Works in Progress - Spring 2022

Sanctioning the Silver Screen

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By Erich Schwartzel | March 1, 2022
Richard Ellis/Alamy
Richard Ellis/Alamy

Erich Schwartzel reports on the film industry for The Wall Street Journal and is the author of Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. His work for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won the 2011 Scripps Howard Award for Environmental Reporting. We asked him to pose four questions on the future of two rival film industries—those of the United States and China.

1. “We are going to sell America to the world with American motion pictures,” Will Hays, the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, pledged in 1923. And in fact, movies quickly became soft power on celluloid. During World War II, the U.S. government conscripted Frank Capra and other directors to helm rah-rah portraits of American heroism; in the 1980s, Red Dawn, Rambo III, and other similar movies cast the Soviet Union as the go-to villain. Yet as China emerges as the United States’ primary antagonist of the 21st century, it is also now home to the number-one box office in the world—a market too big to ignore and too lucrative to anger. China’s economic leverage has ensured that no unflattering portrayal of the country appears in an American movie. If American movies must placate China in order to profit in the global economy, can they continue to be an effective soft-power tool?

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