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Why Hollywood’s Cozy Relationship With China Could Face An Ugly Reckoning In The 2020s


At some point after viewers watched Ricky Gervais needle begowned Golden Globe revelers over their affiliations with China, those watching at home would have seen the trailer for “Mulan” play during a commercial break. (Disney was one of three companies Gervais named in his monologue.) It was fitting, in Hollywood’s first big party of the 2020s, to see shadows of a conflict that roiled the waning days of its last decade.

The very next morning, director Judd Apatow was quoted in an exhaustive New Yorker article probing “The Future of America’s Contest with China.” It’s a drama in which Hollywood plays a supporting role.

“You would not see a major film company or studio make a movie that has story lines which are critical of countries with major markets or investors. The question becomes: what’s the result of all of this?” said Apatow. “The result is, there are a million or more Muslims in reeducation camps in China, and you don’t really hear much about it.” Let us not forget the country’s treatment of its Christian citizens either.

Will this be a key plot line in the industry’s next decade? With tensions mounting between the United States and China, some in Washington are reevaluating the wisdom of our vast cultural and financial entanglements with the country—and from both sides of the aisle. Hollywood, as Gervais demonstrated, is ripe for a grilling.

The Era of ‘Preemptive Censorship’

“What you don’t hear about,” Apatow continued in The New Yorker, “is all of the ideas that get killed at the earliest pitch stage, at all of the studios and networks, because people don’t even want to consider dealing with it.”

Just before Christmas, I asked Chris Fenton, a Hollywood executive who collaborated with Apatow as a producer on “Blockers,” about exactly that. Fenton, formerly of DMG Entertainment, has worked extensively on distributing major American films in China. Is Hollywood practicing a form of “preemptive censorship?” I wondered. “One hundred percent,” replied Fenton, calling the practice “commonplace.”

“The studios are smart about the global market, wanting their films to resonate everywhere. When it comes to China—the soon-to-be largest market in the world—a studio fully vets a film before submitting it to censors. Anything blatantly offensive is edited or simply never shot in the first place,” he explained, echoing what Apatow divulged.

“Hollywood mixes art with commerce, but commerce always comes first. Films that tackle subjects insulting to China will not get made for two reasons,” added Fenton. “One, they can’t be monetized in China, and two, making the movie will blackball the studio from doing business in the market.”

Apatow’s comment was unusually brazen for a celebrity-cum-industry leader. Bob Iger, for instance, explicitly said last fall he believed Disney should avoid any public comments on the NBA’s Hong Kong controversy. “Caution is imperative,” he argued at the time. “To take a position that could harm our company in some form would be a big mistake.”

In Tinseltown, mounting concerns about China are “definitely a conversation behind closed doors,” Fenton told me. “Hollywood would like to keep it that way too.”

A Culture Clash Set for 2020

2019 was a bad year for American films at the Chinese box office, perhaps the industry’s worse showing in more than a decade. “China can no longer be expected to lap up American duds and act as a box-office safety net for tired franchises, which had been the case in recent years,” Variety wrote in December. Even so, there’s still plenty of money to be made.

Enter “Mulan,” which Fenton believes “is going to open up questions,” especially in the wake of the NBA controversy, and with a release date that falls in the heat of an election season. As far back as 2016, concerns mounted in the press over potential “whitewashing” problems identified in an early version of the script.

Last summer, the film earned more backlash. After leading actress Yifei Liu posted in support of the Hong Kong police on social media in August, a #BoycottMulan hashtag spread online, making international headlines.

The Chinese government seized on “Mulan” to attack the protestors in Hong Kong, apparently boosting a #SupportMulan hashtag with “state-backed bots.” Twitter suspended nearly 1,000 accounts it found “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”

“Based on our intensive investigations, we have reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation,” the company said. Facebook took steps to address a similar problem.

The film, which is not even set for release until March 27, has already become a cultural flashpoint in both countries. Surely those battles will only escalate in the spring.

“Never bet against Disney, but it’s hard to believe Disney can avoid the wokeness on the right or the left with ‘Mulan,'” speculated Fenton, citing three particular reasons the film could stir up an international controversy.

“For one, its Chinese star Yifei Liu has come out in support of the CPC [Communist Party of China] over the protestors in Hong Kong. Secondly, one of the producers, Bill Kong, is a Hong Kong citizen. Third, it’s an iconic American company bringing to life an iconic piece of Chinese history,” he noted, adding, “I personally love the cultural exchange the movie creates, but in today’s environment I could see pundits asking, ‘Why did Disney make that movie? Why would we want to watch it here in the U.S.?’ With pundits in China sharing similar views.”

“Hollywood is likely to become the target of Congress, pundits, and the American public,” continued Fenton, predicting critics will wonder, “Is Hollywood pandering to China like the NBA? Should Hollywood be doing that? Is Hollywood spreading China’s soft power initiatives? Is Hollywood complicit like the NBA and other American businesses?”

Soft Power at the American Box Office

I took the question about soft-power initiatives straight to one of the upper chamber’s resident China hawks. “Of course China is leveraging market access to extend the Communist Party’s arm and export its authoritarian ideology internationally,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told me. “What’s especially disturbing to me is how willing American film studios are to self-censor and carry water for the CCP.”

“There’s no shortage of examples from Hollywood,” Rubio continued. “Paramount altered Maverick’s patches in the new ‘Top Gun’ film to strike out the Japanese and Taiwanese flags so it didn’t offend any Chinese viewers. The ‘Red Dawn’ remake had to change the bad guys from Chinese to North Korean in post-production after Beijing’s propaganda whipped up a controversy around it. Richard Gere will never [again] star in a major Hollywood production because he spoke up about Beijing’s unlawful attempts to interfere with Tibetans’ religious freedom and autonomy, including the deeply spiritual process of the Dalai Lama’s succession.”

“And what’s really embarrassing,” Rubio finished, “is how open some of these studios are about it all. After Marvel and Disney censored a Tibetan character in ‘Doctor Strange,’ one of the screenwriters explained the craven decision in frank terms: ‘He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.’”

Rubio’s right. There really is “no shortage” of examples regarding Chinese censorship of Hollywood films. The list of publicly known incidents is long, and includes plenty of recent blockbusters.

Complicity at Taxpayers’ Expense

For increasingly hawkish legislators, Hollywood’s complicity with China might raise further questions about the robust production incentives offered by states like Georgia, especially as Trump-era pressures continue to build. The incentives are already hotly debated in statehouses for reasons both practical and ideological, but seem ripe for discussion as awareness of China’s dubious ties to the film industry grow.

In a Tuesday email, Erick Erickson, the Atlanta-based conservative radio host and writer, cited several reasons Peach State legislators should “absolutely” reconsider Georgia’s incentives program, the film industry’s China ties among them.

“Georgia absolutely needs to rethink its incentives to the film industry. That industry has vocally opposed conservative initiatives in the state, including a Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They opposed the fetal heartbeat legislation too,” Erickson wrote. “Georgia is the only state in the union without a cap on the film tax credit and it stands at roughly $870 million, the largest in the nation and almost three times more than California’s.”

“Certainly Hollywood’s willingness to speak up about conservative matters while being quiet about China is one of many reasons the state needs to act,” he finished. “It is ironic that Hollywood is too scared to say anything about China and Georgia’s Republicans are too scared to say anything about Hollywood.” If Republican lawmakers share Erickson’s concerns, the film industry could face some difficult policy changes.

There’s also the Pentagon, which has long a history of working with Hollywood “to make sure events involving the military are depicted accurately,” “to make sure sensitive information isn’t disclosed,” and “to let filmmakers use real-life military equipment in their productions,” as this quiz on the Defense Department’s website puts it. A top official once described the relationship as one of “mutual exploitation.”

But should the propriety of that relationship be reconsidered as Hollywood allows China to dictate the content of its films, “preemptively” or otherwise? Consider “Top Gun 2,” which involves both Defense Department collaboration and likely Chinese censorship.

The movie kicked up controversy last year after a trailer showed filmmakers had apparently removed patches of the Taiwanese and Japanese flags from Maverick’s iconic leather jacket, almost certainly to placate China, as Rubio mentioned. Bear in mind that Chinese company Tencent is a partner on the film.

When Tom Rogan of the Washington Examiner inquired about the change, wondering whether the Navy would request a U.S. cut of the film that includes the original patches, a public affairs officer told him “that while the Navy will receive a rough cut version of the movie, its agreement with Paramount means that it cannot request adaptions for the final cut unless the changes relate to something that poses ‘an operational security risk, violates the privacy of [Defense Department] personnel, or doesn’t conform to the script agreed upon by the [Pentagon].'”

Should lawmakers be concerned the Pentagon used federal resources to collaborate on “Top Gun 2” by assisting heavily in its production? According to a July story reprinted in The National Interest, “the Pentagon gave Paramount Pictures Corp. extensive access to its facilities and personnel during the filming of Top Gun 2.”

The report said their agreement “gave Paramount Pictures Corp. permission to fly aircraft, place cameras on and in F/A-18 Super Hornets and Navy helicopters, as well as escorted access to a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Navy was also expected to train cast members in water survival and aircraft seat ejection.”

To be sure, the military was reportedly granted a fair amount of control over the film: Paramount agreed to arrange an official screening for the Defense Department before the film’s release, the studio “was expected to reimburse the government for costs ‘not aligned to current operations,'” and the military assigned staff to “review with public affairs the script’s thematics and weave in key talking points relevant to the aviation community.”

The report further stated: “Active-duty personnel were given permission to appear in the film and select pilots were allowed to be filmed in cockpits during flight sequences. All footage was subject to an on-set security review by a naval aviator or security manager. Any footage that was determined to be ‘classified or sensitive’ was to be deleted or turned over to the Navy, according to the agreement.”

Clearly the Pentagon secured an arrangement that worked in its favor, and the tweak to Maverick’s bomber may seem like small potatoes. But in light of recent head-butting between the two countries, and rising concerns over China’s human rights violations, it’s easy to see how legislators might find reason to reexamine the practice.

As another example, back in 2009, it was reported that Chinese censors “tinkered” with “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “bleeping the name of China’s biggest city from the soundtrack of the DreamWorks film.” The change was small, but an archived press release on the department’s website shows the Pentagon boasted of providing “more than a year of Defense Department support, ranging from script and uniform notes to C-17 aerial maneuvers and jumps from the Army’s Golden Knights parachute demonstration team.”

Evidence like the “Top Gun 2” agreement suggests Hollywood’s collaborations with the Pentagon clearly must often pay dividends for the military by promoting accuracy and the national interest. The original “Top Gun,” for instance, is believed to have boosted recruitment for the Navy’s aviation officer candidate program.

But given Washington’s shifting sentiments on China, the relationship seems like a potential vulnerability for the industry going forward. DoD advantages aside, there’s a legitimate question as to whether the U.S. military should be used as a prop in movies Hollywood allows censorious human rights abusers to sanitize.

The Path Ahead

Fenton refers to “Five Forces of Diplomacy”: politics, human rights, national security, culture, and commerce. Because “we will never agree with China on the first three,” Fenton says, “all we have to keep the lines of communication open between the world’s two superpowers is culture and commerce.” Rather than attempting to change China’s mind on the Uyghurs, where “they believe there’s a security threat they need to address, and we can’t tell them otherwise,” Fenton believes the path forward is to “focus on what keeps the two superpowers collaborating —what keeps us talking, what keeps us interacting.”

“If we don’t, a new Cold War will begin, creating a world none of us will want to live in. It’s that simple,” he contends.

Having brokered deals between Hollywood and China, Fenton isn’t blind to the problems at hand. “Self-reflection is an extremely powerful force,” he told me. “I felt passionate as a voice of dissent—a force of cultural and commercial exchange no matter the critics.”

“But,” said Fenton, “I learned I was also complicit, working as a bridge between Hollywood and China.”

“Though my thoughts have altered, my mission has remained steady: we either continue to co-exist through the bond formed by the exchange of culture and commerce, or we consciously start a cold war between the world’s two superpowers,” he concluded.

As tensions escalate and Washington evaluates the country’s many financial and cultural entanglements with Beijing, Hollywood seems likely to find itself in the spotlight. Whether that pressure actually leads to changes of any significance for the film industry remains uncertain.

OpenSecrets calculates that in 2016, “the television, movie and music industry made $86.4 million in political contributions,” with roughly 70 percent of entertainment industry donations going to Democrats over the past 20 years and 29 percent to Republicans. Even so, from the Golden Globes to “Mulan,” foreshocks of a fight are starting to tremble beneath our feet.