News and Commentary

Hollywood Has A China Problem
MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 31: John Cena attends "The Road to F9" Global Fan Extravaganza at Maurice A. Ferre Park on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Hollywood received news that had the industry cheering. “F9,” the latest entry in Universal’s seemingly unsinkable “Fast and Furious” franchise, put up massive box office numbers overseas. The film took in $163 million from just eight foreign markets, a weekend haul that was as strong as major international debuts in the pre-pandemic era and marked the biggest movie opening since the COVID-19 outbreak began. Understandably, the figure had the entertainment media humming, if not outright singing, “Happy days are here again.” 

There was just one problem. More than 80% of those earnings — $136 million — came from a single nation: China. 

It’s ironic, given the source of COVID-19, that 2020 marked a troubling milestone for American movies. It was the first year in history they collectively made more money in China than at home. But even before the pandemic hit, the writing was on the wall. 

According to a report from the human rights organization, PEN, in 2019 alone, three blockbusters “Avengers: Endgame (Disney),” “Spider-Man: Far from Home (Columbia Pictures), and “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (Universal) — earned more in China than in the United States. “The size of the Chinese movie-going audience is so huge,” one studio executive commented to PEN, “that if you happen to be the one that catches their fancy you can make $100 million in pure profit.”

Hollywood’s increasing dependence on renminbi — China’s currency — to fill studio coffers explains why star John Cena was so quick to grovel to Beijing after he called Taiwan a country in an off-the-cuff remark while promoting “F9” overseas. As The Daily Wire reported, Cena apologized at length in Mandarin on the website Sina Weibo, better known as “Chinese Twitter,” saying:

Hi China, I’m John Cena. I’m in the middle of Fast and Furious 9 promotions. I’m doing a lot of interviews. I made a mistake in one of my interviews. Everyone was asking me if I could use Chinese – [movie] staff gave me a lot of information, so there was a lot of interviews and information.

I made one mistake. I have to say something very, very, very important now. I love and respect China and Chinese people. I’m very, very sorry about my mistake. I apologize, I apologize, I’m very sorry. You must understand that I really love, really respect China and the Chinese people. My apologies. See you.

Universal’s Cena dustup highlights the veritable landmine the entertainment industry faces as it struggles to make event films, well, events again. And no studio provides a starker cautionary tale right now than Disney.

Under the leadership of former CEO Bob Iger, the studio openly telegraphed its intention to stay in China’s good graces regardless of the cost to its public image stateside. Iger, whom the Biden administration even considered for ambassadorship to Shanghai, said in 2019 that when it comes to anything that might offend the CCP, “caution is imperative.” Further outlining his approach to foreign policy, he added, “To take a position that could harm our company in some form would be a big mistake.”

These marching orders seemed to hold after Bob Chapek took over the executive suite in February, 2020, as evidenced by the studio thanking Xinjiang authorities during “Mulan’s” credits despite their system of persecution against the region’s Uyghur Muslim minority. Studios micromanage every aspect of film crediting and promotion, so there’s no question Disney execs knew they would take heat for the move in the American media. They evidently calculated that the cost in bad press was worth the reward, and perhaps hoped that making a massive show of supporting domestic diversity and inclusion would take the edge off any tarnish to the company’s reputation.

But touting diversity at home has a way of creating conflicts elsewhere (just ask the black or LGBTQ characters major studios have disappeared before they hit foreign shores). 

Hollywood learned this lesson anew during the release of “Nomadland.” As Disney was promoting director Chloe Zhao’s Chinese identity and patting itself on the back for facilitating her work as the first Asian woman to win “Best Director” at the Academy Awards, Chinese state media was busy censoring her for a comment she made in a 2013 interview. Zhao called her birth-nation “a place where there are lies everywhere.” Disney had taken pains to suppress the story, but the internet is forever. Beijing caught wind and began scrubbing any mention of her win.

As Oscar bait, “Nomadland’s” performance was never make-or-break for the Mouse House. Of course the studio wanted it to be profitable, but its real purpose was to confer prestige by winning big during awards season, which it did. In other circumstances, Zhao earning Beijing’s ire might not have been a serious issue. Except that Disney had already tapped Zhao to direct a major tentpole in its efforts to move its behemoth Marvel franchise into the future.

Now that push has come to shove, it appears the studio may be throwing its groundbreaking director under the bus. In the new “Eternals” trailer released Monday, Zhao’s Oscar-minted name is nowhere to be found.

It would be hard to overestimate how much Marvel has riding on “The Eternals.” It, and another “Phase Four” film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” were designed to chart a new path after the Captain America-Iron Man era, and anyone who thinks it’s a coincidence that both include strong draws for Chinese audiences might want to look into Arizona beach property.

Marvel chief Kevin Feige revealed as much when he told The Hollywood Reporter of “Eternals,” “It is a very big movie. It is a very expensive movie. And we are making it because we believe in [Zhao’s] vision and we believe in what those characters can do and we believe we need to continue to grow and evolve and change and push our genre forward.”

Given their Chinese connections and the studio’s past genuflection to the CCP, both “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi” should have been easy layups to enter the Chinese market. Instead, after the “Nomadland” fracas, CCTV6 China Movie Channel did not include either movie in its recent reporting on Marvel release dates.

As Variety noted, “The omission might seem small, but its significance lies in its provenance: the channel is under the jurisdiction of China’s powerful propaganda department, which has the final word on film approvals.” In other words, despite abasing itself for Xi Jinping’s pleasure, Disney suddenly finds itself facing a great wall. 

The CCP only approves a limited number of foreign films for release in the market, and Marvel needs China’s dollars not just to make back the estimated $200 million it has already sunk into “The Eternals,” but to ensure the MCU’s profitability going forward. To make “Fast and Furious” money, it has to pay Cena-like obeisance to the Chinese Communist Party, which may mean erasing its minority female director from overseas promotion.

Or, to put it another way, as long as Hollywood wants China’s money more than China wants Hollywood to entertain its public, we can expect our big stars to grovel like small men.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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