Perspectives on the Pandemic: China’s Influence on Hollywood

April 21, 2020 Updated: May 25, 2020

Commentary

Currently, there are over 730,000 cases of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus and over 42,000 deaths in the United States. Many of the high-profile cases were Hollywood celebrities.

Why would the CCP virus hit Hollywood hard?

The Epoch Times editorial article, “Where Ties With Communist China Are Close, the Coronavirus Follows,” suggests that “the heaviest-hit regions outside China all share a common thread: close or lucrative relations with the communist regime in Beijing.”

From financing to approving scripts, the CCP have influenced Hollywood considerably over the past few years, and can now exert a significant sway over which films are produced and how China is portrayed.

For U.S. companies, the lure of access to the large Chinese market has been strong. But with it has had to come compromises.

Chinese Market = Censorship

China’s box office generated almost $9.3 billion in revenue in 2019—just behind the United States and Canada, which jointly brought in $11.4 billion, according to Motion Picture Association of America data.

In 2020, China was predicted to become the world’s largest cinema market, with box office revenue expected to increase to $15.5 billion by 2023, according to data from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Experts have warned that China’s lucrative market has led to self-censorship in Hollywood to cater to what the Chinese censors want.

Timothy Doescher, associate director of coalition relations at the Heritage Foundation, said in a podcast: “Hollywood is relying more and more on the Chinese markets to make profits on movies. That means our films are being written with China in mind.”

Aynne Kokas, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the Financial Times: “You would be hard pressed to find a producer in Hollywood willing to make a film that portrays China negatively.”

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, explained in the podcast discussion with Doescher why the Chinese regime has keyed in on Hollywood.

“The Chinese Communist Party is communist, and the communists understand very well then the culture stands upstream from policy and from politics, and if you seize the culture, you’ve gone a great way towards impacting the population,” he said.

The Trump administration, too, has spoken about self-censorship in Hollywood.

At the Hudson Institute on Oct. 4, 2018, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech about the Trump administration’s new approach to U.S.–China relations and criticized Beijing’s track record of “rewarding and coercing” American movie studios, which he said successfully resulted in plot revisions for films.

“For the movie ‘World War Z’ they had to cut the script’s mention of a virus because it originated in China. ‘Red Dawn’ was digitally edited to make the villains North Korean, not Chinese,” Pence said.

“Beijing routinely demands that Hollywood portray China in a strictly positive light. It punishes studios and producers that don’t. Beijing’s censors are quick to edit or outlaw movies that criticize China even in minor ways,” he also remarked.

Movies Banned by the CCP

Beijing hasn’t been shy about banning certain films that are too sensitive for the regime.

One such movie was “Red Corner,” a 1997 film starring Richard Gere as an American businessman falsely accused of murder in Beijing. The film had an ominous tagline: “Leniency for those who confess, severity for those who resist.”

As a supporter of Tibetan independence and an ally of the Dalai Lama, Gere has been critical of the Chinese regime.

He said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that his political views have limited his work. “There are definitely movies that I can’t be in because the Chinese will say, ‘Not with him’.”

In a more recent example, the 2019 Netflix film “Laundromat” was banned. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Meryl Streep, the movie exposes corruption, including in China.

One segment of the film portrays the state-sanctioned practice of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China.

Chinese Regime Funds Hollywood’s Productions

More than half of the 10 best movies of 2019 selected by Time magazine were financed by Beijing-friendly firms, such as Tencent Pictures, Sunac Group, Shanghai Road Pictures Film and Television, Media Asia Film, and Bona Film Group.

And that isn’t unusual. Many of the big cinema releases over the last few years have been made with Chinese funding.

“Terminator: Dark Fate,” released in November last year, had an estimated production budget of $185 million, with Paramount Pictures, Skydance Media, and 20th Century Fox each financing 30 percent, and Tencent Pictures 10 percent.

In 2017, distribution rights for U.S. war film “Midway” were acquired by Bona Film Group for $80 million. Other Chinese companies, Starlight Culture Entertainment Group and Shanghai RuYi Entertainment, each financed part of the film’s $98 million budget.

Chinese conglomerate Fosun International invested in the founding of Studio 8, an American entertainment company, in 2014 and was involved in the financing of movies such as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and “Gemini Man,” both directed by Ang Lee.

At the end of 2014, China’s largest interactive entertainment group, Guangdong Alpha Group, established a partnership with U.S. company New Regency Productions. According to Chinese media, Guangdong Alpha would invest up to $60 million in three New Regency movie productions, which included “The Revenant.”

The 2014 film “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” produced by Paramount, received investment from M1905, a new media subsidiary of the China Movie Channel (CCTV6).

Meanwhile, Alibaba Pictures, the Chinese film studio set up by e-commerce giant Alibaba, started its investment and marketing partnership with Paramount in 2015. Following collaboration on “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation,” it invested in two Paramount films, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” and “Star Trek Beyond.”

CCP influence also manifests through mergers and acquisitions with U.S. companies.

Buying Up and Partnering With Studios

Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda acquired U.S. cinema operator AMC Entertainment for $2.6 billion in May 2012. In 2016, Wanda acquired Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment and theater operator Carmike Cinemas. The former produced the blockbusters “Jurassic World” and “The Dark Knight.”

Dalian Wanda announced a strategic partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group in September 2016.

Wang Jianlin, founder of Dalian Wanda, is a member of the CCP, and has been a delegate to the Party’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress.

Wang’s acquisitions, however, have the U.S. congress concerned about the regime’s growing influence on entertainment. These acquisitions are viewed as political outlets of the CCP, which are used by the regime to spread propaganda and wield cultural influence over the way the CCP is portrayed on American television and in cinema.

Dalian Wanda are not the only Chinese company to make deals with U.S. film studios.

On March 17, 2015, Lionsgate Entertainment entered into a multi-year deal with Chinese state-run broadcaster Hunan TV for co-financing, distribution, development, and production.

On April 1, 2015, Chinese film production company Huayi Brothers Media Corp. signed a “three-year deal with new Hollywood studio STX Entertainment to jointly finance, produce, and distribute up to 15 movies annually by 2016,” according to Reuters.

On Sept. 20, 2015, China Media Capital (CMC) and Warner Bros. Entertainment announced a joint venture, Flagship Entertainment Group Limited, that is 51 percent owned by CMC and 49 percent by Warner Bros.

In January 2017, Paramount made a deal worth $1 billion in slate funds with Shanghai Film Group Corp. and Beijing-based Huahua Media. The two Chinese firms would fund 25 percent or more of the studio’s entire film slate for three years, with an option for a fourth, according to Deadline magazine.

However, Paramount announced in November that year that they ended the agreement following changes to Chinese foreign investment policies.

This global pandemic—caused by the Chinese regime’s mishandling of the outbreak–has demonstrated that dealing with China carries a heavy price.

Can Hollywood—long stifled and shaped by China’s economic interests—wake up to the fact and distance itself from the Chinese regime in the future?

Only time will tell.

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Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.