Hollywood Trades Censorship for Chinese Market

March 14, 2014 Updated: March 20, 2014

China is trying to coax U.S. filmmakers and film studios into its brand of a new Hollywood. In exchange for massive investment and promises of access to China’s theaters, however, they will also need to follow China’s strict censorship laws—and new programs made to put lipstick on the face of the ruling regime.

Over the last two weeks, six large deals have been signed between China and foreign film industries, and two major film programs were announced internally in China.

There are even more programs allegedly in the works that variously give tax breaks for building movie theaters, levy penalties for demolishing theaters, and consolidate China’s theater chains into nationwide conglomerates.

Chinese authorities have not tried to hide their motives. The trend was visible in January 2012, when then-communist leader Hu Jintao accused the West of using “cultural warfare” against China, and called for retaliation with “soft power.”

“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” Hu said, according to a translation by The Associated Press.

Hu’s essay was released after the sixth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party, where culture warfare and soft power were a focus for the Party’s theoreticians. The state-run news agency Xinhua cited an official statement afterward saying that the regime was “feeling the urgency of enhancing its soft power and the international influence of its own culture.”

New guidelines announced on December 30, 2013, add to this. The guidelines essentially seek to conceal all mention of the Chinese Communist Party’s widespread violations of human rights, censorship, and volatile situations with Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. The Chinese military’s overseas adventurism, which some have compared to moving Asia to the brink of war, would also be left out in such a portrayal.

But this image of China and the communist regime is what the new Hollywood will need to promote if it wishes to do business in China. Hollywood studios are jumping on the deal.

Money and Propaganda

Among the first in line is Disney. It announced a multiyear partnership agreement with the state-run Shanghai Media Group (SMG) on March 6. The deal means SMG, one of the Party’s propaganda organs, will be co-developing Disney-branded movies.

“SMG is proud to work with Disney to create a new era of classic content featuring uniquely Chinese storytelling elements for audiences around the world,” said Su Xiao, chief executive officer, SMG Pictures, in a press release.
The deal puts Disney one step behind DreamWorks, which announced in August 2012 it had partnered with SMG and two other Chinese state-owned companies, China Media Capital and Shanghai Alliance Investment, to produce “Kung Fu Panda 3” in China for a 2016 release.
Disney was just one of many to strike a deal with China this month. On March 10, Robert Simonds, producer of films including “State of Affairs” and “Happy Gilmore,” partnered with two major Chinese firms in a $1 billion startup to produce up to 10 films a year. Just prior to that, EuropaCorp’s Luc Besson applied to co-produce “Warrior’s Gate” with Shanghai-based Fundamental Films.

The same day the Disney deal was announced, one of China’s major production companies, Huayi Brothers, announced it would inject between $120 million and $150 million into Studio 8, a new outfit, which is being launched by the former head of Warner Bros., Jeff Robinov.

March 6 also marked a deal between the U.K.’s Pinewood Shepperton and China’s Dalian Wanda Group. They’re building a 494.21-acre (200-hectare) film and television studio in China’s Shandong Province, which will be part of Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis.

This all came just two days after Resolution Talent and Literary Agency became the first Hollywood agency to receive investment from a Chinese company. Resolution is run by Jeff Berg, the former chairman of ICM, which is one of the world’s largest talent and literary agencies.

In all of these deals, both parties get what they want: Hollywood receives money, and China’s propaganda officials get an outlet for telling their story to the world.

The financial incentives being offered by Chinese state firms are the carrot, but the regime also holds a very big stick: It allows a maximum of 34 foreign films into China each year, and propaganda authorities can arbitrarily block any film they like.

But if the films are made in partnership with Chinese companies—and made inside China, where they are subject to propaganda discipline—they are considered Chinese films. The quota then doesn’t apply.

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp