Politics & Policy

How to Counter Chinese Pressure on Hollywood

Cast members (from left) Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Rachel McAdams pose at the premiere of Doctor Strange in Hollywood, in 2016. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
A mandatory disclaimer attached to films altered as a result of Beijing’s demands would allow American consumers to punish studios for caving in.

During the filming of the 1939 movie Jesse James, a stuntman and his horse went over a cliff and fell 70 feet into a river. The stuntman was fine; the horse died. This incident is what gave rise to that line at the end of many movies: “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.” The American Humane Association, which trademarked that saying, worked out a deal with the Screen Actors Guild and the precursor to the Motion Picture Association of America in which filmmakers would vouch that animals were well-treated in movies.

Representative Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) thinks this might be a good model for how the U.S. can push back against China’s global influence.

In the last decade or so, Hollywood has acquiesced to countless demands from China. In the (horrible) 2012 remake of the movie Red Dawn, the plan was to depict American resistance to a Chinese invasion. (In the original it was a Soviet invasion.) After the filming was finished, MGM caved to pressure from China and re-edited the film to turn the invaders into North Koreans for fear of losing access to the Chinese market.

If that were the only example, one might cut the then-cash-strapped studio some slack. But Hollywood does this all the time.

The 2016 film Dr. Strange changed a character from a Tibetan monk to a Celtic woman played by Tilda Swinton. Brad Pitt was banned from China for several years because he starred in Seven Years in Tibet (as were the director and a co-star). Richard Gere’s career took a hit because of his outspoken support for Tibet. Studios often won’t cast him for fear of angering the Chinese Communist Party, which has been inflicting cultural genocide on Tibet for decades. For the upcoming Top Gun sequel, China is assumed to have forced the studio to change Tom Cruise’s flight jacket so that the Taiwan flag no longer appears. (Our ally is not a sovereign country, according to Beijing.)

It would be wrong and unworkable to ban movie studios from kowtowing to Chinese demands. It’s called show business, not show politics. China is on course to become the biggest single market for film and television, and while it may be cowardly and hypocritical for an industry that wears its idealism on its sleeve to placate a nation that bans free expression and is hauling Uighurs into concentration camps, we shouldn’t follow suit by restricting free expression here at home.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t impose a little truth-in-labeling on the industry. That’s Gallagher’s idea (which he proposed on a recent episode of my podcast, The Remnant). Congress should require American studios to disclose whether a film has been altered in any way to meet the approval of China’s censorious regime. You know how TV networks inform viewers that a film has been altered for television? Why not notify viewers if a film has been changed to conform with Chinese propaganda?

At the beginning or end of a movie, American audiences would have to be informed: “This film has been altered to fit the demands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Obviously, the Chinese wouldn’t allow that disclaimer in their theaters, but at least Americans would know. Hopefully that would apply a little democratic counterpressure to China’s undemocratic pressure.

Gallagher also suggests that American social-media platforms be required to ban officials from nations that ban free speech. Why should authoritarian propagandists be afforded privileges that they won’t grant their own people?

No one wants a war with China. But we already live in a world where China is exerting itself on America. Right now, we impose little to no costs on them to do so, in part because we live in a free country where businesses, including Hollywood studios, are largely free to cut whatever deals fit their own bottom lines. Curtailing such mercenary practices without mimicking China’s command-and-control tactics is difficult. Forcing full disclosure on businesses that play such games — perhaps including those that allow their intellectual property to be stolen in order to maintain access to the Chinese market — strikes me as a brilliant way to counter the trend.

Let American consumers know the full truth. If they don’t care, the studios can carry on. If they do care, make filmmakers pay the price for their pursuit of profit over principle — not by being dragged off in the middle of the night, but at the box office.

© 2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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