Deception & Misdirection
Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Hollywood: On China
How leftists in the film industry use “charity-washing” to mask bad deeds
Summary: Money is at the heart of the film industry’s attachment to the Democratic Party. But appealing the massive market in communist China for U.S. films is also shaping free speech in Hollywood’s movies.
The growth of the Chinese movie market goes a long way toward explaining why so many film executives support moderately pro-business Democrats like Hillary Clinton over ultraprogressives like Bernie Sanders, despite the rhetoric of many left-wing stars.
Economic growth in communist China has produced a substantial middle class with cash to burn and a growing appetite for American cultural exports. Despite overcalculations in recent years about the growth of the billion-person market for American cinema (many outlets incorrectly reported it would overtake the U.S. market as early as 2017), Hollywood studios hunger to sell their flicks to Chinese audiences. The country already has more movie theaters than the United States, and is expected to reach 80,000 by 2021 as entirely new Chinese cities appear practically overnight, according to the Wall Street Journal. That figure would exceed $20 billion in theaters by 2021; in contrast, North America is currently valued around $12 billion.
But there’s a hitch. The communist government is notoriously tight on the number of foreign films it allows into its market each year (roughly 34), and the films selected have to squeeze through a rigorous, sometimes arbitrary censorship process by cultural propaganda officers suspicious of anything offensive to the regime. Unsurprisingly, this has led to no small degree of whitewashing by American film studios willing to sacrifice artistic integrity by deleting scenes, plotlines, or characters in order to have a shot at the vast Sino market.
Hollywood will even sometimes gin-up plotlines that favor China—as in the 2015 film The Martian, in which the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) saves a crashed American astronaut stranded on Mars—since it improves reception by Chinese audiences. (While the Chinese connection was present in the book The Martian is based upon, the film adaptation does away with much of the original narrative’s political nuance to present an unabashedly heroic picture of the CNSA.)
Other films rewrite characters to fit the repressive communist state’s totalitarian politics. The “Ancient One,” a Tibetan mystic and prominent character in the 2016 superhero film Doctor Strange (adapted from a comic-book series of the same name), was changed to a Celtic woman played by Tilda Swinton, a white British actress, in order to avoid offending Beijing, which does not recognize Tibet as an independent state. The film’s screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, was blunt about it in an interview with NBC News:
[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet…. So if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls—t and risk the Chinese government going, “Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.”
One of the most infamous examples of U.S. whitewashing can be found in Red Dawn, a 2012 remake of the 1984 film of the same name directed by John Milius about American rebels fighting an invasion of the homeland by the Soviet Union. In the remake, Soviet communists were replaced with Chinese communists… that is, until the film drew fire from the Chinese government, which accused the studio of “planting hostile seeds against China,” according to the Daily Mail. Buckling under Chinese pressure, the producers reshot scenes and paid some $1 million for special effects companies to change every flag, symbol and propaganda poster in the film to reference North Korea before its release. (Left unresolved by the plot was how a starving nation of 24 million North Koreans could cross the Pacific Ocean to storm the United States and its 314 million-odd inhabitants.) But justice sometimes triumphs, even in Hollywood: excoriated by critics (it got an aggregate score of 12% from Rotten Tomatoes) Red Dawn also bombed at the box office, losing $15 million.
A number of people in the film industry have put forward concerns about pandering to the totalitarian Chinese communist regime. As one writer in Time puts it,
…geopolitical thrillers about Beijing’s adventures in the South China Sea and its cyberhacking of foreign governments (or taboo topics like Tibetan independence) likely won’t get U.S. studio backing anytime soon.
In other words, China has reached into the most intimate recesses of Hollywood’s creative process and inserted its own DNA. Note the dearth of films featuring Chinese villains—especially striking when so many continue to feature Russian antagonists over a quarter-century since the Cold War ended.
“The role of Hollywood film villain is empty,” Rob Cain, a China-based film consultant writes in Time. “There’s no way the Chinese are going to be the replacement for Soviet bad guys because nobody wants to risk the China relationship.”
Recently, Beijing has given more leeway to filmmakers willing to work with the budding Chinese film industry. Occasionally this entails casting the country’s biggest stars as main characters in U.S. movies, such as two Chinese actors featured as important characters in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Oftentimes, studios will pepper scenes with Asian actors in order to appeal to an Asian audience. Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most famous young actresses, admits as much of her role as an unnamed nurse in Iron Man 3 (2013):
“The reason I was cast is simple,” Fan tells TIME. “[Hollywood] considered the Chinese market, wanted to add Asian faces and found me.”
Chinese appeal has taken center stage in the U.S. film industry, says Jackie Chan, that country’s most famous actor:
When China was not the market, you just followed the American way… But these days, they ask me, “Do you think the China audience will like it?” All the writers, producers— they think about China. Now China is the center of everything.
“We never thought of China ten years ago,” says Adam Goodman, a former Paramount Pictures production chief writing in the Wall Street Journal. “Now, we’re at a point where Hollywood can’t exist without China.”
It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that so many Hollywood plutocrats came out as strong supporters of President Obama’s controversial 2015 Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. At its core a free trade deal with twelve Pacific Rim nations, the TPP didn’t include China—but it did offer a number of protections vis-à-vis China sought by the American film and media industries.
Intellectual property rights featured prominently in the original proposal. Drafts of the TPP would have significantly increased the duration of copyright terms, brought greater uniformity to anti-piracy measures, and prohibited digital tariffs on media—policies media companies have supported for years.
Christopher J. Dodd, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut and head of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), co-signed an open letter in April 2015 alongside six former Democratic National Committee chairs supporting the agreement. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a major trade association, called the TPP “critical to sustaining America’s creative sector” later that year. Senior Obama administration officials actively sought out support from Hollywood, and in May 2016, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman visited Los Angeles to tout the TPP’s benefits to service sector companies.
Hillary Clinton finally offered her (shaky) support to the deal in July 2016 during her presidential bid, after firmly opposing it—but not before calling it the “gold standard” of trade agreements. As everyone knows, President Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP after taking office in January 2017.
We call it charity-washing: using nonprofits and political activism to push an agenda that has no bearing on the way you actually live your life.
Politics and celebrities may go together like Abbott & Costello, but for the thespian class, the good old days might be over.
As the collective clangor from the Hollywood Left has waxed in the age of Trump, box-office sales have steadily waned. Movie theater ticket sales for the all-important summer season have fallen to their lowest level since 1992, according to the Los Angeles Times. To be sure, numerous factors might account for the slump in sales—inexpensive streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the rise of popular long-term television dramas like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, and truly awful sequels to mediocre “blockbusters.”
But a few bad movies don’t necessarily account for the substantial 16 percent drop in ticket sales from the end of May through Labor Day 2016. This is the summer blockbuster season when sales are supposed to be at their highest. Curiously, ticket sales continued their slide during the recent period of high job growth and rising consumer confidence. This decline is particularly striking considering summer box-office sales grew in the wake of the 2008-2009 housing market crash. And why do ticket sales for American movies keep growing overseas despite flopping here?
To be sure, Americans also enjoy a far wider range of entertainment options than they did just a few years ago, all related to the explosion of the Internet. Many Americans now dedicate increasingly large portions of their lives to their smartphones, and have perhaps less tolerance for long, complex narratives meant for on the silver screen. Similarly, the vibrant market for streaming movies and high-production television shows continues to expand. Going out to the movies may soon become just another relic of America’s entertainment past, like going to see a circus or a vaudeville show.
Regardless of economic trends, however, the horror of the Harvey Weinstein scandal reveals the rotten core of the rotten Hollywood apple—just another symptom of the entertainment industry’s preening hypocrisy and hidden corruption. More and more stars and production professionals now admit they knew of Weinstein’s long-standing career of sexual predation, yet none acted. Even when he attended the 2017 Women’s March, the sting of his private predatory treatment of women while publicly declaring the value of women’s rights went unremarked.
Many in the entertainment world may use the language of progressive crusaders, charity-washing themselves with good works and self-congratulatory P.C. speechifying. But, as the Weinstein scandal shows, Hollywood’s main concern is still its image, not its substance.
For the complete series, Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Hollywood, click here.