How Coronavirus Helped China Tighten Its Vise Grip On Hollywood

How Coronavirus Helped China Tighten Its Vise Grip On Hollywood

“Hollywood will be more beholden to the CCP now,” Chris Fenton texted me on Monday, responding to news of the inevitable. China’s box office is now officially projected to surpass North America’s in 2020.

Long seen by industry insiders as an unavoidable certainty, China’s impending dominance at the box office has serious geopolitical implications. The pandemic, greatly worsened by Beijing’s malfeasance, accelerated the Middle Kingdom’s climb to the top, as North American theaters are still struggling to open and attract moviegoers this late in the year.

According to Variety, most theaters in China are now open and able to operate at 75 percent capacity. Roughly 16 percent of American theaters remain closed, according to Deadline’s estimate.

Artisan Gateway reports the Chinese figure at $1.99 billion and $1.94 billion for the North American box office. The competition remains close, however, as Variety notes “Comscore has an aggregate of $2.1 billion for North America, which puts the gross still slightly behind.”

The larger point, as Hollywood executive Fenton emphasized, is that Beijing now possesses even more leverage over the already compliant film industry, and the lockdowns provided a boost. As we’ve documented extensively at The Federalist, much of Hollywood eagerly complies with Chinese Communist Party censorship demands, preemptive or otherwise, in order to tap into the country’s growing market.

Hollywood’s ethical dilemma with China mirrors those facing other industries, tempting titans to do ever more business in the country while the CCP grows ever more repressive. That cooperation may be good for bottom lines, but it also aids China’s soft power initiatives at a time Beijing is engaged in mass detention, torture, population control, and other human rights violations against ethnic minorities like the Uyghur Muslims.

“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 in January. “What’s especially disturbing to me is how willing American film studios are to self-censor and carry water for the CCP.”

There is, of course, an argument to be made that exporting American films into China aids our own soft-power. That argument is much more difficult to make given that Chinese censors have total control over what’s shown in their theaters, and with such a lucrative market, essentially hold Hollywood in the palm of their hand. While the industry’s increasing reliance on the Chinese market helps boost profits, the CCP’s control over artistic decisions also hampers films (see: “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and forces them to appeal to two very different audiences, gradually diluting their quality.

The argument that Hollywood is increasingly less willing to cave to Beijing’s demands because of domestic pressures (like those applied by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz) is also hard to believe given the sheer amount of cash on the table, and the industry’s ongoing struggle to sell tickets at home.

The CCP’s control over the industry grows more powerful as its market grows more lucrative. As Fenton, who used to distribute films in China and recently wrote a book about the experience, told me last year, “Hollywood mixes art with commerce, but commerce always comes first.”

Emily Jashinsky is culture editor at The Federalist. You can follow her on Twitter @emilyjashinsky .
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