This week, The DrillDown goes to the movies to learn about Chinese influence over American films. Author and journalist Erich Schwartzel joins Eric Eggers and Peter Schweizer to talk about how Hollywood, too, has learned to love Big Brother.
Schwartzel is a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of the brand new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. It tells the story of how the American movie industry has crippled its storytelling to please the Chinese Communist Party censors who decide if their films will be shown in the People’s Republic. After years of practice in not choosing stories that the communists will ban, the major studio executives in the US have only yuan thought in mind.
Because of the popularity of American-made movies overseas, many might think Hollywood sees its role as telling America’s stories to the world. In fact, today’s studios don’t see that as part of their job description at all, Schwartzel says. Owing to the COVID-related closing of American theaters for many months, China surpassed the US as the number one box office in the world in 2020. Studio executives, he says, now see themselves as catering to global audiences first.
The Communist Chinese regime knows that, and they are not shy about pressing their advantage. Schwartzel tells the story of a 1998 film called “Kundun” by acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese about Tibet before the Chinese invaded it. Not only was that film banned from China, but Scorcese couldn’t get any other movie released there for eighteen more years. The Chinese expressed their displeasure to the film’s studio, Disney’s Buena Vista, which dutifully limited the movie’s international release to an “art house” afterthought. Even then, Scorcese, writer Melissa Mathison and her then-husband, actor Harrison Ford, were banned from visiting Tibet by the Chinese authorities. But, as part of a 2012 deal to build the Shanghai Disney Resort in China, Disney had to formally apologize to the Chinese government for the release of “Kundun.”
Then there’s Richard Gere, once an A-list actor who spoke out often about the oppression of Tibet by the Chinese communists and has had trouble finding work ever since. China’s rise in importance to the movie industry means that anyone who is critical of China becomes “radioactive” to hire. “I spoke to a casting director at Warner Brothers,” Schwartzel shares, “and his explanation was ‘if you can find someone else besides Richard Gere for a part, why take the risk?’”
Gere is not alone. Chinese authorities banned singer Lady Gaga after she met with the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan spiritual leader viewed by the communist regime as a Tibetan separatist. Reportedly, they talked about yoga.
Maybe this explains why “Fast and Furious” actor John Cena was forced to apologize for calling Taiwan a country during an interview?
Peter, whose own new book, Red Handed, traces Chinese influence in US politics, academia, high finance, and big tech, notes that Schwartzel’s reporting shows yet another example of China’s thirst for global influence.
Schwartzel mentions how Chinese influence in other parts of the world have led to curiosity about it. “In Africa, you have villagers waking up to see Chinese workers building them a new train station,” he said. “They want to learn about the superpower that is moving in.”
Peter then asks how the Chinese government uses its muscle to censor Hollywood. Schwartzel explains:
- They control access to the theaters. Films must go through the ministry of propaganda. They will sometimes ask for “adjustments” or they may reject a movie without any explanation.
- China operates at great scale, so they can punish studios just for making movies that never show in China. In the Kundun case, China told Disney that if that movie were made and shown anywhere, its Chinese business would be threatened.
- Any portrayals of China in a movie will be complimentary – or else. Studios have become commercials for China.
Eric describes this as a “soft censorship, in that you won’t know what you’re not seeing.”
“That’s exactly right,” says Schwartzel. “Any time a plot involves China, inevitably there will be some moment where the police make sure everything’s fine, and you won’t see any trash anywhere.”
Eric asks whether that extends to any depiction of an authoritarian government?
Schwartzel mentions an innocuous comedy called “In Good Company” about a younger guy coming into a company and telling all the old guys to get out of the way. China banned the movie, because it was a story about the young unseating their elders and challenging the system. “But this is a classic American kind of plotline. American stories are full of those kinds of narratives.”
At least they used to be.