As Ronan Farrow once put it, “If you go to a movie theater right now, it’s a pretty decent chance you’re going to be seeing a Hollywood movie with a budget partly from China.” “China,” the New York Times reported last month, “has raised its influence in Hollywood by bankrolling a growing number of top-tier films.”
“China wields enormous influence over how it is depicted in the movies Americans make and watch,” the Times report added. “It’s part of a broader push by the government to take control of its global narrative and present a friendlier, less menacing image of China to the world.”
As lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio have noted, Hollywood has altered scripts in recent years to placate Chinese censors. “There are Hollywood movies that are written in a way to avoid certain topics because otherwise they won’t be allowed to play the movie in China. You know there are actors that are not allowed to be in certain movies, that can’t get a Hollywood blockbuster movie because you can’t distribute it. Like Richard Gere. Can’t have Richard Gere movies in China because he’s pro-Tibet,” Rubio said in May.
But as Heritage Foundation senior fellow Mike Gonzalez explained last week, that goes in both directions. “It’s not just censorship of Hollywood movies that are shown in the Chinese mainland,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the censorship of Hollywood movies that are shown to American audiences.”
One odd consequence of the increasingly tight relationship between Hollywood and China is that Alibaba Pictures, recently taken under majority control by Alibaba, a major Chinese company, is partially backing “On the Basis of Sex,” the much-hyped effort to lionize Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie’s official website identifies it as “Participant Media’s On the Basis of Sex, in association with Alibaba Pictures and distributed by Focus Features.”
I haven’t seen the film, and given the subject matter I can’t imagine there would be much reason for this particular project to be manipulated by China. But Alibaba’s association with “On the Basis of Sex” is, perhaps, an interesting harbinger.
Hollywood churns out a fair amount of political content. Historically, some of our most poignant political commentary has come through film. As more and more movies are funded by Chinese sources, the risk that China is exerting influence over explicitly political projects will inevitably rise.
Consider the memorable case of the 2012 “Red Dawn” remake. When a leaked version of the script earned pushback in China, filmmakers, reported the Los Angeles Times, “digitally eras[ed] Chinese flags and military symbols… substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.”
Consider for a moment how some in America would react if a Russian company was backing a hagiography of Clarence Thomas. It’s obviously a strange arrangement. Yet Alibaba’s involvement with the Ginsburg film has attracted virtually no interest from the press. Why?
Logically, China’s interest in manipulating movies that deal more specifically with America’s domestic politics should be lower. That doesn’t mean there’s no reason to be concerned a troubling portion of Hollywood’s political messaging could at some point be negotiated or altered by Chinese backers. For access to Chinese markets and funding, the industry has already shown a willingness to accept filters.
There’s a larger point to be made about China’s growing interest in funding American films. Writing in the National Interest last year, Federalist publisher Ben Domenech argued, “The United States should welcome China’s arrival in the moviemaking business, but not with unequal access to America’s respective marketplaces.”
“As it stands, Chinese companies can make as many films as they want and release them to an American marketplace protected by the First Amendment and without censorship from the Trump administration or anyone else,” Domenech observed. “There is no Chinese equivalent for American audiences of actor Richard Gere, who says he has been blackballed into the indie movie circuit because of his views on Tibetan freedom.”
China, on the other hand, seriously restricts what American filmmakers can release within its borders. Paying more attention to China’s involvement in the industry would be wise, to say the least. If films are tailored to placate Communist China’s censors, as of today, we really have no guarantee of knowing it.
That a fawning Ginsburg biopic is being produced in association with Alibaba may not be damning right now, but it’s at least interesting. Hollywood’s understandable eagerness to build its relationship with such a major market could ultimately give China much more sway over one of our major mediums of political expression than we’ll be comfortable with.