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Hollywood relies on China to stay afloat. What does that mean for movies?

Audience members sit separately for social distancing at a cinema in China's eastern Zhejiang province in July 2020.
AFP via Getty Images
Audience members sit separately for social distancing at a cinema in China's eastern Zhejiang province in July 2020.

Today's Hollywood blockbusters are specifically being crafted to appeal to Chinese audiences — and pass muster with the Chinese government — according to Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel.

He highlights a few notable situations of product placement: In the 2014 film Transformers: Age of Extinction, Mark Wahlberg's character withdraws money from a China Construction Bank ATM — while in Texas. In another scene from the same film, a character buys Chinese protein powder at a Chicago convenience store.

And just 10 days after its release, Age of Extinction became the highest grossing film of all time in China. The movie has since been overtaken at the box office by a string of other blockbusters, but Schwartzel says its influence lingers.

Schwartzel has trained his eye to spot what he calls "Chinese elements" in movies: "You'll start to see it everywhere," he says. "I go to the movies now and I can see the Chinese cell phone — even if it's blurred in the frame."

In his new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, Schwartzel writes about China's growing influence on Hollywood. He contends that China has watched as Hollywood films helped sell America to the world — and it wants to do the same.

"As China has broadened its ambitions on the world stage and tried to become a bigger and bigger player in global politics, it has seen how culture can play a huge role in helping that effort," Schwartzel says.

China is already a powerhouse at the box office: In 2020, it overtook North America as the world's largest film market, and Schwartzel says that movie studios are increasingly reliant upon Chinese audiences to break even.

"It comes to the point where even on some of the biggest films that make tons of money around the world, like a Fast & Furious film or a Marvel superheroes movie, getting into China and making money there ... can mean the difference between profit and loss," he says.

But before a film can be shown in China, it must first get past Chinese government censors. And Schwartzel notes that the Chinese government has been quick to punish studios that take on topics it doesn't want the Chinese public to see or that it feels will make China look bad.

"No studio in Hollywood today would touch a movie that concerns a storyline involving the Uyghurs or Xinjiang or issues involving Taiwanese independence or demonstrations in Hong Kong," Schwartzel says. "Because of the economic muzzle that China has on the studios today, those things are just complete non-starters."


Red Carpet, by Erich Schwartzel
/ Penguin Random House
/
Penguin Random House

Interview highlights

On China opening up to American films in the '90s

It started in 1994, and a couple of things were happening at the time. China's economy was modernizing and opening up to the world. This is a time when companies like Boeing were moving into China. ... After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese movie theaters reopened, but they really struggled because really, the only thing that the government had to offer were these very medicinal propagandistic films, and they were really the only show in town until things like television or even karaoke lounges gave people something a little bit more fun to do. And if movies were popular, it often was because they were pirated and available for sale on the city corner.

So the theaters were really struggling, and in 1994, an executive who was stationed in the region for Warner Bros. suggested to a very prominent theater owner that Western movies might help the theaters recover. And so Warner Bros. sent the first American movie over, which was Harrison Ford's The Fugitive, to screen in a theater, and a contract was drawn up that only sent 13% of ticket sales back to Warner Bros., so this was a really paltry amount. And despite having this massive population, the Chinese box office was still really small. I think The Fugitive made around $3 million [in China], which is nothing to a studio as big as Warner Bros., but was an absolute blockbuster in Chinese terms. And the Chinese audiences, who had essentially been shut off to Hollywood's influence in the 20th century, started to do what audiences around the world had done decades prior — they flocked to the theater to see American films. And by the late '90s, only a handful of American movies were flowing into China. But nonetheless, they were causing these surges in box office sales.

On how the 1997 films Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet angered the Chinese authorities and impacted Hollywood studios

Chinese authorities made it clear ... 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.

These two films, Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, come out only three years after American movies are getting into China at all. And neither movie is put into production with China in mind, because no one at this point is making movies thinking they will make any money in China. And so Disney, which was releasing Kundun, had inherited the project. It was a Martin Scorsese film, and both films were about a young Dalai Lama and also China's invasion of Tibet. So both films feature not just a valorization of this Chinese state enemy, but also portray on screen in really unvarnished terms the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the persecution of Tibetans. Mao Zedong is featured in a scene in Kundun looking like an absolute buffoon next to this wise lama. It was obvious that China wouldn't like the films, but it didn't seem like it was going to be that much of an issue because no one expected the movies to play in China at all.

Nonetheless, China made it clear that not only did it not like the production of these films, but it was going to punish the studios behind them for making them at all. So Kundun was being released by Disney, which at the time had already invested more than a billion dollars in the market, and had already had aspirations to build a theme park on the mainland and start hooking Chinese children on Disney toys and movies and all sorts of other revenue streams, even back in the mid '90s, despite China's middle class still really coming into focus. Disney knew that it was going to be a source of revenue in the years to come. Sony was releasing Seven Years in Tibet, and again, Sony was releasing movies in China at the time, but the bigger economic concern was the supply chain that its parent company had when it came to Sony Electronics. And 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. And 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.

On how Disney executives reacted to China's ban of Kundun

The executives at Disney ... knew if they canceled the production as the Chinese authorities had requested, they would have been tarred in the Hollywood community for squelching free expression, for muzzling Martin Scorsese. They knew that they would have a lot of domestic blowback if they did that, too. So they had to really thread the needle. And what they ultimately decided to do was release Kundun into theaters, but bury it. And so Kundun was released on Christmas Day on four screens, and then when it didn't perform well, the Disney executives used that lousy performance to justify not expanding it much further. And actually, despite all their efforts, they still were banned in China, and the then CEO Michael Eisner, had to fly over to Beijing a year later and meet with officials and apologize. There's a fascinating transcript that exists of his meeting with a Chinese official in which he says, "The bad news is that the movie was released. The good news is that nobody saw it."

On the deal between Hollywood and the Chinese government

The primary deal was struck in 1994 and that started to allow 10 films a year onto Chinese screens, and that hummed along for a while, until 2012, when there was a significant expansion of that deal negotiated between then Vice President Joe Biden and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, who was not yet president of China, but was the heir apparent. Biden and Xi met on one of Xi's trips to the U.S. and negotiated an expansion that would allow 34 foreign films onto Chinese screens a year, and that previous 13% of ticket sales that had gone back to the studios grew to 25%. And this is a deal that really cements China's influence in Hollywood because it means that almost every studio in town can guarantee that their biggest releases will get into the country, and not only that, that they will make significant money.

On the rules film studios must follow to get their movie shown in China

There's a literal list of rules that the censors in Beijing use as something of a checklist. So when a movie has finished filming and it is ready for release, a copy of it is sent to Beijing to the Ministry of Propaganda, where a collection of censors who tend to be a collection of state bureaucrats and even some film studies professors watch the movie. And obviously anything that might concern Tibet or Chinese history or Mao is going to be off the table. But those movies, as I said, aren't getting made anyway.

But even a superhero movie might be watched for certain scenes that contain images or themes they don't want the Chinese people to see. And it ranges from the cosmetic to the thematic.

In 2006, Mission: Impossible III filmed some scenes in Shanghai that feature Tom Cruise running through the streets, and in the background there is laundry drying on clotheslines from apartment buildings, and the Chinese authorities requested that that laundry be edited out of the frame because they thought it presented an image of China that was more backwards than they wanted the world to see. And then there are just deeper issues with some of the core tenets of Hollywood moviemaking.

So for example, there was a film that came out more than a decade and a half ago called In Good Company, and it's a pretty innocuous romantic comedy starring Topher Grace as this young guy who gets a job and displaces the older boss. And it seems like a pretty run of the mill PG-13 family friendly film. It nonetheless did not get into China. And at the time, the head of the Motion Picture Association started asking around in Beijing why that was the case. He couldn't understand why a movie that obviously was not nearly as politically charged as something like Kundun would not get into China. And the authorities said, "It's a movie about the younger generation challenging the system and taking on the powers that be, and that's a theme that we cannot abide here in China." So you realize that not only do studio chiefs today have to watch a movie and think about how every frame of China is scrutinized, but also think quite a bit about how core elements of American storytelling will be interpreted by censors in Beijing.

On how Hollywood studios rationalize the censorship

China has made it clear that it wants to censor films that are being made in America and released around the world, not just movies that are being released into their home market.

The economics have made it something of a no-brainer, because China's box office has grown as America's box office has flatlined. ... Pre-COVID, around 2008 or 2009, when studios started to wake up to how much money could be made at the Chinese box office, something else very important happened, which is that the DVD market collapsed. And it can be hard to remember this in an era where we're all streaming, but for many years, DVD sales, because they were so cheap to make and profitable to sell, really kept the lights on at a lot of studios. And so when the DVD market collapsed, studios were scrambling to find a way to make up for that lost revenue when China entered the picture.

I think a lot of studio executives, if they were on the line, would say that they censor movies for all kinds of markets. They censor movies for airplanes. It's a market reality they have to respond to. But what we've seen with China over the past decade is a scale of censorship that is unlike anything Hollywood has had to reckon with, and also a playbook of censorship that goes far beyond cutting a scene for a movie before it goes into a certain country. China has made it clear that it wants to censor films that are being made in America and released around the world, not just movies that are being released into their home market.

Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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