When making the World War Z movie, Paramount changed the origin of the disease in the novel. from China. This was a change that Brooks had refused to make in the book, which saw the book banned in China. And at the time, The Wrap reported that Paramount made the change so as to get the movie distributed in China. However, it was all for nought, and the movie was not distributed in China after all. But it looks as if even more changes would have had to have been made. Chris Fenton was president of the Chinese-based DMG Entertainment Motion Picture Group, General Manager of DMG North America (owners of Valiant Comics), and Senior Advisor to IDW Media Holdings. He has now written a book, Feeding The Dragon, looking at his career, getting American movies into Chinese markets, notably Looper and Iron Man 3. I recently read it, and it made for quite the page-turner, and there are so many nuggets to share. You can read a few more of them at this link. But first, here is his proposed plan to help along Paramount and World War Z.
I pushed a big, China-relevant idea with the filmmakers for the tentpole World War Z. I got a call from Paramount's President, whom I'll refer to as "Tall Exec" (he was extremely tall in a business where most are short!), about the big-budget zombie film starring Brad Pitt. The movie was in post-production, and the filmmakers realized the third act didn't work. They had discussed two different fixes. One involved reshooting the third act in a very contained and economical way. The other involved China tossing in big money to fix the third act in an even more spectacular and expensive way. In exchange for outside investment, Paramount would give the Chinese investors the China market rights to exploit. The only problem was zombies are censored in China. Anything in the world of the undead is off-limits. Monetizing the film in China was therefore close to impossible.
Fenton writes about how making the movie China-relevant, however, can sidestep such rules. And he had a World War Z rewrite he wanted to suggest regarding the scientist played by Brad Pitt.
One Achilles' heel Brad's character stumbled upon was that Zs could be defeated if they were in cold weather because the freezing temperatures slowed them down. And when the Zs lost speed, their ability to kill was mitigated so humans could successfully fight them.
During act one, a character asks if anyone knows what happened to the Chinese after the virus broke out. Another character responds "China went dark," meaning no one knew what the fuck happened to the 1.4 billion Chinese. Throughout the rest of the film, China was never mentioned again. Of course, when I read that single reference to the Chinese in the script, I knew that the simple line, "China went dark," would be offensive to both the Chinese people and government. Not only does a line like that keep censors from letting the film into China, but dialogue like that could potentially cause retaliation against Paramount overall. Combine that with zombies, which were already taboo, and the whole film was a big fat zero when it came to anything positive for China relations or monetization.
There was a great opportunity with that line, though. And I saw another lemon-into-lemonade situation. With the Chinese completely missing in action, it was easy to imagine Brad Pitt's character wanting to find out what happened. Perhaps he felt that China fell prey to the virus, wiping out the entire population. Or, perhaps the Chinese had figured out how to battle the Zs. And even better, perhaps the Chinese were working on a cure to the virus.
Imagine how amazingly fruitful such a creative change in the plot would be for Chinese support of the film? It would influence censors to let the film in for sure. Additionally, it would allow Chinese audiences to root for their own, as they were heroes in the movie now. And if done correctly, the film could be much better.
I remembered a random fact from a science class—temperatures decrease three degrees with every thousand feet of increased elevation or every hundred miles traveled away from the equator. In the script, Russia had some success defeating the Zs primarily because of their northern geography and cold weather. Brad's character headed to Russia as a result. He wanted to find out what the Russians were learning about the Zs, and in the process, he stopped through Israel, where he learned a valuable lesson from the Mossad. The Mossad makes decisions using eleven members. If ten members decide on a certain course of action, the eleventh dissenting member is the one they follow. The Mossad decides to go against common opinion to keep enemies off balance.
My idea was to have Brad's character in a Russian village just north of China. While he's there he asks, "Where are the Chinese? Shouldn't they have migrated north to battle the Zs with you?"
The Russians respond, "We think the Chinese are all dead. If any of them were alive, they would've headed north. If they headed north, they'd be in Russia, but there have been no Chinese coming across the border. They went dark, and they have stayed dark." Brad's character then responds, "I refuse to believe 1.4 billion
people are all gone, especially ones as resilient and inventive as the Chinese."
We cut to Brad's character sitting next to pilots in the cockpit of a Russian An-124 cargo plane equipped with a small version of Brad's laboratory. One of the pilots asks, "Why are we flying over China airspace? There is nothing here. No one survived." Brad responds, "My hunch is they did survive. Keep following that railway below."
Brad points to the high-speed rail that creates a long line straight into the distance. Surrounded on both sides by tall mountain peaks, the railway climbs the great Tibetan plateau.
There are portions of the railway which reach almost seventeen thousand feet in elevation. It includes the highest rail tunnel in the world, the highest train station in the world, and 675 bridges. Bottom line, the railway is a technological feat and one China would love to showcase to the world. What better way to do that than in a major motion picture from Hollywood?
The co-pilot then says, "That's strange. I don't think I see that lake on any navigation map." He points ahead, shuffling through navigation documents. In the distance, a large, dark-colored mass extends from one mountain base to the other, rising up the plateau. It does look like a lake, but there's a uniqueness to it.
"That isn't a lake. That's why we came," Brad's character says. And as the plane continues to head towards the "lake," we start to see what it really is. It's a mass of humanity extending into infinity up the entire plateau following the railway. It's most of the missing 1.4 billion people from China. They fled for high elevation rather than towards the northern border where they'd be forced to relocate to Russia.
Along the lower elevations, the Chinese are locked in a battle of battles, China's PLA is using every weapon and soldier available to fight the Zs. The Zs have slowed significantly due to the elevation and cold, but they are still a tremendous force. Scars on the tundra remain from earlier portions of the battle. The fight's location alternates higher and lower as the temperature and weather changes. We also notice the railway has a purpose.
"We need to figure out a place to drop me and my equipment," Brad's character says. "It needs to be near that train. That is their lab. They are keeping it near the battle zone so it can study the fresh kills. It's on the train because it can slide up and down the plateau as the battlefield moves."
"That's brilliant," the pilot says.
"Yeah, I had a feeling the Chinese wouldn't go down without a fight. They are hardy souls and can push the envelope on innovation when backed into a corner. My bet is they solve this problem before any of us," Brad's character adds. "I need to drop in now."
That was the gist of the idea. Paramount loved it, as did Skydance, Paramount's co-financing partner. Creatively, it made for a better movie. It also made the third act eventful in scope, size, and satisfaction. And for financing purposes, Chinese investors would love it too. Why? Because it delivered on China relevancy and China prominence. It showcased the most technologically impressive rail line in the world, the backdrop of one of the world's greatest plateaus and mountain ranges, China's PLA, and the scientific, innovative, and medical prowess of China. That meant the government would love the film and support it. The messaging was so pro-China that any normally censored items in the film would be ignored. That meant big box office in China, even with a movie chock-full of China-censored zombies. In theory, it was a guaranteed win-win for every party involved.
At which point, the SEC started investigating DMG, and Paramount executives weren't even allowed to talk to DMG. World War Z was not distributed in China. And Chris Fenton hasn't tried to script any movies since. Instead, Damon Lindelof was brought in to rewrite the ending as Brad Pitt did not like the darker downbeat abrupt version, and employ reshoots too. The movie cost a lot but did well, over half a billion dollars worldwide – but not in China.