Features | Society | East Asia

Hollywood Bows to China Soft Power

Keen to get a slice of China’s fast-growing movie market pie, Hollywood studios are bending over backward to accommodate official Chinese restrictions.

By Cain Nunns for

Hollywood actress Meryl Streep recently hitched a ride on a Chinese businessman’s private jet to Beijing. Once there, she met up with idiosyncratic writer-director Joel Coen and Raise the Red Lantern director Zhang Yimou to promote “China’s exploding film industry.”

Zhang, who served as the artistic director for both the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the lavish 60th anniversary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party, also unveiled his remake of Coen’s influential first film – Blood Simple.

And this sounds simple enough.

But for some industry insiders, the trio personify a growing partnership between Beijing’s aspirations to export what it calls “soft power” – a sugarcoated version of China and its myriad social problems – to the West and Hollywood producers, who are bending over backwards to get a piece of the world’s fastest growing film market.

“It’s obvious why media is controlled in Communist societies. But what makes China unique is that for the first time, it has the money and market to shift control of media for a local audience to control of external representations of the country,” says Liu Lee-shin, a China film expert at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of Arts.

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“Chinese-Hollywood co-productions are vehicles for Beijing to dictate the China narrative outside its borders.”

Liu says that Beijing has made no secret of its eagerness to build that narrative through movies, and points to a recent plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party endorsing guidelines to boost what it calls “cultural security,” by “propelling Chinese culture overseas.”

To do this, Beijing says it will double its entertainment and cultural earnings to roughly $460 billion within the next five years.

Critics claim that studios will be pressured to produce works that depict China in a sympathetic light, a fear prompted by China’s strict controls over film importation, distribution and production, along with the rebuffing of recent WTO rulings to allow foreign distribution and expand a 20-a-year cap on foreign movies.

“They made it very clear in their last congress meeting that the overriding theme would be projecting an image overseas that they want projected, while Hollywood’s No.1 concern has always been the bottom line,” says Michael Berry, a lecturer of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“U.S. producers are taking an ultra-conservative route, and self-censorship is happening at a very early stage. In concept development there’s already an understanding of what will fly in China, and that gets concentrated by the time it gets to a screenplay.”

And what flies in China today isn’t very much.

Beijing’s thumbscrew restrictions include: No sex, religion, time travel, the occult, or “anything that could threaten public morality or portray criminal behavior.”

All film scripts have to be signed off by a government censor and anything that depicts Tibet, Tiananmen Square, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, Uyghur separatists or Taiwan favorably is typically banned.

For Hollywood, however, the proof is still in the numbers. Turnstile revenues in China skyrocketed by 64 percent to $1.5 billion, and have surged nearly tenfold since 2003.

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While China has been heavily criticized for its foreign film cap, Western producers are bypassing those restrictions by aligning with local partners, most of which are state-run, and all of which have strong ties to the party and state.

The deals also offer filmmakers access to cash-rich Chinese investors, who face significant restrictions on sending their money overseas.

Relativity Media, which produced last year’s Social Network, is one such example of a partnership gone wrong.

Relativity, which entered into a co-production with Beijing-based Huaxia Film Distribution and SkyLand Film-Television Culture Development, was blasted by rights groups in December for its decision to shoot a comedy in Linyi after touting its close personal connections with local party officials.

Linyi, a city of 10 million, is home to blind activist Chen Guangcheng. Chen won acclaim for documenting late-term abortions and sterilizations before being sent to prison for four years. Currently under house arrest, he has allegedly been the victim of a number of state-sponsored beatings. Journalists and diplomats attempting to visit the self-taught lawyer are routinely roughed up and turned away. While Relativity’s misadventure highlighted the dangers of cozy relationships with state officials, the potential financial rewards are too much for some investors to ignore.

Bona Film Group, a film distributor and subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army controlled conglomerate Poly Group, secured about $100 million through listing on the NASDAQ last year after investors were buoyed by Bona’s strong ties to the PLA and Beijing. Poly Group is China’s biggest arms trader and counts substantial investments in Sudan and contemporary Chinese art among its many holdings.

Western producers have also learned from past experience that besmirching China's image can have serious implications for the many arms of a media conglomerate.

In the late 1990s, the relationship between Beijing and Disney soured following the Martin Scorsese-produced Kundun, a film about the Dalai Lama that featured Chinese soldiers stomping on the portrait of the exiled religious leader.

Plans to open a Shanghai Disney theme park were put on hold for years, leading to the axing of the company’s No. 2 executive and the surreal hiring of Henry Kissinger to iron out their differences.

“For a company like Disney it’s not just movies. They have theme parks, broadcasting, toys, education and retail. Shanghai Disney is just getting off the ground now following the problems they had because of Kundun. I think they learned their lesson,” says Berry.

As China’s policies on censorship, production and distribution aren’t likely to change, space for making films critical of the Asian powerhouse is likely to shrink.

“You have to realize the government is controlling everything: the script, distribution, the licenses, production and the partnerships,” says an American producer who has worked in China and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Criticism means the film won’t be shown and the studio and producer will likely be blackballed in the future. The irony is that Hollywood went through a traumatic experience with blackballing during the McCarthy witch hunts. Now you can get blackballed by the Communist party.”

Highlighting the lengths that Hollywood is willing to go to appease Beijing, MGM changed the nationality of the antagonists in its 2010 remake of Red Dawnfrom Chinese to North Koreans after state-run mouthpiece, the Global Times, wrote scathing editorials about the movie and “hawkish elements” in the U.S. film industry.

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The move marked the first time an entire group of characters has been changed in postproduction.

But as Larry Gerbrant of Media Valuation Partners told the Washington Post in a recent interview: “Hollywood would figure out how to shoot in Greenland if they were offered the right financial incentives.”

Cain Nunns is a Taipei-based journalist who writes for The Guardian, Monocle and Global Post, among other publications.