Sony apparently didn't care very much that the script to its new sci-fi comedy movie Pixels is pretty bad. It did, however, go to pains to ensure that Pixels would pass Chinese censorship boards with flying colours. Goodbye integrity, hello authoritarian-sanctioned blockbuster.
According to Reuters, which cites emails leaked by Sony hackers, Sony "sanitised" the new Adam Sandler movie to make certain it would get on the circuit in China, the world's second biggest box office. This entailed deleting references to China from the script and removing a rather insensitive scene, in which intergalactic pixelated aliens blast a hole in the Great Wall.
"Even though breaking a hole on the Great Wall may not be a problem as long as it is part of a worldwide phenomenon, it is actually unnecessary because it will not benefit the China release at all. I would then, recommend not to do it," Li Chow, chief representative of Sony Pictures in China, wrote in a December 2013 email to senior Sony executives, Reuters reports.
Another scene in which China was mentioned as a potential culprit behind an attack got axed, as did a reference to a "Communist conspiracy brother" hacking a mail server. Matter of fact, all references to the communist nation were eventually scrubbed from the film's script.
"Changing the China elements to another country should be a relatively easy fix," wrote Steven O'Dell, president of Sony Pictures Releasing International. "There is only downside to leaving the film as it is. Recommendation is to change all versions as if we only change the China version, we set ourselves up for the press to call us out for this when bloggers invariably compare the versions and realise we changed the China setting just to pacify that market."
Actually, you made our jobs way easier, Sony. We didn't even have to watch this turkey.
The Sony email leak also makes it clear that not winning Chinese approval could cost the company dearly. Budget discussions about "Captain Phillips", circulated in February 2014, note that the movie fell short of expected box office earnings, in part because it didn't get approval to be screened in China. A December 2013 email from Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony Pictures, suggests that the movie's basic premise is not particularly China-friendly.
"The reality of the situation is that China will probably never clear the film [Captain Phillips] for censorship," wrote Bruer. "Reasons being the big Military machine of the US saving one US citizen. China would never do the same and in no way would want to promote this idea. Also just the political tone of the film is something that they would not feel comfortable with."
To be fair, it's not as if aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall would have saved Pixels, a movie which was cursed by Sony's decision to cast Adam Sandler as lead actor. So I guess it's good for Sony that a bunch of cringing executives were willing to sell a bit of dignity to push the film into Beijing. Just this week, Pixels was approved for release in China, and it hits the box offices on September 15.