Sanctioning the Silver Screen

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?

2. As Hollywood’s access to China’s entertainment market expanded in the 1990s, everyone from Bill Clinton to Rupert Murdoch appeared confident that the country’s free-trade fervor would usher in a wave of democratic reform. Instead, the opposite has occurred under President Xi Jinping, the country’s most authoritarian ruler since Mao Zedong. Suddenly the concessions made by Western companies—from Disney to Apple to the National Basketball Association—read as tacit endorsements of Xi’s heavy hand. As Xi’s response to internal dissent and external criticism grows more aggressive by the day, will there be a breaking point for American studios and other Western companies doing business in his country? What would it take for Western companies to decouple from China after the billions spent—and earned—in the market?

3. China has always imposed restrictions to ensure that its audiences are fed more Chinese films than American ones. For years, protectionist measures countered the popularity of technologically sophisticated, American-made blockbusters like Avatar. (When ticket sales to Avatar vastly outperformed those of a Chinese biopic of Confucius, Chinese officials pulled screenings of the James Cameron film.) But China’s filmmaking prowess has improved considerably in the past five years, and Chinese audiences are (understandably) opting to watch Chinese stories with Chinese stars. This also means that compared with previous generations, younger Chinese audiences are watching more government-mandated, state-produced propaganda. A recent five-year plan issued by the Chinese Communist Party even called for films that “pass on red genes.” How will China’s young moviegoers, reared on years of state-produced propaganda, view their role as the country’s defenders when they grow up? And how will that inform how this next generation thinks China should act on the world stage?

4. While researching my book, Red Carpet, I traveled to Kenya, where I met families who have seen Chinese investment transform their communities with gleaming railways and ports—and with entertainment, mostly through state-subsidized satellite dishes carrying Chinese movies and TV shows. In Suswa, a village west of Nairobi, for instance, I met a young boy named Lucky who idolizes Dwayne Johnson—and the Chinese mythic character the Monkey King. One evening, Lucky and his family watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over dinner. In many such places, Chinese funding has replaced American aid, with satellite dishes helping to introduce Africans to the country that wants to be their new superpower benefactor. Will China succeed in winning hearts and minds as the United States tried to do in the 20th century?

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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.


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