has complied or is likely to comply with a demand from the Government of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party, or an entity under the direction of the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese Communist Party to censor the content of the project in a material manner to advance the national interest of the People’s Republic of China.”

('Top Gun: Maverick' screenshot via Youtube)
(‘Top Gun: Maverick’ screenshot via Youtube)

The language added to the instruction was required by the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, said Glen Roberts, chief of entertainment media for the Defense Department. Roberts’ office works with movies, television shows, documentaries, and live events to educate the American public about the Defense Department’s roles and missions.

“The NDAA is, of course, federal law, and the department obviously complies with all federal laws,” Roberts told Task & Purpose. “This change to the Department of Defense ensures compliance with Section 1257 of the NDAA, which is federal law.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) added the language to the NDAA act that blocks the Defense Department from assisting movies and other productions that are censored for Chinese audiences.

Cruz has long fought against Chinese influence over American films and other forms of media. In a December 2020 floor speech, he lambasted Hollywood for cutting scenes about singer Freddie Mercury’s sexuality from the version of Bohemian Rhapsody released in China, and for changing a character in Dr. Strange from Tibetan to Celtic to avoid offending Chinese authorities.

“The Chinese Communist Party spends billions of dollars trying to control what Americans hear, see, and ultimately think – well beyond their efforts to censor film content just for Chinese audiences,” Cruz said in a statement to Task & Purpose on Friday. “My concerns with Hollywood self-censorship began well before Top Gun, including everything from Hollywood shunning Richard Gere over his stance on Tibet to Marvel changing comic book characters, all to appease the Chinese Communist Party, and much of it done in anticipation of future CCP objections. 

“In fact, China set up a system that leveraged access to Chinese markets so that Hollywood would preemptively self-censor scripts, visuals, and even casting,” Cruz continued. “Unfortunately that system worked for much too long, but I’m cautiously optimistic that Hollywood is learning that the cost of kowtowing to the CCP isn’t worth it.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 24: General views of the Hollywood Sign surrounded by greenery after recent rains on March 24, 2023 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
General views of the Hollywood Sign surrounded by greenery after recent rains on March 24, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

It’s pretty clear why American movie studios want a bigger share of China’s movie market, which produced $4.33 billion in box office revenue last year. That number is expected to grow to $8.11 billion by 2028.

To put that into perspective, the North American movie market reported $7.5 billion in box office revenue in 2022.

But retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye, who has worked as a military advisor on movies including Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific said he has not worked on military-themed productions that have had to comply with Chinese censorship.

Dye said he often works on military-themed productions that cannot get assistance from the Defense Department, and he has not seen writers or producers decide to cut scenes for Chinese audiences. He also does not recall working on productions that have been financed by Chinese companies.

“I really don’t think it has much effect,” Dye told Task & Purpose on Friday. “I think it’s smoke and mirrors.”

Actor Matthew Modine, who Pvt. Joker in Full Metal Jacket, said he has long supported U.S. troops; however, he has not studied the recent change regarding the Defense Department’s policy on assisting film and television productions, 

Modine did offer some thoughts on the wider issue of censorship, which is the underlying reason for why the Defense Department is no longer offering assistance to movies and television shows that bow to Chinese pressure.

“An important question to ask is, when is censorship ever good?” Modine said in a statement.  “Why is the First Amendment so important to American Democracy? Challenging materials, books, music, films, theatre, helps all of us to develop critical thinking skills. Without a selection of different ideas and competing strategies, we lose the opportunity to self-judge ideas we might at first oppose, to challenge what we were taught to believe. If we didn’t the earth might still be considered flat. It’s through critical thinking that society and culture continues to evolve.  There’s ample evidence that censorship hampers our abilities to evaluate opinions from well established facts. Uncomfortable conversations often result in emotional and intellectual growth.” 

UPDATE: 07/07/2023; this story was updated with a statement from Matthew Modine.

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