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James Cameron on Chinese Filmmakers: “I’m not interested in their reality.”

"Titianic 3D" in China (courtesy

James Cameron, director of Avatar and Titanic, deep-sea explorer, and self-proclaimed “king of the world” was in Beijing earlier this week attending the Beijing International Film Festival. He spoke with Edward Wong of The New York Times and Gady Epstein of The Economist about his involvement in China, the numbers game of US-China co-productions, and the avalanche of Avatar the future may hold.

Wong, Epstein, and Cameron also discussed the censorship and quotas governing theatrical releases in China:

NYT: You must have had people talk to you to give you a briefing on the censorship process, about how it works or how it’s affected certain films here. Do you have any general thoughts on that? Cameron: As an artist, I’m always against censorship. But censorship’s a reality, even in the U.S. We have a form of it there. We used to have the Hays commission. We now have the M.P.A.A. ratings system, which is basically a self-censorship process that prevents government from doing it. But the economic imperatives are that if you get an R rating, the studio won’t make a film that looks like it’s headed toward an R rating, and if you get a R you’ve got to cut it yourself to comply with PG-13. So it’s really just a form of censorship indirectly.” NYT: Do you consider that the same as Chinese censorship? Cameron: You’ve got a little more choice in it. It’s not as draconian. But I can’t be judgmental about another culture’s process. I don’t think that’s healthy.

While Cameron expressed misgivings about the censorship rules at play in Chinese cinema, he stressed a belief that things are “moving in the right direction.” Said Cameron:

Well, “Titanic” is actually censored less this time than it was in ’97. Because it was their second bite at the apple. It’s gotten much wider and we’re seeing it being less restrictive. So we’re moving in the right direction. The quotas for international films coming in now, it’s a higher quota, the percentage of revenue is higher, so everything is moving in the right direction. You see the market opening up.

Still, Cameron’s involvement in China appears to be a simple investment of time and labor into an environment where both box office sales and 3D technology are on the rise. Exhibiting a mild enthusiasm for Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, Cameron admittedly lacks much knowledge—or empathy—for Chinese artists under the thumb of government censorship:

NYT: Did you talk to other filmmakers – your peers – about Chinese censorship? Cameron: No. I’m not interested in their reality. My reality is that I’ve made two films in the last 15 years that both have been resounding successes here, and this is an important market for me. And so I’m going to do what’s necessary to continue having this be an important market for my films. And I’m going to play by the rules that are internal to this market. Because you have to. You know, I can stomp my feet and hold my breath but I’m not going to change people’s minds that way. Now I do feel that everything is trending in the right direction right now, as I mentioned earlier.

To hear James Cameron, whose box office successes in China represent the pinnacle of Hollywood’s dearest hopes, wax so apathetic about censorship and the reality of Chinese filmmakers is disheartening. The recent swirl of co-production news that has surrounded US filmmaking efforts in China has seemed to neglect a seemingly crucial question: exactly what kind of collaborations can we expect from these future co-productions? Co-productions may hold the power to shape future censorship constraints, as well as infuse both Hollywood and the Chinese film industry with new talent and ideas, but Cameron seems to have all but written Chinese filmmakers out of the equation. Certainly, Cameron does not speak for all of Hollywood. What he does express in his careless attitude towards other filmmakers, however, speaks at a blockbuster volume.


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