This past weekend saw the release of the third film in the four-part trilogy (that’s Hollywood math!) of The Hunger Games series. At least it did in most major markets, with the glaring omission of China, whose censors pulled the plug on the release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 at the eleventh hour.
For North America the movie represented another success for its studio Lionsgate, as the release surged to sales of $123 million in its opening weekend and caught plenty of attention for its creative promotional campaign.
But in China the losses are already starting to mount and could spiral into tens of millions of dollars, as the movie’s release is postponed into 2015 and fails to capitalize on the global buzz being generated.
This last-minute censorship typifies the double-edged sword that the Chinese movie market represents for Hollywood.
There are huge profits at stake, but a lot of money can be wasted if a fall falls foul of the country’s notoriously unpredictable take on “quality control.” Release delays can be costly, but outright bans can completely destroy profits from other areas of the world if enough promotional spending has already been poured into China before a decision is made.
Other major releases from Hollywood that have run into issues include Iron Man 3, which filmed some segments in Beijing that came under close scrutiny from the censors and, more curiously Life of Pi, for some quotes about religion that were deemed unsuitable for audiences in the country. Aside from blatantly controversial issues such as Tibet, Tienanmen Square, or other obvious political hot potatoes, studios can rarely tell exactly what will set the censors off in China.
In the case of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay the issue appears to have been the overtures of rebellion and revolution underpinning the film’s story, although that didn’t deter censors from approving its predecessor, Catching Fire, from a fanfare release last year. This time around, however, the country’s government is facing uprisings in Hong Kong and further criticism in other areas where its ownership claims are in question, which has perhaps swayed the censors to avoid rocking the boat,
Whatever the reason, the delayed release marks a clear watershed period for China’s government in entertainment terms. The mass market that its audiences present will remain unceasingly attractive to Western movie makers, but continued censorship will only strain that relationship. Given the eyeballs on offer, though, the preferable route for foreign studios may be to bend to China’s controlling whims, rather than break their relationship with this demanding yet valuable market altogether.