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Chris Fenton: Inside Hollywood’s Thorny China Problem

China is the largest movie market in the world. And huge profits are at stake for those that don’t toe the line of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). John Cena recently drew the ire of the regime when he called Taiwan a country while promoting the latest “Fast and Furious” film. He publicly apologized.

Concerns are also growing that Marvel’s upcoming “Eternals” movie might not get a China release because its Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao has previously made comments critical of the Chinese regime.

In this episode, we sit down with Chris Fenton, a longtime Hollywood executive and film producer, who played a key role in getting Iron Man 3 screened in Beijing’s Forbidden City. After a change of heart later in life, he authored the book, “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA and American Business.”

Jan Jekielek: Chris Fenton, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Chris Fenton: It’s absolutely a pleasure for me. I’m always humbled and honored to be a part of this.

Mr. Jekielek: It has been about a year since we last talked, and the world has changed a bit since we did that. Of course, you’ve been a producer in Hollywood for years. Are we going to see a big-budget Hollywood film about what looks like the conspiracy against the Wuhan lab leak theory?

Mr. Fenton: The quick answer to that is no. I was about to say, “Yes, wasn’t that King Kong verses Godzilla?” No, but right now we have to figure out exactly what happened, so that it doesn’t happen again. As we’re finding, [it’s taboo] even simply having a discussion about what happened in Wuhan—where the pandemic originally started. How can we prevent something like that from happening again, not just as Americans, but as the global community? We can’t even talk about it without it becoming politicized.

It’s the idea of Hollywood actually diving into it and making “Transformers 10.” The source of COVID is very far-fetched and probably never going to be revealed. But in the most constructive manner, I would like to see us at least be able to talk about this openly and make it more of a red and blue discussion, so that this doesn’t happen again. Because what happened over the last year and a half is something that was beyond tragic and something that we as a world need to stop from ever occurring again—at least during any of our lifetimes.

Mr. Jekielek: I don’t know if it’s even possible to get any smoking gun evidence on the Wuhan lab leak at this point. If it did turn out to be so, do you think the Chinese Communist Party would ever admit to it?

Mr. Fenton: I don’t think so. By the way, if any of your audience is interested in really diving into it deeply, I highly recommend Josh Rogin’s book, “Chaos Under Heaven.” He portrayed the politicization of how things transpired over the last year and a half—how dusty and muddied the conversation became in regards to figuring out where the source of this terrible pandemic came from and the amount of coverup that was occurring on both sides of the Pacific.

The Chinese Communist Party has the most to lose on this one. They have not only the audience of the globe watching, but they also have the 1.4 billion people they oversee watching and monitoring their competence on something like this. The answer to that question is that we’ll never know for sure.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to Hollywood, your area of expertise. What is the state of Hollywood’s engagement with respect to the Chinese regime and the market in China today, versus a year ago when we last spoke?

Mr. Fenton: It’s a fantastic question because in the last 400 days since we were talking about this subject, so much has changed not only in Hollywood, but here in the United States, where we’ve seen massive disruption occur from the technology sector encroaching into traditional media space. Then the COVID outbreak created all kinds of consumer habit changes.

That is combined with what’s been going on in China. Since we last spoke we’ve seen the China market come back alive theatrically. They’ve been using and showcasing best-in-class Chinese productions—productions that have used the capabilities and the technology that we have shared with them, the expertise that we’ve shared with them, and the exchanges that we’ve done with them over the past 15 years, to bring them up to speed so they can be a world-class industry themselves.

The deal we made with them was that if we did that, they would open their market more and more to our movies. If you flash back to 2011, roughly 80 per cent of every dollar that came in was a Hollywood movie working in that market.

Mr. Jekielek: Wait, let me get this; 80 per cent of what exactly, just to be clear?

Mr. Fenton: It was 80 per cent of the total box office that was occurring on a week-to-week basis.

Mr. Jekielek: Like Hollywood overall?

Mr. Fenton: Hollywood overall was doing roughly anywhere from 60 to 90 per cent of the box office there. In fact, it got so bad that the Chinese government said, “We are going to levy extra tax on theaters and cineplexes that are doing more than 50 per cent of their revenue from foreign titles.” There was a big push, essentially, even if Hollywood movies were doing well, to take ticket sales from those Hollywood movies and apply them to local language movies, so that they wouldn’t be overtaxed.

Those types of protectionist policies were done in various different ways. Then on top of that, Hollywood engaged in this skill set exchange, this technology exchange, this exchange of the storytelling expertise that we knew so well—we were teaching them.

We were doing that on movies that I was involved with, whether it was “Loop,” “Ironman 3,” “The Meg,” or movies like “The Great Wall” with Matt Damon. These were all big budget Hollywood movies that were required to utilize Chinese people working side-by-side with the best in the world—the Hollywood below-the-line crews. As they did that, they got very good at making their own movies.

We cut to today. Instead of that 60 to 95 per cent of market share, in 2019 we dropped to 32 per cent. Last year during COVID, it was 16 per cent. This year, it’s debatable where it will end up, but I would argue that it might be around 16 per cent again. Because I look at February where the box office in China alone made $1 billion U.S., yet Hollywood only contributed $18 million of that. Think about that for a second.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. It makes me think of the situation in a number of other industries.

Mr. Fenton: Exactly. If you think about it, Hollywood is a very high profile business. A lot of people pay attention to it, so it’s pretty shocking to see those numbers and to see the decrease in market share as we teach them the best-in-class skill set that allows them to do it themselves. We’ve essentially created Hollywood’s greatest competitor.

The canary in the coal mine, which is Hollywood, is being repeated in every other industry. Look at Boeing and Airbus, who have just decided to end their trade war and their subsidy battle between the European Union and the U.S., because China has their own commercial airliner that’s going to compete with the 737 Boeing 737 and Airbus 319. Suddenly they’re coming to market with their own version of a plane. Quite frankly, that plane looks a lot like if you took Boeing and Airbus and mated them, what the baby would look like—it looks like that China plane.

Mr. Jekielek: What are you suggesting exactly, Chris?

Mr. Fenton: I’m suggesting that everybody needs to wake up to the fact that the way we’ve engaged with China over the last 40 years was a great game of chess—a long-term game of chess that the Chinese Communist Party had been playing. They knew that we wanted to get our products and services into that market, no matter what the cost.

We thought it would create aspirational qualities that would translate to the Chinese consumer and maybe even to the Chinese government to want to become more like us—more like a democracy. At the same time, we would create revenues for these companies and also grow GDP and create jobs in the United States of America.

A lot of that stuff hasn’t happened. We have created good revenues—a good sugar high for all these publicly traded global companies, these big private companies that are global—great sugar highs, with revenues and profits, all showcasing how big a market China is.

Over that period, in order to get access to that market, they’ve been learning how we do it. They’ve been creating competition. With all that market share we gained, we’re now seeing it retreat.

Eventually if China 2025 actually comes to fruition, which is something that they’re driving towards, they can internalize all of those industries, all those companies, so that they’re Chinese and they can cater directly to the Chinese consumer, which would mean all those foreign companies that had done all that hard work to get into that market are suddenly left out.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to Hollywood for a moment here. How is Hollywood reacting to this?

Mr. Fenton: Right now, Hollywood is reacting in the way that it always has. I’m not calling out Hollywood for reacting that way. Their way is putting their head in the sand—being crickets about it—not talking about it. Because what happens if you do talk about it, is that the Chinese Communist Party retaliates.

We’ve seen it. Just since we last met, we saw it with “Mulan,” the Disney movie, where some Xinjiang Province officials were thanked in the closing credits. That PR problem became a global PR problem. The Chinese Communist Party essentially slowed down the box office receipts of that movie, stopped the promotion and marketing of the film in China and even took away expansion rights to the Hong Kong theme park from Disney. All because of that small PR issue that could have been abated by Disney simply coming out and saying here in the United States, “We don’t condone what’s happening in the Xinjiang Province and we apologize for thanking those government officials.” They could have firewalled that in China, and the geopolitical tempest in a teapot, which expanded into something much bigger than that, could have been contained and wouldn’t have embarrassed the Chinese Communist Party or Disney.

Instead, the Chinese Communist Party knew that Disney would keep it quiet. Critics, government officials, journalists, and citizens in the United States all pounced on it and created a big issue. Not very long after that, we saw Chloé Zhao, the director of “Nomadland,” create a fantastic piece of cinematic art in her movie. I loved it.

In fact, it’s a movie that probably doesn’t showcase the best part of being American. But Chloé Zhao does not live in China. She did not do the Yao Ming, which was to put yourself on the global stage, become the best in the world at something, get the accolades at the highest level, and then go back to the homeland.

She lives in Ojai, California. The Chinese Communist Party is not super excited about that. They retaliate by not allowing “Nomadland” to be shown in China. But then on top of that, Disney is wondering, are they going to be able to release the “Eternals,” which is a big Marvel movie. The last Marvel movie, “Avengers” made almost $700 million just in the China market.

That’s a big play for Disney. If this retaliation affects Disney at that level, it will eventually affect the Marvel IP across the board and affect their theme park. Then you realize the ramifications of coming out and talking about something that’s critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re describing $700 million on a film. You can’t predict how much, but that is an astronomical amount of money. That’s a massive amount of leverage that the Chinese regime can use to influence some of the biggest corporations in the world.

Mr. Fenton: That is 100 per cent the case. We saw that with the NBA, with Daryl Morey tweeting out his support for the Hong Kong protesters. That was immediately retaliated against by the Chinese Communist Party. NBA was taken off of the CCTV networks. All the merchandise was removed from store shelves. The amount of money that was lost by the NBA in that market was massive.

It was a huge punishment that was put on the NBA, simply for seven words that Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, tweeted out there into the Western world. I believe he was in Japan at the time.

It shows the amount of leverage and the amount of dependence our industries and our businesses have on China revenues, on China profits, and on the China growth story that they have to tell to their shareholders and have to tell to their investors. That’s something where if I call out Disney for not doing the right thing, I have to remember why Disney didn’t do the right thing.

Because that’s the cold. The symptom is the C-suite not coming out and saying what we want them to say. The cold is why they don’t. Why they don’t, is because of the pressure that investors and shareholders are putting on these companies and industries. That’s where we need to help.

We need to figure out how to make capitalism second to patriotic duty. We need the ability to create a strong foundation for our nation that allows free market capitalism to thrive. If we continue to let it deteriorate, our form of capitalism is going to be more like the Chinese Communist Party’s form of capitalism.

Mr. Jekielek: What industry that has market share in China could possibly not be subject to the type of leverage you’re describing?

Mr. Fenton: One of the plus sides is that Hollywood is losing its grip on the Chinese consumer. Keep in mind, that has to do with copycats or imitators doing it as well as we do. It also has to do with consumer sentiment turning on American products and services, simply because of the tension between the two countries.

One of the plus sides, the silver lining, is that the more we lose that market, at least in the Hollywood space, the less leverage the Chinese Communist Party has on Hollywood. So it will be interesting to see where that red line occurs, where suddenly, the upside of China isn’t enough for Hollywood.

Keep in mind, Hollywood is the pillar of free speech, of freedom, of creativity, and of expression. If our industry can’t speak up, then no industry is going to speak up. But if our industry can speak up, it is very high profile and it could create a lead-by-example scenario.

I am curious to see if that red line gets crossed at some point. Keep in mind while that red line in China is occurring, we’re also seeing Washington D.C. wake up to what’s going on between the U.S. and China, and where the imbalance is and the unfairness is.

On top of that, we see journalists picking up on it—both on the Right and on the Left, which is key, because the last time I saw you, it was all just on the Right. Then we are also seeing consumers start to notice. When consumers in the Western world notice what these companies are doing to engage with China and get their products and services into China that aren’t following our rights, values, and principles—the things that we hold dearly, consumers in the West will retaliate.

You will have that combo of losing market share in China and losing market share in the West. Then the question is where will businesses make their priorities? My guess is they are going to stick with the West. But when does that happen?

Mr. Jekielek: This is really interesting because I don’t think that Hollywood has the best reputation at the moment of being the pillar of free speech that one would hope it should be, both domestically and in the international market. That’s a whole other discussion, perhaps.

Mr. Fenton: I’m not going to argue with that either. It’s my community, and I agree, there’s a lot of hypocrisy.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve talked a bit offline about the Beijing Olympics. We know that genocide is happening and documented in Xinjiang, and close to that level, crimes against humanity against multiple groups in China. But the Olympics seem to be going full speed ahead, from everything we know.

There are calls for a boycott. “How could we possibly participate,” many people are saying. There are other people that are saying, “Hey, don’t ruin it for the athletes.” There are many, many perspectives. You’re seeing it as a point of leverage of sorts. I’m very curious how you see this as a possibility.

Mr. Fenton: It’s a great question, because no one is asking that question. In about 2008, the company that I worked for was heavy into the advertising and marketing business, and in particular, involved in the sports business. We worked with the CBA, which was the Chinese version of the NBA, and the NBA China.

We knew the importance of the 2008 Olympics. Because at that time, if you think about it, China was a fledgling, economic powerhouse. They were coming out of their pre-teen years in capitalism, or in capitalism with communist characteristics, or however you want to describe it. They wanted a world stage to pull off the perfect coming-of-age party. They wanted perfect attendance. They wanted it to go flawlessly. They pulled it off. It worked.

Even heading into those Olympics, like from 2006 to 2008, it was almost as if a lot of stuff got shut down, halted, or put on hiatus until the Olympics came. They went perfectly. Then everything started up again. Because it was like, “Okay, that’s behind us. Let’s move on to the next thing.”

I think about the same thing with the Beijing 2022 games—which obviously is the winter Olympics. China has already been through their pre-teen, teen years, and early adulthood. Now they’re fully in their adulthood stage. The Olympics is like their fancy dinner party. At a fancy dinner party, you want all the premier guests to show up, and you want it to go perfectly.

If it doesn’t, on a global level, you lose face. On a domestic level, with 1.4 billion people watching, you lose face. They need it to go perfectly. So why don’t we use that as leverage and say, “Hey, there are things that we don’t agree with right now in the U.S.-China dynamic or in the allied world-China dynamic. We’ll show up, but here are the things that we require in order to do so.”

That to me is a point of leverage that doesn’t come up very often. Why the question, “Should we boycott or not?” Why not the question, “What do we want from them in order to show up?” I feel like it could be a missed opportunity.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s a very interesting perspective. Let me ask this. What would it mean if the free world just shows up in 2022, no questions asked? What would that mean for us?

Mr. Fenton: Well for the Chinese Communist Party, it shows that they can do whatever they want to do, because the leverage is there. Think of all the things that we have problems with, and we’re still coming to them. We’re still allowing them to showcase all of the amazing attributes that have allowed them to have these perfect games.

Our biggest athletes are there; our biggest announcers, media companies and press attention. That allows them to say, “Look, we are the dominant force in the world. We’re allowed to do what we need to do. People criticize us all the time, but look, they’re all here.”

Symbolically, that’s something we don’t want to do. We don’t want to penalize the athletes. At the same time, if they get that ability to showcase themselves on a global stage, we need to say, “Here are some requirements that you need to satisfy.” A lot of people are going to say, “What are those?” That’s part of the discussion that we need to have.

Think about the provocation of what they’re doing with Taiwan right now, flying PLA planes into their airspace or bringing ships into their maritime territory. That is the stuff where we have to say, “If that happens over the next 250 days, we are not coming.”

Regarding Wuhan; “We want full access to real investigators to find out exactly what happened in Wuhan, where this pandemic started. We want to know. We’re going to get there. We need to be on the ground. If you don’t allow us to do that, then we’re not showing up.”

On Xinjiang, you’re saying. “There is no genocide here. There are no issues here. These aren’t concentration camps—they’re re-education camps that are teaching people skills. They’re essentially like dormitories at a college.” “If they are, we’re going to come, and we’re going to investigate. You’re not going to get 30 days to prepare for it. We’re going to show up with three days notice or whatever it is, so we can properly address what we think is happening there. And if it’s not—great. But we probably know it is.”

Those are the things that we need to throw out there. There’s all kinds of things on the economic stage from WTO designation. Let’s re-designate them to a developed nation, rather than developing, prior to the Olympics. If they have a problem with that, then we’re not coming.

There are all kinds of different things. They can’t be these north star issues that are impossible to address in the next 250 days. It has to be baby steps that lead to those north star issues. Because as you know, it’s always the pie-in-the-sky when it comes to China. You need to figure out what are the steps to get there. We’re not even talking about what those steps are, and we’re not even trying to address them right now—and we should.

Mr. Jekielek: So in 2008, the idea was that by giving Beijing the Olympics, “Yes, you can be a partner on the global stage. This is your party to showcase yourself. But you’re also going to adhere to some international norms on basic human rights and other things.” That was the expectation. Of course, we know that didn’t happen. In some ways, things got worse.

One of the protests that happened in 2008, I don’t know if a lot of people remember, was Tibetan activists unfurling a giant Free Tibet flag. If I recall it said, “Free Tibet.” But what activists have told me since is that the CCP was so furious about that they actually destroyed the whole Free Tibet movement. They were embarrassed. But I don’t know how many people actually remember that happened.

Today, it feels like we are going into the same exact scenario. Again, the question is how could we do this? How could we, as the free world, actually look ourselves in the mirror?

Mr. Fenton: Yes. It’s such a complicated question, or a complicated solution. Because we are a capitalistic society, and we’re also one that is about free markets—democracy supports that. To say that we can’t engage in that type of capitalistic behavior seems counterintuitive to what we are as a country and what our allied nations are.

To me, it’s deeper than that though. The free market capitalism that we have grown to love and cherish can’t thrive without a strong nation. The nation has to be stronger than just making money. It has to be built on the principles, values, and rights that we hold dearly—things that we’re so passionate about, that we would go to war over, and that we have gone to war over.

To me, that is what we need to take a stand on, not necessarily to say to China, “You need to change to be like us.” That’s something that hawks can debate about for decades, and maybe we will get there someday.

But right now, it’s about who are we as a nation. Who are our allies as nations? Why haven’t we protected who we are over the last 40 years, when it comes to China’s engagement with us? We have allowed them to overreach so far, to the point where we’ve lost the right of freedom of speech in so many areas.

There was a Hollywood Reporter article recently where they talked about how Disney literally pressured a journalistic publication, Filmmaker Magazine, to remove quotes that Chloé Zhao said that upset the Chinese Communist Party. That’s something that is not American. Journalism should be a protected trade. What is in publications as news should be protected, and to remove that just makes us into them. That to me is the big issue.

I don’t care right now about getting them to become like us. I know a lot of people want to. What I want is the country where my kids are growing up in to be the nation that I believed it was when I was growing up. But right now, we’re just allowing money and this silence to take over the way we operate. It’s just not who we are as a people.

Mr. Jekielek: That is interesting. I’ve heard this from a number of people. We wanted to change China, but actually China changed us. That is what you are saying here.

Mr. Fenton: It’s hard to say, because it’s hard for people to hear. There’s a lot of examples of the way we are behaving that are just completely kowtowing or catering to what they are demanding of us. In order to have access to their markets, they have leverage over us. There are probably examples where we are literally becoming more and more like them.

The Right or the Left has all kinds of different issues that they’re battling each other over. If you look at some of the censorship that occurs on Fox News about things that they don’t want to cover, or what’s happening on MSNBC that they don’t want to cover, you could argue that we are being censored in the same way the CCP might censor different journalists or different platforms.

There’s a common ground that all Americans and all of our allied nation citizens should be able to rally around—national security, economic security, human rights, and freedom of speech. I don’t care if you’re far Right, you’re far Left, you’re red, you’re blue, you’re purple, or you’re green. There’s no way you can’t come together on those. Those are the ones that are most in jeopardy by our present engagement with China.

Mr. Jekielek: I’ve seen on your social media that you’re concerned about this continuing large flow of money into the Chinese regime’s coffers.

Mr. Fenton: I’m not an economist by trade, but I do pay attention to investment, because I’ve been involved in the M&A [Mergers and Acquisitions] activity between the two countries. The access to our capital markets fuels the growth of a lot of these companies in China. A lot of these companies in China are very much involved with the Chinese Communist Party, or part of the Chinese Communist Party, or part of state-owned enterprises, which are essentially governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Or they are companies like Alibaba, who are simply private sector companies that if they do one little thing wrong, their C-suite disappears.

Why are we allowing unrestrained access to our capital markets to fuel the growth of these companies that literally can be shut down on a moment’s notice by the Chinese Communist Party or have C-suite individuals disappeared or put off the grid for a while just because they said something that might be slightly critical of the Chinese Communist Party? Or even worse, we’re allowing them access to our capital markets without the SEC and accounting standard practices that all other companies have to abide by, simply because they can hide in their secret state laws.

Essentially, we have pension funds. We have average Americans who are in passive pension fund accounts that are involved with indexes and different mutual funds invested in these companies, that literally can go to zero overnight, or use their investment dollars for things that might be used against us as Americans or allied nations. That to me is wrong. We need to think about it.

I don’t have a problem with these companies that are about free market capitalism, about growth, about revenue building, and investing in smart M&A. I don’t have an issue with that. I’ve been a part of that too. What I would like to see though is a discussion and a slowdown of what’s been going on for the past 40 years. Essentially, it’s asking the real question as to whether this is in the best interest of our nation moving forward in the long term.

Because I do feel like there’s a lot of motivation based on daily stock price fluctuations, quarterly results, P&L’s, and two to four year election cycles that essentially forces us into this game of checkers. We’re playing with an entity that’s been around 5,000 years, and with the Chinese Communist Party, that looks at the playing field over the course of 75 and 100 year plans, which essentially allows them to play this game of chess and think long term.

That is where I get discouraged about where we’re moving as a country. Although, I do see with this latest strategic and innovation legislation that the Senate has passed, at least the green shoots of this idea that R&D is smart, especially if it allows us to elevate our game as a premier nation on the global stage. Because we have a rival across the Pacific that’s going to require us to play at our best level.

Mr. Jekielek: Hollywood put everything into the Chinese market and created the premier competitor to itself in the process. That’s been replicated in all sorts of different industries. The financial sector still is still pumping money into that system. How do you expect this can change? How can this focus on American values happen? How do you see this transpiring?

Mr. Fenton: The first thing is that you have to see it percolate in Washington D.C. on a bipartisan level. If it’s political and only the Right or only the Left is talking about it, then it goes nowhere. Once that percolates in Washington D.C., the hope is that the average American, the constituents, the ones that put these elected officials into office, will start to understand what’s going on more and more.

Everybody’s busy. Everybody has all kinds of stuff going at them all day long. China is not a huge part of their life, with the way they think. But it’s important for the average American to know that China affects them so deeply in so many different areas of their everyday existence. The solution is getting the message out in a way that’s digestible, given how little time they have to think about it.

Journalists have to be on it. We’ve started to see that quite a bit. It used to be pretty taboo for the New York Times and the Washington Post to talk about some of the big issues between the U.S. and China, and now, we’re seeing it. We’ve always seen it come from the Right. That was also because of a Donald Trump pulling the fire alarm on what was going on between the U.S. and China and saying, “China is a threat. China’s a challenge.” That became something that the Left didn’t want to talk about.

Now we’re seeing the Left on the journalistic side. We’re seeing the Left on the Washington D.C. side now combine forces with the Right. So now, since we have both sides of the aisle engaged in it, it’s important for the average American to understand, “Well, why are they engaged in it? What’s important about China?” That goes back to things that John Cena, the wrestler/actor who’s in “Fast & Furious 9” put out in a nice mass appeal stage recently, where he apologized to the Chinese for calling Taiwan a nation. That was eye-opening to the average wrestling fan or sports fan, whether on the Right or Left, to see their hero do that. It was pretty shocking to see him do it in Mandarin too. It added to the symbolism of the kowtowing.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re saying that, inadvertently, John Cena is actually the best PR for this cause?

Mr. Fenton: One of the greatest. One of the greatest. Daryl Morey, in October of 2019, put it on the stage, and in fact, created the ability for me to wake up to it too. Because I remember thinking, “Hey, I like this cultural and commercial exchange with China. Let’s keep it going.” I never really thought about some of the conversations my wife had with me saying, “Are you sure that you feel okay about what you’re doing with this?” I never thought about somebody yelling out after a panel discussion, “You’re a schill for China. “ I never even thought about the LA Times calling me, “The Benedict Arnold of my generation.”

I waved that stuff off. I said, “You don’t understand. This is really important. We’re engaging with the other superpower in a way that’s going to be good for everyone.” It wasn’t until Daryl Morey’s tweet where I saw the bumbling and fumbling of everybody around him trying to come up with the right answer, and whether to support him or not support him—all that kind of stuff. Then I thought about it and said, “Geez, this is what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years.”

But those are the wake-up moments that everybody has to have. It actually woke up some people. Then maybe it’s a Mulan controversy, maybe it’s Chloé Zhao, or maybe it’s a wrestler named John Cena, a gargantuan guy, a super good guy. I made a movie called “Blockers” with him. You see him almost look like he’s groveling to the Chinese government trying to keep a movie alive and build box office.

I know what he was doing. I’m not blaming him for it. I’m essentially blaming the pressures that investors, shareholders, and everybody else engaged in this activity have created—an environment that makes somebody do something like that. But the more that happens—just look at Twitter and social media, and the reaction to what he did there. I’m realizing people are waking up to it slowly. You need more of that.

Quite frankly, I look at somebody like John Cena and there is somebody who has an amazing platform. He’s got the Left and the Right. He’s has the sports world. He’s has the entertainment world. But he’s in a no-win situation. He’s got one foot in one boat, and one foot in another boat. They’re both drifting apart and he’s about to fall in the water. He’s has no right way to go. He can toe the Communist Party line. Obviously, that didn’t really work because the movie only did half what it was supposed to. You could come over here and do the Western world party line, and that will shut you off to China. Guess what? It’s not going to work either way.

I’ve been pretty vocal about it. He could be like Muhammad Ali. He could be somebody that says, “You know what, I’m bigger than just the sport I play—wrestling. I’m bigger than just the community I’m a part of—Hollywood. I’m going to be a global activist. I’m going to lead the world by being a Muhammad Ali figure and do what’s right when it comes to U.S.-China engagement.”

If China shuts him out, which they will, he’ll grow a huge following beyond what he’s built in the Western world—and add zero into his checking account during the process of doing what’s right. LeBron James could do the exact same thing.

Mr. Jekielek: Chris Fenton, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on again.

Mr. Fenton: I love coming, and I will do it again. I just hope over the next year, we don’t see as much chaos as the prior year. I’m humbled and honored to be on the show, and I’m a big fan.

Mr. Jekielek: Thank you for the kind words Chris, and I look forward to next time.

Mr. Fenton: Thank you.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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