Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, with Erich Schwartzel

Mar 18, 2022

Hollywood has long been part of the United States' soft power arsenal. Now, that soft power is threatened by the larger geostrategic competition between the U.S. and China--and China appears to be winning. In "Red Carpet," "Wall Street Journal" reporter Erich Schwartzel explores how and why Hollywood has become obsessed with China and what that means for the People's Republic as it exports its national agenda around the world. In this virtual event, Schwarzel joins "Doorstep" co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev for a discussion on how the film industry can offer an essential new perspective on the power struggle of this century.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to this edition of book talks with The Doorstep. I am your co-host, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council. Welcome all of you to our book talk tonight, or this afternoon in Erich's world. Thank you for joining us.

Erich Schwartzel has been the Hollywood reporter for The Wall Street Journal since 2013, and he has written this most excellent book with my usual notes and note-taking, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. I have to tell you, I have been talking about this book for so long, and not a single person I have talked to knows the impact that China has had on Hollywood.

We are going to have a lot to talk about today, but I want to start out with the war and what's going on in the world today.

You did talk about the special relationship between China and Russia. In your book you mention a promotional event that you went to, actually a movie, The Mystery of the Dragon Seal: Journey to China, which was a joint Russian-Chinese movie. Then you go on to talk about some children's programming that came from China, called Panda and Krash, a character from Russia. I want to hear more about this because I think we are looking at a lot of tanks in the news.

But here today we're talking about soft power and this special relationship between China and Russia that I think is going to become increasingly important as the days go by and as the war in Ukraine continues.

First of all, welcome again. Start us off by telling us about how you got to that movie premiere.

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Thank you so much. I am so thrilled to be here, and I am so thrilled that you are starting with The Mystery of the Dragon Seal because The Mystery of the Dragon Seal, which I will forgive most listeners for never having heard of, is a Russian-Chinese coproduction that came out a couple of years ago.

I came across it in one of the more surreal days of my experience reporting this book. I was in Shanghai, and I had this routine every morning where I would go to the hotel to get breakfast and I would read the Chinese State newspapers that were out for everyone to take for free. That morning I read a story about Vladimir Putin sending Xi Jinping ice cream for his birthday, and it was a very happy little feature about the two world leaders exchanging birthday gifts.

Later that night, as part of the Shanghai Film Festival, I went to the kickoff promotional event for The Mystery of the Dragon Seal, which was a Russian-Chinese co-production starring Jackie Chan and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It is a movie as surreal as it sounds—not a critical darling or a box office darling, but it was an example of how you really can see, especially in China, geopolitical alliances forming and dissolving by where they are working with other countries onscreen.

It is not uncommon to see a Belt and Road country come online with China and immediately have a co-production treaty signed between the two countries to start making movies or TV shows together. That was very much the case already in 2019 with Russia, not just in the case of a movie like The Mystery of the Dragon Seal, but as you said, there was this expo I went to where a lot of producers and TV stations would go and try to sell their programming to other channels around the world.

I saw an advertisement for this animated show called Panda and Krash, which as you said was about a Chinese character who was a panda and a Russian animated character, I think a rabbit, named Krash, and it was about the two animals and their unique friendship.

It was being sold very blatantly by China Central Television (CCTV) as an animated children's illustration of the special relationship between the two countries. What they wanted to do was take all the other countries that China had a healthy relationship with and find characters that they could hook up with Panda and essentially then broadcast those films and those TV shows in those countries as a way of essentially introducing the idea that these two countries are friendly with one another to younger children.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It's fascinating that they're getting into the minds of young children. That is definitely something they've learned from their relationship with Disney—and Disney features prominently in your book—as an example of success, as a cautionary tale looking at what we're talking about today, China's soft power and its censorship.

From my perspective as a free speech advocate this can have a detrimental impact on the United States. Maybe we can talk a little bit about Disney in China, riffing off of the animated characters Panda and Krash.

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It's so appropriate because when I was talking to the sales rep about Panda and Krash and he was explaining to me the metaphorical concept of these friendships forming, he said, "Imagine a panda and Mickey Mouse that could air in the United States." Of course, the issue with that idea is that Panda is all about friendly relations with the other country. I don't think "Panda and Mickey Mouse" is going to be happening any time soon.

But you're absolutely right. Disney's arc in China really explains so much about the development of China's overall economy and its attitude toward American soft power, because back in the early 1990s Disney executives were already scouting land for a theme park, and they were already engaging in conversations to try to get The Disney Channel onto Chinese airwaves.

They had two objectives: One was they wanted to diversify beyond the United States. They still were a pretty domestically heavy business at that time. They wanted to have more international business. They also knew, as most people did, that China eventually was going to come online and be a significant market and a place that they really needed to position themselves for growth.

So in the early 1990s they start scouting things. In 1997 they have more than a hiccup. They have this complete interference in their plans with the release of a Dalai Lama film called Kundun that Martin Scorsese had directed and Disney had released. The release of that film, that valorization of the Dalai Lama, gets Disney temporarily banned. The CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, has to go over and apologize to Chinese officials for making the film. If this feels like déjà vu because of what would happen in the 20 years since, it's because this was essentially the first example we have of a Western company facing economic repercussions and then having to apologize to see those repercussions go away.

Then, as China's box office starts to grow, Disney starts to do phenomenally well, because what do they make? They make family-friendly entertainment that the Chinese censors by and large are not going to take issue with.

One interesting thing, to your point about the influence of young minds, though, is I think the Disney executives knew that they had a problem, which was that they were dealing with a country that had not spent the 20th century getting to know Disney characters, and they knew that their playbook relied on children growing attached to Disney characters. No child is going to beg his or her parents to take them to a Disney theme park if they don't know Pluto, Mickey, and Snow White. That was one reason why they were so keen to get The Disney Channel onto Chinese airwaves. Communist regimes tend to be rather prickly about what goes onto their airwaves, and they said "no way."

So they actually came up with a different strategy, which was a string of English-language schools called Disney English, which would teach English language to young Chinese children using Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Elsa, and Nemo. It served two purposes: it was a good business because a lot of Chinese parents wanted their children to learn English, and it also introduced these characters using the lesson plans.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I saw the picture of Disney English. and I have to say it really freaked me out. In your description of what went on I think you went by one day and saw characters dressing up and talking about "A is for some Disney princess." You have some better examples in your book. Can you share some with us?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: You're right. I walked by because I had been told repeatedly by Disney executives—they never characterized it as a nonprofit, but they kind of pushed back on this idea that it was an advertising vehicle. I walked by one day. It was the same trip to Shanghai actually, a very surreal trip in retrospect

Toy Story 4 was coming out that week, and when I walked by I saw all of the teachers wearing T-shirts that said "Toy Story 4 in Theaters Now." It really did serve a couple of purposes.

To your point about soft power, I spoke to one teacher—I have to say a really sane guy, someone who knew this was as weird as it sounds—and he said that in his classes he would have his students give themselves English names, as you often do in foreign language classes, and in almost every class he would have one or two Elsas.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: So far we have really been looking at what American entertainment companies are doing in China to get into the Chinese market and, once they are there, the Chinese market and access to China becomes critical.

Can you talk a bit about the reverse impact, which is not what young Chinese are seeing from American entertainment but the extent to which that begins to influence what Americans are seeing?

You talked about the Kundun experience, which in many ways I think was the start of this process of: "Well, in order to be able to get into the Chinese market what Americans see in America, the films and TV programs that are going to be released have to clear the bar, not just 'Well, the Chinese censors will cut a few things out, but the uncut version will still be shown to American audiences.'"

Can you give us a sense about the extent to which American entertainment companies start to internalize mainland Chinese norms about acceptable topics? Is this an organic evolution? Is it in fits and starts? Is it trying here and there? At what point does it get to where we are today in the 2020s, when American entertainment companies that want to be able to have content viewed in China more or less are acceding to these red lines as to what are and are not acceptable topics?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Right, Nick. You really hit on the key distinction here with China. Studio executives when I would talk about this would often say: "We censor movies for all kinds of markets. We censor movies for airplanes."

There is a key distinction here, which is that China is operating on a scale that allows it to censor films not just before they are released in Chinese theaters but before they are released anywhere in the world, meaning that no Hollywood studio can make a movie that is critical of China or that presents it in a bad light without facing some kind of repercussions elsewhere.

This can come up in a number of different ways. Let's say Universal decides to make a movie about Tiananmen Square. Suddenly Universal might see its other movies not get released into the Chinese market.

I would take it even a step further—and this is one thing that Disney learned with Kundun—which is that it can also start to jeopardize much larger holdings. Universal makes a movie about Tiananmen Square, and suddenly that theme park they just built in Beijing is called into question and whatever other holdings the parent company Comcast might have to consider in China are called into question. This is not speculation. This is what has happened over the production of a movie, the critical point being that it was over the production of a movie that was never going to be shown in China at all.

There are very, very few historical examples of markets that have been able to do that. One is the Nazi Party in the 1930s, before the United States entered the war, operated very similarly.

I think it's a very savvy strategy because it ensures not just that your people see what you want them to see or they don't see what you don't want them to see, but also that the American film, which remains this global product, becomes something of a de facto commercial for you and avoids any criticism of you in other countries all around the world.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it's really blatant, and what we should talk about is this idea that all of a sudden you don't have Chinese villains—that really got to me—so let's make our villains from North Korea. There are countless examples that you give time and again for those who are film buffs and know many of these films, the idea that your villain cannot be Chinese anymore.

Taiwan is part of China and you can't say that it's not. Depending on what's going on in the world you are going to now know that you are going to not say these things. This idea is that before you even try to market the film you're censoring yourself. You're saying, "Well, no, we can't possibly talk about this issue."

I am wondering what happens now. If China and Russia ally, so now we can't have Russian villains either? At what point does China assume the interests of others like a Russia, or, to your point, as you write in the book, China is only looking out for itself? Do you have a sense?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It's a great question because basically as China's geopolitical alliances grow its priorities are going to grow when it comes to what kinds of narratives it sees onscreen.

You're absolutely right. I think if we saw more of a Russian-Chinese alliance, certainly any film that might portray Russia in a bad light wouldn't get into Chinese theaters. So there would be that kind of consideration as well.

That is what you have to watch because you're right, basically the Hollywood studio system has had to ingest the priorities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There are the "three Ts" that everyone knows to avoid—Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan—but then it gets murkier when it's more about the portrayal of the world order or the portrayal of China-affiliated countries.

I think you're absolutely right. I will break it down.

There is a micro example here, which is, you're right, there are no Chinese villains anymore. There hasn't been a movie put into production in more than a decade with a Chinese villain by a major studio.

But beyond that there is an example I have in the book of a James Bond movie where there is a scene they filmed in which James Bond has to break into an office building in Shanghai and he shoots and kills a security guard. That moment with this anonymous security guard had to be cut from the film because it made China look weak.

So we're dealing with a country here that is working in granular detail to scrub any negative portrayal of themselves. You can imagine, if this is a country that is on guard for how you present Taiwan or how you represent Tibet, certainly then there is going to be sensitivity around how you portray their friends and allies too.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We had a comment in the chat. They didn't realize that that was in Skyfallbut there are so many examples in the book, and I encourage our audience to ask questions and to read the book. There are so many examples of movies being scrubbed of flags. There was a movie—I'm not remembering the name of it—where they changed the flag to a North Korean flag. All of the editors were crying because how do you get the movement of the flag in the wind and how do you change it? But this is real stuff happening right now, today, that I don't think most American audiences realize.

I am going to have to read this question because this leans into this: "On the U.S. side what is the risk of audience outrage in the West, here, of Hollywood movies being too cozy with China?"

Do you think there's any risk at all of Western outrage?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It has been interesting because a lot of the examples in my book—let's use the Kundun example from 1997. When China was pressuring Disney over the release of this Dalai Lama film, there was concern in the creative community that Disney would just kill the film and they would say, "Martin Scorsese, pack your bags, we're not releasing this film." An open letter was written and signed by Spike Lee, Barbra Streisand, and a bunch of other folks, saying "FYI Disney, we're going to be really mad if you kill this film."

I have to imagine if there was a similar situation today the signatories to a letter like that would be far fewer because there are so many people, and it's so clear that crossing China can turn you radioactive from getting work in Hollywood because no one will want to associate. "Radioactive" is the word because everybody wants to keep a distance from anyone who has fallen out of favor with Chinese authorities.

That being said, I think that we have some more recent examples—the National Basketball Association example over the demonstrations in Hong Kong comes to mind most clearly—where there has been bipartisan outrage at what is seen as any kind of acquiescing to the Chinese authorities. It has remained in the political realm. It does not seem to have crossed over into the consumer realm.

Disney, since we're talking about them, is in the middle of this political firestorm here domestically with this "Don't say gay" bill in Florida and their response to that. What has been curious to me is anytime it seems now Disney opines on domestic policy, the very quick response, often on the right, is, "Yes, but how can you opine on American politics while you're still supporting and still funneling billions of dollars of investment into the CCP and China?" I see it percolating, but this has happened largely out of sight and out of mind.

I think one reason that putting all the examples together in the book has been powerful is because a lot of it was happening in a context where I don't think it was seen as aiding and abetting an enemy, but now in retrospect so much of the censorship and so much of the self-censorship that Hollywood has done over the past two decades looks like it was really helping give rise to China's power and that frankly Hollywood was completely hoodwinked.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I was just thinking as you were commenting earlier about some things in popular culture. Obviously the terrible Red Dawn remake was made even worse by the fact that the story doesn't make sense once they become North Koreans. Even when you watch it—which I don't recommend anyone do—you could even see that in postproduction they didn't scrub all of the Chinese elements out or they didn't get everything. It was clear that someone said, "Hey, this movie is not going to fly with Beijing"—not even that it doesn't get broadcast in Chinese theaters, but just simply, as you said, this could affect other equities.

The question about Disney—and I can't help but remember before The Simpsons as a property were acquired by Disney one episode where they deliberately crossed the three Ts—they had the crack about Mao, what a sweet little angel who killed 60 million people; Tibet used to be independent; and Tiananmen Square "nothing has ever happened here." You just can't imagine that they would do that now.

Is there a counter-reaction happening? I realize that we're speaking about Hollywood as a business, which may indicate not—but are there going to be new, independent studios emerging, that say: "We will forgo wanting to be shown in Chinese theaters in order to have a smaller market share to have complete artistic freedom—actors, actresses, producers, and directors who will say, 'We don't want these restrictions'"—or is this really a case of a billion eyeballs in China with your movie perhaps shown there are always going to outweigh 300 million eyeballs in the United States?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I think the hurdle there is that you might be able to find a smaller production company, an independent production company, that wants to explore these ideas. However, it's going to be very hard to cast a film like that because actors have seen—frankly it's another playbook out of Nazi Germany—how a years-old infraction can come back to haunt you.

The clearest example we have of this is Richard Gere, who in the 1990s started to become really the world's most famous supporter of Tibet outside of the Dalai Lama and interrupted the Oscar telecast in 1993 to talk about human rights abuses—bringing politics to the Oscar podium before it was cool, I guess—and really paid a price. His career hummed along and he was given major roles, and then as China's box office started to grow, in 2008 he became, as I said, radioactive to studios.

When I started out on the book, a big question I had was: Was his career killed by China? You would get different opinions.

Then I did talk to a casting executive at Warner Brothers, who told me it's not like a list went around, there was no memo, but think of the risk assessment: if you really need to get Richard Gere, let's have a conversation, but otherwise, if you can, get someone else, just get someone else.

I think when you break it down to that kind of individual level, where it's, "Well, if we can get Jeremy Irons on the line, let's just get Jeremy Irons on the line" because there won't be a question. We won't need to worry about this thing having any hiccups in China and we can move on."

So you can see how in some ways, frankly, if you put yourself in those shoes, it becomes a pretty easy call.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I see the motivation from the Hollywood side: "We want to make money." It's very money-driven—"Keep the politics out, let's make money."

But when you're looking at the actual numbers, if you look, you can trace the history. Under the original deals after World Trade Organization weren't that many movies allowed to be in China. Even after Xi and Joe Biden had their great rapprochement there weren't that many more movies either, maybe 20 a year.

I will let you explain to the audience the quota of movies allowed in China. It isn't really that many considering how much money is made, isn't that right?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It doesn't sound like a lot. It's supposed to be around 34 films a year. But there are five major studios and they all have somewhere between three and six movies that really make or break their year.

One of the phenomena that fed into China's leverage over Hollywood was that the movies started getting much bigger and more expensive. As everything at the multiplex became a comic book adaptation or a franchise film like a Fast & Furious movie, these are movies that really sometimes, frankly, to turn a profit have to make $1.2 or $1.3 billion at the global box office, and it's really hard to get to those numbers without China. It's really hard to make your numbers at the end of the year if those four or six movies don't work. It's 34 films a year, which is a fraction of the number of American films released, but it all but guarantees that if they try, the major studios can get their biggest, most important titles into the country. That was one thing.

The other was that there was just this broader corporatization that started happening so these studios that at one point may have answered to family offices now answer to much larger corporate entities. Feeding bigger and bigger returns to the corporate gods became a bigger priority.

There are two other things I will throw in the pot: (1) the complete collapse of the DVD market, which is hard to remember now but 15 years ago really kept the lights on at a lot of studios, and (2) the fact that moviegoing in the United States started to flatline around 2008 as well. There was growth in China, and it was a place where if you played your cards right you could get four or five movies in there, and suddenly you're looking at maybe $800–900 million in grosses you weren't counting on before.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That's the American side.

Let's go to the Chinese side, which I think is also an interesting story. They are looking, as you explained, to become part of the global community, to be recognized, to build Disney in China, to have those theaters. I think their goal and this creative ability to win an Oscar is what they want—it seemed that was the trajectory that they wanted to follow—but from the book it seems—and let me know what you think—Xi upended all of that.

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I think you're right. There has always been this push and pull between China's entertainment ambitions between the economic motivation and the political motivation.

The movies since Mao have served a very overt political purpose in China and have really been expected to serve as an arm of the State. That started to have a little bit of tension around the early 2000s into the 2010s because China's box office started growing at a clip and its film industry started to commercialize, when suddenly you had Chinese movies being made that weren't just medicinal propaganda features but they were movies like you'd see in any other developed market in the country. That was obviously fantastic for theater owners, fantastic for the malls that house these movie theaters, and fantastic for the actors and the apparatus of celebrity that could form around it.

Then, under Xi, as we saw him do with so much of China, he really brought the film industry underfoot. It is still quite commercial. It is still very possible to make a lot of money in Chinese movies, but there's much more of an expectation that they will, almost in a Maoist way, serve the State and that when called upon actors will be expected to do their part, whether that's by starring in a Chinese propaganda film or endorsing some State initiative.

We saw this most prominently with the crackdown that came after the back tax scandal, when there was a massive crackdown most famously with a major Chinese star named Fan Bingbing, where the CCP went in and essentially audited its entire entertainment industry and got all these back taxes paid back to it. That really seems to have given the Party license to play a bigger and bigger role.

It is no coincidence that some of the production companies that were busted in that tax scandal very soon after announced plans to make some movies about the Belt and Road Initiative or make some movies in response to some kind of national holiday.

There has always been a currency system in Chinese entertainment that functioned as a little bit of a "one for you, one for me" model where, Tatiana, if you want to go make a commercial film to make a bunch of money, that's great, but you might be expected to next year make a movie about the founding of the People's Liberation Army or the CCP or Mao's birthday, something like that. It just feels like that with that currency system the Chinese authorities now have more of a say in how you build and spend that political capital.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I ask not just about the political capital but the intellectual and creative capital and the role that Hollywood has played in transferring that, and whether or not we will reach a point where Hollywood is no longer necessarily in the driver's seat for some of these projects.

I think we have seen in a variety of film markets around the world that at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s Hollywood stood head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of production values, special effects, storylines, and the glitz and the glamor. You could always tell that film industries from other countries were generally second or third best and only if they could work with the Americans they might get that jump.

Is there a point at which the Chinese film industry will have achieved sort of a critical mass and will have such attractive power—you have already mentioned, for example, Schwarzenegger going over to be a part of the Dragon Seal project—is there a point at which the Chinese film industry will have learned all of these lessons from Hollywood, have improved their production values, and then make it attractive for American and Western talent to say, "Look, I'm going over to work in China because that's where it's at now." Is there a sense that that may happen, or do you think what Xi and others have done has maybe put the limits on that? Is there the sense that American film stars and production talent may decide to accept a Chinese deal and integrate with their film industry?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It's happening to some extent. With apologies to Governor Schwarzenegger it's still something of a C-list crowd that's heading over for work there.

But you're right, Chinese filmmakers and Chinese producers really targeted this in a specific way because, as we see with so many Western sectors, there has been a deliberate technology transfer when it comes to the entertainment industry. You might ask, "Well, technology transfer with airplane blueprints is pretty easy to understand, but how exactly do you transfer the technology of storytelling?"

It has happened in several different ways, one of which is what you're describing, Nick, where there will be the deliberate recruiting of entertainment workers from the United States to China. That might mean a stunt choreographer, a lighting designer, a hair and makeup person, someone who is known as what they call "below the line workers" might go and work on a Chinese crew. That has happened for the past probably decade or so.

Then there is a step up from that, which is hiring writers and directors to go over and help punch up scripts and introduce certain kinds of Western storytelling devices to Chinese scripts.

I have a story about a guy by the name of Bruce Feirstein—this guy is coming up a lot—who wrote two James Bond movies. He was then hired to go over and produce a romantic comedy in China. He was on set one day and was with the star, this hunky, 30-year-old Chinese guy, and the premise of the movie was that this guy's wife had left on a work trip. There is a scene where the husband whose wife is away is having just a mild flirtation with the maid. The actor got in a huff, and he said, "A man of my stature would never flirt with a maid."

The producer took him aside and said, "Do you know who that maid is?"

The actor said, "No."

He said: "That maid is every woman in the audience who wants to be with you. This is not about reality. It's about hope."

He explained that whenever it comes to storytelling there has to be that kind of audience surrogacy, the kind of thing that certainly some Chinese filmmakers have grown to understand but that Hollywood really mastered over a hundred years. That kind of technology transfer is certainly happening.

I think the relations and the global standing of China has no doubt made it harder to do. I imagine that decision by Schwarzenegger to go over and make a Chinese-Russian coproduction today would be very different.

I think what's interesting, though, is it seems like China, especially for the past five years or so, has grown to understand that it's a very big world out there and that even if you don't engage the West, whether on a behind-the-scenes or on the big screen matter, there are other markets where you still could.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just to finish that up, is there a sense that China may want to make movies not even for largely domestic audiences but, as you said, for the rest of the global market, which may appreciate having a choice of "We just don't have to take the latest Hollywood offering if we think that there is a good Chinese-made alternative," even if it doesn't have a primarily Chinese cast to it? Do you think that could be a direction they would move in?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It's happening in a way that I think most Americans would be shocked to learn of. It is mostly happening through the Belt and Road Initiative and the cultural complement that they are trying to form.

Also, to your point, Nick, think about living in some of these countries where affiliation with the United States is shakier than ever and China has appeared, seemingly overnight, building train stations and ports and giving out COVID-19 vaccines and all sorts of things. It might make sense that entertainment would follow, or that it would at least function as a bit of an introduction to the country that has appeared in your backyard.

I saw this most prominently on a reporting trip to Kenya. Obviously, there has been a ton of Belt and Road Initiative investment there, but there is also a massive satellite dish initiative called the [Access to Satellite TV for 10,000 African Villages] that a Beijing-based company is undergoing, where they are handing out low-cost satellite dishes to 10,000 African villages across the continent. They carry all sorts of global entertainment, but they also carry a lot of Chinese entertainment, a lot of Chinese news, reality shows, and soap operas. They are subsidizing the entertainment in a way because these satellite dishes cost far less than the Kenyan alternative, so that's helping them get their foot in the door.

But to your point, I think the other thing they have going for them is that a lot of these countries do not want to import Western entertainment for all sorts of reasons.

I met with the film minister of Kenya on this trip, and he is an incredibly socially conservative politician. He makes Ted Cruz look like a harlot, just absolutely the most socially conservative politician you can imagine. He said to me very clearly, "I love importing Chinese entertainment because it has already been censored for me and I don't need to worry about the Western values seeping into my culture, and"—to Tatiana's point—"infecting my children's brains." His big thing was homosexuality. He said, "I don't want any of these homosexual themes to come into my country if I can help it."

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: We saw what China has done with the rerelease of Friends, scrubbing out a lot of what they consider objectionable content this time around.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it's important to know—and you note in your book—that they are aiming for a PG-13 rating: no sex, no curse words, and no extreme violence. In some of these movies that we are even talking about some scenes are completely cut out for being too violent, which is so interesting. I know a lot of artists—I teach at a school with a big creative department—and they may be idealistic, but if I told them to cut something for a censor in China, I think they would be up in arms.

But, I guess, if you get to a certain point where you want to roll in the money, you say, "Okay, I guess it doesn't matter." That's the sense I get from completing the book. There is a sense that The market is too big and I'm going to do whatever it takes even if I compromise my ethics.

Since we are the Carnegie Council for Ethics and we look at ethical responses, has there been a discussion of ethics here in Hollywood in the film industry and the ethical compromises that are being made?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: To your point about directors, there are only really a handful—I can think of maybe three to five—of directors powerful enough to push back on the "China cut" because it's ultimately the studio's say what they do with it.

I have heard varying responses. I have heard some directors say, "Look, I'd rather my movie be shown in an altered format than not shown at all." I have heard others say, "Just don't tell me what you're doing to it" and sort of close their eyes and look the other way. I have heard of examples—Christopher Nolan is one example—of directors powerful enough to say, "No, I'm not changing a frame, and if that means the movie is not going to get into China, then so be it."

But I think in terms of the ethical conversation I would notice a distinct difference between interviews I was doing with current studio executives and those had been out of their job for a time.

I think the key distinction was it seemed like those in the job tend to have quite a few responses to any pushback on why they might be agreeing to this kind of censorship, and it goes beyond just the money, as I said. It usually falls along the lines of, "It's a market reality, and if this is what we need to access this market and to access these fans that's what we'll do."

I think if you're talking to someone who might be a little less charitable, they might say, "Look, I have a fiduciary duty to shareholders to make as much money as possible, and this is what I have to work with."

Then there often is almost like a deprogramming that can sometimes take place too, where after the fact they will look at me and say, "Man, I really feel like we got played, like we just rushed in with blinders on and agreed to everything."

I think right now, especially with this past month in Ukraine and these questions about the future of the West and Western values, there is a real sense of anxiety among studio executives about a legacy issue here: Will all of this censorship and acquiescing be remembered as being on the wrong side of history when it comes to standing up for Western values and standing up for free expression?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: We have had some comments coming through about precisely that, the idea that in an earlier age Hollywood studio executives saw themselves as shapers of the American dream. They were the ones projecting American values and precisely that question of how their legacy will be maintained.

Connected to that we have talked a lot about China's red lines—no Taiwan, no Tibet, no Tiananmen, Chinese cannot appear to be weak, and so on. Has there been any indication that China has ever tried to encourage American studios in developing projects to push or support Chinese communist perspectives?

For example, a number of years back I watched the Chinese version of Top Gun that was supposed to be the Chinese equivalent, and Maverick is not a maverick because he's a guy who plays by the book, he is not a guy who bucks the team, he supports the team and carries out the discipline of the Party.

Is there any sense that those kinds of themes of "Hey, autocratic rule, democracy is messy, what a harmonious society," that there has ever been an attempt by the Chinese to encourage American filmmakers to introduce those themes into movies, or is that a bridge too far for China? They can censor, but they can't—

Why I'm asking that is I am struck by what you describe as something really that we saw with the Legion of Decency in the 1930s to the 1950s, when they could impose cuts, they could say you will not do certain things, but also they could push certain story lines. In the 1950s there was a wave of particularly pro-Catholic movies, priests are good guys, nuns are selfless people—On the Waterfront and Boys Town and Going My Way. There was even an effort to say, "Not only do we want you not to show sex, show violence, show immorality, and show divorced people, but we even want you to go ahead and do some positive"—

Is there an equivalent there, or has China mainly just been able to keep certain things off the screen but they have not been able to say, "Hey, do a film about a harmonious win-win society led by a benevolent Party leadership?"

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It definitely occurs. I think it usually occurs in a way a little bit different than you are speculating and it usually happens because of some kind of financial stake in the film.

One example from a couple of years ago is there was a movie released about the Battle of Midway that a Chinese firm co-financed. Now, why might they be interested in a movie about Midway? Well, think about China's relationship with Japan and that will tell you everything you need to know.

There is also a scene that takes place in China that really presents to be a generous, very one-sided view of China and the Japanese soldiers of World War II. That was an American-made film. I don't think they necessarily came to Hollywood and said, "Hey, a Battle of Midway script would be fantastic," but by attaching themselves and giving a financial stake they have some say over it.

The strongest example that comes to mind, though, was in 2014 with the fourth film in the Transformers franchise, which was a movie that really became a kind of fascinating case study of how many ways you can try to appeal to the Chinese market. Paramount very strategically said: "This movie is going to make more money in China than it will in the United States. Let's do everything we can to just wring that market for everything its worth."

In order to get certain guarantees they had to share the script with the Chinese authorities. The authorities came back and said: "The script looks great. There is one change we want to make. At the end of the film when the giant robots are destroying Hong Kong we want Beijing to come to the rescue before the Americans do."

When you watch the film—I'm not sure if I would say I recommend you do—there is a very random moment in this final climactic battle when the Hong Kong skyscrapers are being destroyed where for some reason we cut to Beijing and are introduced to the defense minister, who says: "Beijing will protect Hong Kong at all costs. Fighter jets are on the way."

Now this is 2014. To watch that scene and to think about that request and that script change five years later, when Beijing's designs on Hong Kong became clearer and clearer, you start to see how these American movies became kind of unwitting accomplices in much larger priorities and much larger goals.

TATIANA SERAFIN: One of the sentences you have in the book is: "It's because American studios think in stock market quarters and China thinks in centuries." I think the idea that they are trying to put together films and create an industry of their own is super-important.

Nick, you talked about technology transfer, and you have so many great examples in the book of how they developed their own industry, like the Bollywood of China. It's there. They have it.

We have a couple of questions in the chat, and I do want to get to some of these questions. Please put your questions in the chat and we will get to them and to Erich's answers. Maybe, Erich, if you don't get a chance to answer all the questions today, you can tweet back some answers.

In terms of their own industry and going after creating their own industry, and forgetting this idea of winning their Oscar—they had their great Oscar moment last year with Nomadland, but they decided not to own it because the director spoke out against China.

But it seems to me that in general China has given up on the West and is saying, "Okay, we have our industry, we have learned everything we can from you, we can make our own money, and now we're going to take our industry to the Kenyas of the world, to our Silk Road partners, and we're going to own our own space and our own ideology and not worry about the United States."

Do you feel that's where we're at and that we are just going to not be a part of their industry?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: That is where we are right now, where it seems like the exporting is still the last leg that is a big question mark.

But you're absolutely right that in the Chinese market, which is now number one in the world—we knew it would be number one in the world eventually, but then COVID-19 really accelerated that because Chinese theaters reopened so much faster than American theaters, and a culture of moviegoing has returned to China faster than it has to the United States—it is not uncommon for a Chinese-made movie to make $600 or $700 million in China alone, again the key difference being that is about 99 percent of its gross. Chinese movies really aren't making much money in other parts of the world.

But in terms of a domestic market China's is very robust. We have seen in the past year Chinese authorities have been putting up walls and blocking the release of more and more American films.

I think there are a number of reasons for that. One is probably relations between the two countries. Another is that they want to make sure that they can preserve as much of that box office for their own films as possible. Another is that as Chinese films have gotten better—this shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it did—Chinese audiences have grown to prefer them.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Right. And their narratives, to get to the narrative question, because that was how we started off, this idea of soft power.

There is a point in your Kenya chapter where you ask one of your interviewees, "What is your takeaway from this story?" It was something like, "Well, the Chinese are good and the Americans are bad."

Do you see that that narrative is really playing out more? It seems from your reporting that they are doing more and more of that kind of storytelling where America is now the villain.

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Right. This is the ultimate irony, and I think maybe one of the ultimate frustrations for a lot of folks working in this space, that Hollywood has spent the past two decades scrubbing Chinese villains from its movies and China has just cast America as the bad guy over and over again.

And the movies are not subtle. The most famous example that I am sure many of you have heard of is Wolf Warrior 2, the film that coined the term "wolf warrior diplomacy." Think of it as China's version of Rambo. Well, the bad guy is an American mercenary named Big Daddy, and when the villagers in Africa try to call the American embassy for help they get the answering machine. As I said, it's not subtle.

What was particularly fascinating, to our earlier point about really politicizing the film industry, is that in 2018 and 2019 when tension between Trump and Xi and the trade war really ratcheted up, China put into production a ton of movies, big blockbusters, about the Korean War. Why the Korean War? Well, think about who looks bad in those narratives. The highest-grossing films in any market last year and this year so far were both Chinese propaganda films about Chinese victories in the Korean War. So you're right.

I had this moment. I befriended a guy in his 30s when I was doing the book. I talked to him recently after he went home to his hometown for Chinese New Year, and he was telling me how when he was a kid growing up he watched CCTV, but CCTV would also carry some Western entertainment, and when he went home to visit a lot of the younger children in the neighborhood were watching cartoons and movies about Chinese soldiers killing American soldiers.

He asked himself: "What will their attitude toward America, toward the West, and about China be when they are my age? What ideas will they have about China's place on the world stage because of the entertainment that they have ingested?"

I think people who have grown up in America know more than anyone perhaps just how important and how powerful those images can be.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely, and those images start coming at us from a very young age, including the narrative of the history.

We had a question about Mulan that I want to maybe end with, a question about how much Hollywood needs China, which is the discussion today, reminding everybody we're talking to Erich Schwartzel about Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. It's a great book.

Maybe a final comment on Mulan and Hollywood and what Hollywood is going to keep doing: What is your prediction over the next five years, more collaboration, less collaboration, more Mulans of the world?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: China's leverage isn't going anywhere I don't think, but I think we will see less collaboration, and Mulan is one reason why.

I know for certain that whenever Disney executives got together and said, "Let's make a new Mulan," they were thinking: Oh, my God. What a no-brainer. This is going to be insanely successful in China.

What they failed to see—and this is great because it sums up so much of what we have been talking about—is that by the time the new Mulan was released in China Chinese audiences had been ingesting Chinese-made movies about Chinese narratives. There was no need to go see an American version of a Chinese myth. Would we expect American audiences to go see a Chinese-made version of Davy Crockett? There was just a complete miss there.

The other thing that I think happened there was not only was there the controversy over Disney filming in Xinjiang province and the political blowback that inspired and then the burying of the film that it forced Chinese authorities to do when it was released, but there was also quite a bit of criticism on a grassroots level over the film having historical inaccuracies—the design of the homes reflected a different dynasty than the one that Mulan was living through.

I think it taught Hollywood that there are so many tripwires when it comes to portraying China and working with Chinese-born people that there will be less collaboration because I think it has proven so unpredictable what might land a Hollywood studio in hot water on a grassroots level in China. I imagine a lot of executives are going to be working to avoid that while still trying to do whatever they can to preserve access to their theaters.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I can't wait to see how this all plays out.

Thank you all for joining us today. Remember it's Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel. It's a great book.

We hope to see you for your next one.

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yes, the sequel. We'll franchise this.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much.


NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you very much.

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