Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy by Erich Schwartzel

Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy by Erich Schwartzel

In 1996, I was on a mountain biking holiday in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It was an organised trip with a small travel company and we spent our days cycling between fairly remote towns and villages, camping out at night.

One day, I noticed large numbers of people dressed up in costumes. There were also signs of movie making gear. We had stumbled across one of the locations for Kundun a new film being made by film-making great Martin Scorsese.

Kundun is a biographical piece about the life of 14th Dalai Lama, and the reason that it was being made in Morocco rather than somewhere more appropriate in Asia was because the subject matter was incredibly sensitive to China since the subject of the film was exiled spiritual leader of Tibet.

The film was made by Touchstone Pictures, essentially Disney’s studio for movies that targeted older and more mature audiences.

But this was to prove to be a very delicate matter and would have wider ramifications within Disney who were looking to grow their business within China, gaining wider distribution there, and leading ultimately to opening a new theme park.

Today, if you open up Disney+, you won’t find Kundun on the platform. Other Touchstone titles released in 1997 like Con Air, Face/Off, Air Force One and Starship Troopers are there (or at least, within the “Star” bit of it in the UK). But you can’t stream Kundun.

Over on Amazon, there’s no streaming option either, although I can pick up a Polish-originated DVD, or a Spanish version of the Blu Ray (the latter coming via Studiocanal rather than Disney). And to be fair, Kino Lorba Studio Classics has licenced the title for a special edition Blu Ray in the US. But considering that Scorsese is widely considered one of the greatest film-makers of all time, one of his titles being hard to get hold of is an interesting place to be in 2022.

Now, to be fair, there are other smaller Touchstone titles that are likewise not on Disney+, and film fans who want to see more niche titles owned by Disney and Fox, are regularly frustrated about how ‘locked up’ many of those films are.

The reason for that sensitivity is fantastically explained in Wall Street Journal Hollywood writer, Erich Schwartzel’s new book. He looks at the history of Hollywood’s relationship with China, concentrating on the last 25 years or so, opening with the stories of Kundun as well as Seven Years in Tibet.

Hollywood once saw places like China as very much incidental markets, “money in the street” as its referred to by Schwartzel in his book. You don’t plan on finding it when you budget for a film, but it’s a pleasant surprise when you get it.

Over time, that changed as deals were done to get more Hollywood films into China, and then to get more of the box office back out again (China requires Hollywood to keep large chunks of its Box Office revenues within the country).

But with that came censorship – and indeed self-censorship. If a film didn’t thematically meet the approval of China’s film regulators, then it wasn’t going to get a release there. But as the revenues coming from China grew, and the country opened up more screens which helped drive this, Hollywood began to censor itself because they were becoming reliant on those juicy Chinese box office grosses. So in movies, the bad guys couldn’t be Chinese anymore.

The ultimate example of this was the 2012 remake of Red Dawn. The 1984 original featured a bunch of American kids battling a Soviet Union invasion, along with allies from Cuba and Nicaragua. That made no sense in 2012, so in the remake they were swapped for Chinese aggressors. But with the film shot and finished, there was panic when parent studio MGM realised that going forward with the film might lock them out of the valuable Chinese market permanently, even if that title was never released in China! What did they do? They used extensive CGI to paint over every flag and military costume to make the invading company North Korea! The fact that such an invasion made zero sense on any level (it’s a tiny country in the scheme of things) made no difference. The studio couldn’t afford to upset the China.

There are a multitude of other examples of this, stretching from James Bond to Transformers. Don’t upset the Chinese if you want to carry on doing business there.

The irony of all of this is that by the end of the book, things were flipping back away from Hollywood again. China now makes massively successful local titles that keep audiences happy. And audiences often reject some of the pandering and localisation that Hollywood has attempted – placing minor characters featuring big-name local actors in films in scenes that might not even appear in the “Western” cut of the superhero blockbuster as has happened in some previous Marvel films.

Schwartzel does a great job of taking us through some of the perils that Hollywood has faced since it’s not just avoiding Chinese villains in films. You also need to be sure that authority isn’t being questioned too much. Even children misbehaving in class is a big issue. The tightrope scriptwriters need to walk if they want China on board is remarkable.

The book also takes us through periods of Chinese investment in Hollywood, and then the pulling out of much of that money. There are also issues surrounding individual actors getting put back in their boxes in China if they become too big. The recently released The 355 all-female action film was a case in point. When the film was announced, Chinese star Fan Bingbing was to be one of the big names attached alongside Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, and Lupita Nyong’o. Many of the stars including Bingbing were paraded in Cannes prior to production. But then a big scandal overtook Bingbing in China where it seemed that her declared taxable income was much lower than the amounts she was actually being paid. So she disappeared for a while, and had to eat a certain amount of humble pie before she could appear in public again. In the meantime, The 355 was shooting. They ended up having to use green-screen shots to include Bingbing in the final film, shooting most of her sequences entirely separately and after everything else was shot.

By the book’s conclusion, a release in China is no longer a certainty these days, even if a title has been partly developed with China in mind. For example, the first all-Asian Marvel superhero film, last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has not yet been released in China, possibly because of things its Canadian-Chinese star, Simu Liu, said years earlier that China doesn’t like. See also the lack of a release for Eternals directed by the Chinese-born Chloé Zhao who similarly incurred the wrath of China for comments she’d made previously. As Schwartzel notes in his book, China didn’t even want to boast about Zhao’s Oscar win for Nomadland – the first for a Chinese director – because of those old comments.

With such high risk issues – a key cast member may easily have said something in an interview or on social media at any point in their life – and the reductions in grosses coming from China, where even if a Hollywood film gets a release, it may find itself competing with another big US title, you’ve got to think that it’s a safer bet assuming your title won’t get a release.

Becoming subservient to China is not a great look. But I guess films being greenlit today have another very obvious bad guy that in the medium term is not going to impact on grosses.

Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy is out now in hardback.