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Pandemic threatens ties between Hollywood and China's film industry

'We’re at a point of no return,' says expert on marketing to China.

Published: April 22, 2020 9:59pm

Updated: April 22, 2020 11:16pm

Hollywood’s cozy, if morally fraught, ties to China will be tested once the current pandemic fades.

Film studios rely on Chinese theaters to fatten bottom lines or, in select cases, turn flops into modest hits. The 2018 reboot “Tomb Raider” netted a disappointing $58 million in U.S. theaters, for example, but generated $78 million in China alone.

It’s why American movies routinely endure nips and tucks to appease Chinese censors. All the while politically savvy stars stay silent on the country’s human rights abuses.

All of that could be impacted by both the global pandemic and China’s possible role in its deadly spread.

Stanley Chao, author of “Selling to China,” thinks business as usual isn’t a possibility given the virus’ impact, at least in the short term.

“I believe this whole COVID-19 situation is a show-stopper for both countries to cooperate in the movie business,” says Chao, whose All In Consulting firm helps western companies, including film distributors, operate in China. “There’s just too much bad blood now. We’re at a point of no return. Cooperation will end on many fronts, and Hollywood will be one of the casualties.”

The days when Chinese supporting players help save the day on screen, as in 2015’s “The Martian” with Matt Damon, may also fade to black, Chao says.

“No way will audiences forget if COVID-19 was unleashed from a Wuhan lab,” he says. “There’s blood on China’s hands now, and Americans will want payback.”

That new sentiment won’t go over well in China, making the acrimony mutual.

“Chinese investors have been adamant about having ‘Chinese’ scenes in Western movies to make them more sellable in China,” he says. 

Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, says up until now most moviegoers weren’t plugged in to the Hollywood-China relationship.

“Who besides movie critics and movie buffs pays attention to the opening credits … they see unfamiliar companies that were part of the production process, like H Brothers and Alibaba Pictures … that’s the funding,” Cheng says. “So far, that hasn’t really been noticeable to the average moviegoing public.”

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s 88,000 Twitter followers know more about Hollywood’s Chinese ties after he tweeted on April 20:

“Did you know Hollywood is in China’s pocket? China funds US movies & studios are desperate for access to the Chinese market. That’s why China is never the bad guy in movies. That’s why they took Taiwan’s flag off Maverick’s jacket in Top Gun 2. Time for this to end.”

Fellow conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas echoed those thoughts earlier this year when he railed against the “Top Gun” sequel’s Taiwan censorship.

"Top Gun is an American classic, and it's incredibly disappointing to see Hollywood elites appease the Chinese Communist Party," Cruz told 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."

China is suddenly on many more Americans’ radar, though, thanks to current events. A new Pew study shows an increasing number of Americans think unfavorably of China. Just 47% of Americans shared that view in 2018, but now two-thirds of respondents are wary of the nation.

The study also showed a bipartisan breadth to the trend, although Republicans’ anti-China sentiment topped Democrats’ by 10 points (72% to 62% unfavorable).

Most actors haven’t spoken up about the Hollywood-China bond up until now, and little has changed since the pandemic began. One political comic proved the exception, using his late-night perch to name check China’s role in the crisis.

The host of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” scorned the notion that we can’t call the virus the “Chinese” flu during his April 10 show and called out China for an ongoing history of practices conducive to the spread of viruses.

Cheng says another way the relationship stayed under cover is the pressure Chinese officials place on U.S.-based studios. Consider the stories that aren’t told, or the Chinese villains that never make it to the big screen.

The 2012 “Red Dawn” remake, for example, found the studio swapping out the script’s original enemy, China, for North Korean troops at the last minute. The studio took that makeover mission upon itself.

The movie adaptation of Max Brooks’ “World War Z” novel changed the source material so the zombie outbreak didn’t begin in China.

“Chinese prefer self-censorship,” Cheng says, another way random moviegoers miss the connection. “It’s very hard to be aware of self-censorship.”

And don’t anticipate any Hollywood stories pinning the pandemic blame on China.

“There’s a lot of sensitivity about Asians [in Hollywood] and how they’re portrayed,” he says, adding he doesn’t imagine any screenwriters penning ripped-from-the-headline stories about China’s possible malfeasance in the current crisis.

Still, Cheng envisions the two sides working together in some capacity following the pandemic’s end. That’s especially true given China’s intact political might.

Chao predicts a more immediate Hollywood-China fissure, but he doesn’t see it lasting long.

“After some time passes, China and Hollywood will come together,” Chao says. “Audiences will forget and go back to watching Hollywood, but we may not see the ‘Chinese scenes’ anymore.”

The industry, he adds, may start dividing its product into Western-friendly fare and China-ready stories.

Film producer Mark Joseph says that in the short term the fate of an ailing, Chinese-owned, U.S.-based theater chain may tell part of the story.

"A key point to watch will be what happens with AMC,” says Joseph, whose screen credits include “The Vessel” and “No Safe Spaces.” “Will it declare bankruptcy? Will the Chinese owners sell to an American company?”

Like Hollywood, though, this story will depend on the third act, meaning the precise role China played in the pandemic’s origins.

“This may be the most dangerous time in the U.S.-China relationship since before Nixon opened up China to the West,” Joseph says.


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