In the recent past, reports on China’s impact on Hollywood have tended to focus on overt censorship — the content studios willingly alter when Beijing balks (think swapping Maverick’s jacket patches in the “Top Gun” sequel) or the blind eye they’re willing to turn when LGBT scenes end up on the cutting room floor (think 20th Century’s no comment about the changes to “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Occasionally, headlines erupt when an American star makes a misstep during promotion and winds up groveling for offending Xi Jinping, as John Cena did after correctly calling Taiwan a country.
But focusing on this type of blatant strong-arming doesn’t begin to cover the degree of influence Beijing has over Hollywood today. Now, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ability to shape American culture and entertainment goes far beyond simply objecting during or after production.
Today, any script that contains references that might displease the CCP is a non-starter. As a result, screenwriters don’t even attempt to tell stories about Tibet anymore. They likewise won’t waste their time on a script that references the independence of Taiwan or Hong Kong or genocide against the Uyghurs. Entertainment executives know that if they were to greenlight, say, an indie film on these subjects with no planned release beyond the U.S., the CCP would penalize any international blockbusters coming from the same studio.
Actor Richard Gere described the artistic loss the American film industry is experiencing as result of this silent weeding out before Congress in 2020. “There’s no doubt that the combination of Chinese censorship, coupled with American film studios’ desire to access China’s market, can lead to self-censorship and to avoiding social issues that great American films once addressed,” he testified. “Imagine Marty Scorsese’s ‘Kundun,’ about the life of the Dalai Lama, or my own film ‘Red Corner,’ which is highly critical of the Chinese legal system. Imagine them being made today. It wouldn’t happen.”
Erich Schwartzel, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has written a new book about China and Hollywood, described for NPR recently how “Kundun” and the Brad Pitt vehicle “Seven Years in Tibet,” in particular, taught Hollywood that if they wanted the keys to the Middle Kingdom, they had to be careful not to make any films that would anger the CCP.
China made it clear, he explained, that studios that produced movies even obliquely critical of Beijing’s policies would be punished by not receiving Chinese releases at all. But even worse, all other revenue streams into the mainland of the nation would be blocked as well. It was a lesson Hollywood began learning more than 20 years ago.
In the mid-1990s, Disney had already invested more than a billion dollars in the nation when it released “Kundun.” The company wanted to build a Disney theme park in China and begin marketing Disney toys to Chinese children. Meanwhile Sony, which was releasing “Seven Years in Tibet,” had a parent company (Sony Electronics) dependent on the Chinese supply chain.
“What made both of these films such cautionary tales for all of Hollywood was that after they were released, both companies were banned in China, despite the fact that the movies had not been released onto Chinese screens,” said Schwartzel. He went on, “Chinese authorities made it clear by doing so that if a studio made a film that angered officials, it was not going to be about punishing that studio, but it would be about punishing its parent company. And so suddenly it seemed like a lot more was at stake than just angering officials over the release of one film.”
Former Disney CEO Bob Iger admitted as much during an interview with The New York Times in which he said of the studio’s relationship with China, “You try in the process not to compromise what I’ll call values. But there are compromises that companies have to make to be global.”
As a new Daily Wire documentary — “The Enemy Within” — demonstrates, this leverage China has come to hold over the entertainment industry during its rise to the world’s biggest box office isn’t just the product of the natural forces of the market. The pressure the CCP exerts today has been quietly engineered over years. One example of this, first reported in Deadline in 2013, details how Chinese executives approached U.S. studios claiming to seek education on filmmaking. Later, however, they made their agenda clear, pressuring studios to include content that proactively promotes communism.
“We want films that are heavily invested in Chinese culture, not one or two shots,” the president of one Chinese production company told American studio heads during this event. “We want to see positive Chinese images. China has been opening up for 30 years and I think both U.S. and Chinese screenwriters want to write positive images.” She finished by complaining that too many American movies still depicted Chinese characters as drug dealers or criminals.
Meetings like this explain how Chinese audiences ended up seeing a different version of Marvel’s “Iron Man 3.”
At the invitation of Marvel’s parent company Disney, a group of CCP regulators visited the set of the 2013 film. The studio was just embarking on Phase 2 of the $25 billion franchise, which would introduce multiple new leading heroes and set up future Avengers showdowns. It was counting on the popularity of “Iron Man” in the Middle Kingdom to set the gambit off to a roaring success.
As a result of the regulators input, audiences saw Chris Evans’ Captain America carrying a Chinese-made Vivo phone as opposed to an American-made product. Marvel also ended up adding three additional scenes to the Chinese version of the release that would specifically appeal to the Chinese government by putting the nation in a positive light.
The same focus on “positive Chinese images” was on stark display in 2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a movie so pro-China, it prompted Variety to call it “a splendidly patriotic film, if you happen to be Chinese.”
Recently, emboldened by its new title as the world’s biggest film market and the increasing success of its own domestic releases (crafted after years of learning Hollywood trade secrets directly from American studios) China has become less welcoming to Hollywood films in general. And Chinese filmmakers show no hesitation to show Americans and American values like democracy and free-markets as unmitigated evils.
Now that China is forcing the U.S. to wean off of Chinese dollars, studios should consider how to emulate the success of “Spider-Man: Now Way Home,” a movie that proved it’s able to break international records without appeasing the CCP. Both for the future of its business model and the cause of patriotism, Tinsel Town should get back to telling any story it wants in any way it wants without fear of or favor toward foreign dictatorships.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
China: The Enemy Within is a new Daily Wire original docuseries about U.S. leaders allowing Chinese interests to overtake our policies, education, and culture. Stream the full series now exclusively at DailyWire.com.