It has been a long week for the producers of the film Red Dawn. Last week it was announced that the studio behind the title – the embattled MGM Studios – had called for a post-production scrubbing of the content of the already completed film, and since then the production team has been in save-face spin mode. Looking over the comments from participants you get the distinct impression even in print they are spoken through gritted teeth.

In this new version the story once again centers on a group of youths who band together in the face of an invading army on American shores. The ridiculous news was that the studio had called for a complete alteration of the major nemesis portrayed in the movie.  In the remake the invading forces on American soil were initially Chinese.  However for clearly business reasons MGM has called in the production team and instructed them to rework the film; they have to literally remove the Chinese army from the film and change the villains to the North Koreans. New scenes are to be shot, fresh dialogue looping will take place, and most important will be removing most of the Chinese iconography. This becomes such a complex miasma of logic-defying decisions and artistic corruption that it sounds like the plot of a behind-the-camera Hollywood farce script.

A Comedy of Terror

When the news first came out one producer, Tripp Vincent, sounded like he was working the PR of a disgraced politician by the way he failed to address the forces behind the alteration:

  • We were initially very reluctant to make any changes.  But after careful consideration we constructed a way to make a scarier, smarter and more dangerous ‘Red Dawn’ that we believe improves the movie.

Bear in mind, those are the words of someone who already finished a movie with his selected villain.  He is trying to sell the concept that changing the source of evil in his film from the world’s largest nation to one of the poorest and least outfitted military forces is a marked improvement in tension.

Positioning North Korea as the new aggressor is not only a watered-down menace, it is a laugh-out-loud concept.  While arguably a well-staffed military presence the Norks are regarded as a bastard step-child in the global theater and the concept of them invading the U.S. mainland is as viable a concept as Vassar College posing a threat to the NCAA football championship.  The NoKos are an underfunded crew, they possess no discernable Navy, and what passes for their air force consists of Viet Nam War era planes and hardware.  Even if they amassed their forces to come stateside one U.S. aircraft carrier group would then be able to overtake the unmanned Korean nation.  Hell, given the rampant starvation in that country all it would take for their army to lay down their weapons is to show them a strip of road choked with Taco Bells and KFC restaurants – they would effectively pound their swords into Quarter-Pounder value meals.

Wan story on Behalf of Yuan

Red Dawn has basically been sitting idle for two years while MGM has gone through protracted financial troubles.  As the suits are trying to dig themselves out of a deep financial hole they desperately need to have income.  Another challenge is they do not have the ability to release their title themselves.  This is where the desire for the changes emanates.  In shopping the finished product to various studios for a distribution deal MGM met resistance.  Most potential partners told them that such a strident anti-China message would be problematic because it would cut out the potentially lucrative Chinese market. The question now becomes how sensible is it to undercut the potential North American returns in order to secure decent business from Chinese theaters?  Looking deeper shows that it is not the Chinese box office result that is the concern but the prospect of future business.

China is the fifth largest international territory for Hollywood revenues and one that is growing, but even so it remains at best a modest component to any film’s bottom line.  One of the largest grosses for an American film has been Inception, bringing in a very impressive $70 million.  However beyond that the record is spotty at best.  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, for example, has earned over $400 million globally, with only $38 million of that coming from Chinese theaters.  Another challenge coming from that marketplace is the Chinese governmental restrictions on American film titles.  Annually they allow fewer than two dozen U.S. films to be shown within the communist nation. So why does it make sense to truncate the vastly lucrative American market to appease a restrictive and limited Chinese audience?

The foresight of the potential distributors does not so much involve the prospects of Red Dawn itself but their ability to do future business in that nation.  Studios are doing more than jockeying for the few slots afforded American films, and many are part of a conglomerate with numerous other business interests in the region.  Even with limited access many studios are engaged in joint production efforts, meaning they are working directly with the Chinese government on native projects. China has long been looked at as a potentially profitable arena, so fears rest in angering the Chinese leadership which could mean being banned from future inroads into the fertile market. In years past studios releasing films which were unflattering to the Communist nation found themselves on the receiving end of economic reprisals and being denied further access to the Chinese market by that government.  In fact MGM has firsthand knowledge with this reaction, having experienced it following their 1997 release Red Corner.

This explains the company deciding to go through with a serious makeover on a film that has long been in the can.  With so many in the industry declaring they are unwilling to touch this title MGM was in possession of a film that was basically unreleasable in its original form.  One option of course is to simply dump the film into the direct-to-DVD market, but that holds little appeal for a cash-starved company – especially when you consider the $60 million budget.  MGM has stated the changes they are calling for will amount to less than one million dollars, and when faced with a significant write-down otherwise their motivation is rather obvious.

This results in a revealing aspect in Hollywood.  In recent years there have been instances of various groups coming out in protest of content in a film and calling for those offensive portions to be excised.  Be it Muslims upset with violent portrayals, Christian leaders opposing heretical elements in The DaVinci code, or gay-rights leaders condemning a perceived slur in The Dilemma, whenever a call for alterations is broadcast the immediate reaction is a charge of censorship and then a solid defense of artistic integrity.  Tellingly when a very similar order comes down from above for strictly monetary reasons the writers and directors are not afforded the same protection of their artistic freedom.

The real irony can actually be measured against the movie itself.  Regardless who is attacking the U.S. the movie is centered on those who find the courage to stand up for values.  This is in fact something Vincent Newman, another producer on the project, ultimately hopes to shine through with the bastardized final product.

Even amidst challenging economic times so much is taken for granted, including our freedom. It seems worthy to me that we have found an entertaining and credible way to portray a group of young people fighting for a cause in which we all can believe. As Red Dawn is made available to audiences around the world, we hope they will arrive at a similar conclusion.

A ragtag group of youths face off against a monolithic opposition force in a display of character and fighting for what is a noble cause.  It is a show of inner strength and is ultimately the result of conquering the unknown and displaying unique bravery.  It is very interesting that the studios releasing such a story cannot display the same traits.