China is now the big player in global cinema. “The Chinese film market is going to be the largest film market in short order,” Charles Rivkin, the new chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), said on a conference call with reporters. “They’re building about 25 screens a day.” Last year, more movie tickets were sold in China than in North America.
American studios are desperate to capitalize on this growth by overturning the Chinese government’s edict that a maximum of only 34 American films a year can play on Chinese big screens. At the same time, they want to make sure that the tariff war between the U.S. and China doesn’t shrink their celluloid profits.
To stay on Beijing’s good side, U.S. filmmakers are willing to kowtow to China’s authoritarian regime, and there seems no limit to their willingness to acquiesce.
Take Top Gun: Maverick, a long-awaited sequel to the 1986 classic action film that made Tom Cruise a superstar. After the sequel’s trailer was unveiled at San Diego’s ComicCon last week, alert fans noted that the iconic leather flight jacket worn by Cruise’s character in the original film had been altered. All of the patches from the original film were there except for flags representing Chinese adversaries Japan and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Those flags were missing.
The culprits were soon pretty obvious. The Hollywood Reporter found that the Chinese company Tencent is co-financing the sequel. Co-producing the film along with Paramount Pictures is Skydance, which is partially owned by Tencent.
“Top Gun is an American classic, and it’s incredibly disappointing to see Hollywood elites appease the Chinese Communist Party,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas lamented to the Washington Free Beacon. “The Party uses China’s economy to silence dissent against its brutal repression and to erode the sovereignty of American allies like Taiwan. Hollywood is afraid to stand up for free speech and is enabling the Party’s campaign against Taiwan.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a colleague of Cruz’s, chimed in. “I hate to see the flag removed because of Chinese financing,” he said in an interview with TMZ. “It’s nothing the government can do, but I think it sucks.”
Nor is Top Gun: Maverick the only example of genuflection. China is almost uniformly portrayed in American movies as a technologically advanced superpower (see movies such as The Martian, 2012, and Looper).
In Looper, a science-fiction drama, a time-traveler is learning French and saving his money so that he can move to Paris. But his boss, who is from the future, says he is making a mistake.
“Go to China,” he tells him. When his employee protests, the boss says, “I’m from the future, go to China.” The line was inserted at the direct order of the film’s Chinese distributors.
There’s no limit to how tenderly the sensibilities of the Chinese are treated. In November 2018, the New York Times reported, “when the creators of the film Pixels wanted to show aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall of China, Sony executives worried that the scene might prevent the 2015 movie’s release in China, leaked studio emails show. They blew up the Taj Mahal instead.”
There are countless other examples. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End saw half the scenes featuring Chinese pirate captain Sao Feng removed by censors for “vilifying and defacing the Chinese,” the official Xinhua news agency reported in 2007
All of this is reminiscent of another time when Hollywood bent low and bowed before foreign censors. In his book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (2013), Harvard scholar Ben Urwand found that Hollywood studios agreed not to make films that attacked Nazis or that depicted their harsh treatment of Jews. With barely a whimper, studios gave the Nazis veto power over films depicting almost every aspect of Nazi Germany
Once upon a time, the late Jack Valenti, the MPAA’s longtime chairman, expressed regret to me at that sordid chapter in motion-picture history. But today’s MPAA has its smooth self-justifying patter down just right: “The adjustment of some of our films for different world markets is a commercial reality, and we recognize China’s right to determine what content enters their country,” it said in a 2013 statement. “Overall, our members make films for global audiences, and audiences’ tastes and demands evolve, and our members respond to those changes. But we also stand for maximum creative rights for artists.” It all depends on who is defining “maximum,” I guess.
I worked in Hollywood once upon a time, so I understand the argument that business is business. Of course, the U.S. should pressure the Chinese regime on human rights and intellectual-property theft. At the same time, I also believe that trade and cultural exchanges are ultimately helpful.
But Hollywood should spare us the cant about standing up for creative rights when too many people in Tinsel Town are concentrating on bending low to appease the Chinese censors.