In October, for the first time, China overtook North America as the world's largest film market. Pictured: Wang Jianlin (second from left), chairman of China's Wanda Group, attends the opening ceremony of the Wanda Qingdao Movie Metropolis, billed as "China's answer to Hollywood," in Qingdao on April 28, 2018. (Photo by Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)
In October, for the first time, China overtook North America as the world's largest film market. "Movie ticket sales in China for 2020 climbed to $1.988 billion on Sunday, surpassing North America's total of $1.937 billion, according to data from Artisan Gateway. The gap is expected to widen considerably by year's end," wrote The Hollywood Reporter on October 18. "Analysts have long predicted that the world's most populous country would one day top the global charts. But the results still represent a historic sea change".
"The day has finally arrived when China is the world's No.1 film market, surpassing the box office total of North America for 2020," said the authorized government portal site to China, published under the auspices of China's State Council Information Office, also known as the CCP's Foreign Propaganda Office, China.org.cn, in a self-congratulatory article, "China officially the world's biggest film market." The article, published on October 20, went on to mention the Chinese blockbuster, The Eight Hundred, a WWII movie about a group of Chinese soldiers under siege by the Japanese army, which was the highest grossing film in the world in 2020, as well as a handful of other Chinese-made films scheduled for release in the final quarter of 2020.
That is what the CCP has been working towards for at least a decade; a communiqué it released back in October 2011, spoke of "the urgency" of enhancing China's "soft power and the international influence of its own culture" and the wish to "build our country into a socialist cultural superpower".
The development is bad news for Hollywood, which for years has sought more access to China's enormous and lucrative market. China no longer relies on American blockbusters to fill its cinemas. Hollywood, however, needs the Chinese market to make its movies a financial success.
Since 2012, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has permitted a quota of just 34 foreign films -- before 2012, the numbers were even lower. Only films that meet the strict demands of the censors of the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP are even eligible for consideration to the enormous and lucrative Chinese market. The Central Propaganda Department is responsible for "supervising national film production, distribution, and screening, organizing the review of film content...the import and export of all films, media, publications and other content...including any cooperation with overseas organizations". The Central Propaganda Department works to "implement the party's propaganda guidelines".
"China's regulations and processes for approving foreign films reflect the Chinese Communist Party's position that art, including film, is a method of social control," according to a 2015 staff research paper for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, "Directed by Hollywood, Edited by China: How China's Censorship and Influence Affect Films Worldwide."
"As a result of these regulations, Hollywood filmmakers are required to cut out any scenes, dialogue, and themes that may be perceived as a slight to the Chinese government. With an eye toward distribution in China, American filmmakers increasingly edit films in anticipation of Chinese censors' many potential sensitivities".
"Hollywood's decision makers," noted an August report, Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing, published by American PEN "are increasingly envisioning the desires of the CCP censor when deciding what film projects to greenlight..."
"The Chinese Communist Party...holds major sway over whether a Hollywood movie will be profitable or not—and studio executives know it. The result is a system in which Beijing bureaucrats can demand changes to Hollywood movies—or expect Hollywood insiders to anticipate and make these changes, unprompted—without any significant hue or cry over such censorship."
"Beijing uses the substantial leverage it has over Hollywood to political effect", according to American PEN.
"Pushing Hollywood decision-makers to present a sanitized and positive image of China and its ruling party, and encouraging Hollywood films to promote messages that align with its political interests. Beijing's goal is not merely to prevent its own population from receiving messages that it deems hostile to its interests, although that is a major element of its censorship structure. Instead, the CCP wants to proactively influence Hollywood toward telling stories that flatter it and play to its political interests".
The censorship takes different forms. There are films that Hollywood no longer makes, because they would upset the CCP and instantly end all business with China. These might include films with political themes, such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, about China's invasion and occupation of Tibet, or Red Corner, about the human rights abuses in China's legal system. After those movies were made in 1997, China ordered a halt to business with the three Hollywood studios distributing the films, and apologies were distributed instead. "We made a stupid mistake. The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it," Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner told Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji about Kundun in 1998. "Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening."
It is not just the most sensitive political issues that are a no-go. Even fictional depictions of Chinese villains are removed from Hollywood films, before they are viewed by a single Chinese censor. Red Dawn, a remake of an older movie about a Soviet invasion of America, was digitally altered, changing the Chinese invading soldiers to North Korean ones, in order not to make the Chinese look bad. At the time, a producer and distributor of films in China, Dan Mintz, of DMG Entertainment, said that if the movie had been released without altering the Chinese invaders, "there would have been a real backlash. It's like being invited to a dinner party and insulting the host all night long. There's no way to look good.... The film itself was not a smart move."
Sometimes facts are also manipulated to fit a narrative that will please China. In the 2013 film, Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock played an American astronaut, Russian satellite debris damaged her space shuttle and Bullock only saved herself by getting to a Chinese space station. In reality, however, "the Russians have never sent a missile into one of their own satellites, as the movie depicts. But the Chinese did exactly that in 2007", wrote Michael Pillsbury in The Hundred Year Marathon.
"US Intelligence Officials were given no warning by the Chinese about their missile launch and in fact had been repeatedly assured that the Chinese government did not have an antisatellite program. The Chinese recklessly created by far the largest, most dangerous space debris field in history, but the Russians get the blame in the movie. The effect of these misrepresentations is that the Chinese look like heroes in Gravity... the writers went out of their way to distort the history of what has happened in space...."
One Hollywood producer said that suggestions for projects critical of China aroused the fear that "you or your company will actively be blacklisted, and they will interfere with your current or future project. So not only will you bear the brunt [of your decision], but also your company, and future companies that you work for. And that's absolutely in the back of our minds."
Another Hollywood producer said, "It is tough to figure out how to self-censor... You just don't know what is right and what is wrong." China deliberately makes the issue of what will pass the censors and what will not opaque. Such ambiguity ensures that Hollywood producers will prefer to self-censor more, rather than risk being rejected by the censors.
One way for Hollywood studios to bypass the quota of 34 foreign films per year is to co-produce films with Chinese production companies, thereby effectively giving the CCP creative control of the project. Such partnerships also, unsurprisingly, often appear to pander to China. In the highest-grossing U.S.-Chinese co-production, The Meg – dubbed by some "a mediocre Jaws update -- for example, Chinese moviegoers saw through the pandering. "In this movie, Westerners were either swallowed whole or ripped apart. But all of the Eastern characters all died a graceful death, with their faces unscathed..." one viewer commented. Another said: "This megalodon, which eats only foreigners and leaves a beach-full of Chinese people unscathed, is so thoughtful."
China has "amazing influence over Hollywood" according to Chris Fenton, a long-time Hollywood executive and author of Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Business.
"Even if a particular movie or TV series isn't expected to be monetized in China. Maybe they go and say: 'The budget for this film doesn't need the China market to create revenues for it. We are going to work on it, be free with the content and make it for America and other democratic countries.' Well in that case, China does find out about those movies and knows about them, even if that particular film does not get into China, China will penalize the studio or filmmakers involved with that particular movie, so that they can't get other movies in".
Most moviegoers are probably not aware that the CCP had a say over the movie they are watching: censored Hollywood movies do not come with a label stating that fact. Nor is CCP censorship a topic that Hollywood is willing to discuss openly. "One of the most striking things about PEN America's research was how reticent Hollywood professionals were to speak either specifically or publicly on this issue," Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing found.
"The reasons given for such reticence were several, but they all revolved around fear of a negative reaction—from Beijing, from their employer, or from Hollywood at large. As one Hollywood producer said to PEN America, 'All of us are fearful of being named in an article even generally discussing China in Hollywood.'"
It is incongruous, to put it kindly, for Hollywood to submit to censorship and pandering to the CCP for the sake of financial gain, while simultaneously selling itself as a progressive industry that claims to speak truth to power, and stand for social justice and the equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, skin color, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Such pretense does not sit well with the fact that Tibetans and Uighur Muslims, to mention just two groups, do not exist in the Hollywood universe anymore, only because the CCP said so. Surely, that is something that ought to be frequently questioned and loudly debated -- unless there is now a general consensus that the CCP should forever decide what movies are made in the US, Europe and beyond. If this is what happens without so much as a struggle in the large studios, what hope is there for smaller studios, independent filmmakers and others?
The problem is much larger than just the movie business.
"It's not just the Hollywood issue, it's not just the tech issue, it's not just the basketball or the sports issue, or various other industries...." Chris Fenton said.
"It's all across the board. To get products and services into that market, there are certain rules you have to play... so they allow you access to the consumers. But those processes... have gotten worse and worse... and more amplified over time....[It] has got to the point where we either need to stop it now and fight back, or we are just going to lose...."
Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.