LOS ANGELES—With the recent lackluster performance of the biggest U.S.–China film coproduction in history and the collapse of two major deals, Hollywood’s relationship with China is facing uncertainty.
The fantasy epic “The Great Wall,” coproduced by studios including Universal Pictures and China Film Group, is projected to lose $75 million after a poor showing at the U.S. box office.
This month, Dalian Wanda Group’s $1 billion deal for Dick Clark Productions fell through, as did Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group’s planned $1 billion investment in Paramount Pictures. Both deals were stymied due to China’s tightened restrictions on capital outflows from the country.
“Hollywood has made a mistake in courting China, a country and regime whose interests are diametrically opposed to its own,” wrote Hollywood Reporter executive editor Stephen Galloway, in a recent commentary on the issue.
In addition, China’s Film Industry Promotion Law went into effect on March 1, banning film content in both domestic films and U.S.–China coproductions that harms the “dignity, honor, and interests” of China. Moreover, the law requires film casts and crews to promote “socialist core values.”
Chinese studios are not permitted to collaborate with foreign entities that engage in activities that are “damaging [to] China’s national dignity, honor and interests, or harming social stability or hurting national feelings,” according to a report from Chinese state-controlled media Xinhua.
Hollywood producers are already doing their best to tweak their films to get past Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors and gain access to the Chinese market.
“We’re seeing a Hollywood that is increasingly made for China,” said Aynne Kokas, author of the book “Hollywood Made in China,” in a speech for the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California on March 9.
For example, films like “The Martian” and “Arrival” feature plots that show an unusually robust collaboration between the space agencies of the United States and China, with China taking steps to save the day.
“If you just watch Hollywood movies, you would think that China and the U.S. were on the phone together, that NASA and the Chinese space agency were total buddies,” said Kokas.
In reality, the U.S. government banned NASA from engaging in bilateral relations with China, after American satellite technology was found in Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles in 1998.
China requires all media to be preapproved by an agency called the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).
Chinese officials read film scripts and dictate what must be changed before production can begin. Then SAPPRFT must approve the final versions of films before they can be shown inside China.
This kind of censorship has been recognized to stifle artistic freedom, affecting the development of culture and the functioning of democratic societies, according to a 2013 report by United Nations Special Rapporteur Farida Shaheed.
Critics of the regime say such behavior is the norm for the CCP.
“China is a dictatorship—raw, repressive, and brutal. It is a system in which people of independent mind cannot sleep at ease at night,” said Stein Ringen, emeritus professor at University of Oxford, in a speech at the U.S.-China Institute on March 2.
Hollywood studios have said little about the issue. Some actors who have criticized human rights there or befriended the Dalai Lama, like Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and Brad Pitt, have found themselves blacklisted in China.
“If I say something that’s currently controversial, it could affect our relationships in China,” said an entertainment executive, who asked not to be named.
He said he hoped that the strict censorship and approval regime may one day be lifted.
“That is sort of part of the process in China right now, so obviously a loosening of that process I think would be a good thing,” he said.
With China now a major film market, studios are left with a difficult situation.
“A large percentage of the revenue for U.S. studio films is made in China,” said entertainment lawyer Jesse Weiner. “Clearly, if those films were not shown in China, that would have an effect on a U.S. studio’s bottom line.”