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How China’s relationship to Hollywood has shaped the movies

Big Hollywood movies are being made with Chinese audiences in mind.

Shanghai Disneyland Reopens
Fireworks at the Enchanted Storybook Castle at Shanghai Disney.
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Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The big Hollywood movies you’ve seen on the big screen (or, perhaps, on your small screen) have been changing, but maybe not in the ways you expect. Sure, streaming, shifting tastes, and the massive superhero franchise takeover in Hollywood have all contributed. But one surprising factor may have flown under the radar: the huge — and hugely profitable — Chinese audience.

Until 1994, most movies in Chinese theaters were state-sponsored tales about Chinese history and figures, usually extolling the glories of the Communist Party. Then, the government began allowing a limited number of Hollywood films into the country, starting with The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. For Hollywood, the Chinese audience was considered an economic afterthought.

Change was slow to come, with movies like Titanic in 1999 bringing in a healthy $50 million. But everything changed in early 2010, when Avatar was released in the country and made a whopping $200 million. Now Hollywood has a vested interest in getting past the party’s censors and capturing the No. 1 market in the world.

Yet as Erich Schwartzel writes in his new book Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Battle for Global Supremacy, that’s not the end of the story. His book chronicles a fascinating series of twists and turns, showing how the Chinese government learned from Hollywood and now turns to a new phase in their own entertainment landscape, with an eye toward displacing Hollywood movies as the world’s entertainment. And that, of course, would mean displacing, at least in part, global perceptions of both China and the US.

I spoke with Schwartzel for the Vox Conversations podcast in a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of the sometimes byzantine and startling ways that Hollywood’s relationship with China has manifested in the films that even Americans have seen for the past 15 years. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for clarity.

So after Avatar, China becomes the No. 1 market in the world, but only if you can get your movie into the country, right? It’s not like every Hollywood movie immediately gets to play in a Chinese movie theater.

Yeah, this is the key distinction. Every movie that wants to show in China has to be approved for release by the Chinese Communist Party. So when a studio has locked a film that it wants to play in China, it has to send a copy of that movie to the ministry of propaganda, where it screens for a group of folks. I tried to really figure out like, who are these people? It turns out that they’re often party bureaucrats who kind of shuffle through; they even put retired film studies professors in the room to try and watch for deeper subtextual meanings of films.

They watch the movie, and a couple of things can happen. They can say, this is approved for release with no changes. Or, this will be approved for release if you cut these three things.

Or, it’s not being approved at all, and we’re not going to tell you why. But you can imagine the reasons why. Obviously, there are political topics that are complete nonstarters for this group. No studio is going to get in a movie about the Dalai Lama, or that has any Tibetan characters, or any reference to Chinese history that the authorities would rather their people not see.

But there are other less obvious concerns that the party has had over time. One is movies involving time travel, because a world where there’s time travel means there’s also a history that might be different than the one the party puts forward. There’s also been a lot of scrutiny and, frankly, the rejection of any homosexual elements, or stories involving same-sex couples or homosexual characters in movies.

So, the Chinese market was really only receptive to a certain kind of American movie. Every studio could probably count on getting four or five movies in a year, and the movies that they wanted to get in were the biggest: the Marvel movies, the Transformers movies, the Jurassic Worlds. These are the kind of movies that studios typically earmark for Chinese release because they’re big, and they make a lot of money. Often they don’t have any of that political or ideological content.

Sometimes studios are caught by surprise, right? You write in the book about the party rejecting the 2004 comedy In Good Company, with Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace, and the studio being surprised.

This was an example that came up when I was interviewing a former head of the MPAA [the lobbying group for the six major Hollywood studios]. He was running the MPAA in the early days of the China-Hollywood relationship. He said to a counterpart in China, “Why wouldn’t you let this movie in?” As you said, it’s an innocuous PG-13 rom-com.

They said, “Well, the story is of this young guy getting a job and unseating the man in charge. That’s a theme that we cannot abide here, because it’s not respecting your elders and instead challenging authority. Any storyline that continues that theme could prove to be a fissure in the stability that we are trying to maintain here at all times.”

That’s so fascinating. Think about it: that’s the core narrative foundation of so much of American cinema, right? Cinema has trained us over time to reflexively cheer for the underdog, to root for the Ferris Buellers of the world. That’s who we turn to. And in China, the authorities have every reason to keep that kind of theme or character out.

What is Disney’s role in all of this, as the biggest entertainment company in the world?

If we were having this conversation two or three years ago, we would say that Disney without question has been the most successful studio in China. They have a massive theme park. Avengers: Endgame is still the highest-grossing American release in China. Obviously, a number of characters are as well-known in China these days as they are here in the US.

But I think increasingly that success is looking more and more like a liability. Going back 20 or 30 years, Disney has seen China as a growth market, a place where they could really establish a foothold. But they were off the entire country’s radar for decades while they were seeding America with their mythology.

The best example of that blind spot is probably Star Wars. When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, one of the core pillars of their plan for monetizing that investment was bringing Star Wars to China.

But you remember when The Force Awakens came out in 2015? So much of that movie’s success traded on nostalgia for the original trilogy and the audience’s deep awareness of it. Disney discovered that when they released the movie in China, audiences were more confused than anything.

At one point there’s a scene where Han Solo and Chewbacca step onto the Millennium Falcon, and Han Solo says, “Chewy, we’re home!” In China, moviegoers thought that meant he lived on the ship. That [divide] only grew more and more pronounced as the movies continued to come out, and that investment in the characters and the storylines that had been a boon to American audiences actually started to feel like homework to Chinese audiences. Star Wars never really quite caught on.

The other fascinating part about Disney’s strategy involves the string of English language schools that they opened in the country.

When they were building their theme park in Shanghai, they knew that a child won’t beg their parents to go to a theme park unless they love the characters that they’ll see there. Disney said, “Well, okay, we don’t have decades of movies to do this with.” And they were not allowed [by the Chinese government] to get a Disney Channel onto Chinese airwaves.

So what they decided to do was to launch a string of schools called Disney English, which would essentially teach young Chinese children English, but using Disney characters: Mickey wants an apple, or Luke Skywalker is 30 years old. I walked by one of these schools when I was there, and I remember that Toy Story 4 was coming out that week; all of the teachers were wearing Toy Story 4 T-shirts. So it doubled as a really effective marketing tool as well. Not only did these kids learn the English that their parents wanted them to speak, but they also left with an affection for these Disney characters that they had been introduced to.

So all of these changes in movies in China have had a really huge effect on moviegoers in America, too. For my job, I watch a lot of movies, most of which are forgettable. But over the past five years or so, particularly in big action blockbusters, I started to notice a trend, or at least I thought maybe I was noticing a trend.

There would be a Chinese actor cast in the movie who would make some kind of a joke in Mandarin. It wouldn’t be usually translated or subtitled in any way, which signaled it wasn’t a joke for me. That’s fine; it makes sense to do that. But what I could tell was that the joke was at the expense of one of the white characters, which is unusual in a Hollywood film. The most recent one I remember is that in Moonfall, which came out last winter, one of the white characters has a Chinese character tattooed onto his body. The Chinese character chuckles about it to the audience, but it’s never translated, so you only get the joke if you can read the character.

It’s mostly notable because Hollywood rarely does that sort of thing; they usually over-explain jokes, especially cultural ones. So I think what I’m observing is a shift that’s been happening over the past few decades in films, more broadly.

So can we switch from talking about a 45-year-old Chinese moviegoer to his American counterpart, maybe a white guy in the Midwest around the same age? How have the changes in the Chinese market affected what he sees?

I love the example of Moonfall. It’s no coincidence. The film was significantly financed by Chinese money, which would explain that joke and some of the casting decisions.

But you’re absolutely right. When the studios started to realize how much money was to be made in the Chinese market, not only did they avoid storylines that would be politically problematic, but they also thought to themselves, “How can we maximize revenue or our interests there?”

One thing that they started doing was casting Chinese actors and actresses in these films. It started around 2012 or 2013 — the X-Men movies, the Transformers movies. Often, they were cast in very bit parts or cameo roles, Chinese actors and actresses who were hugely famous in their home country but unknown in America. Then they’d use those bit parts to market the film in China.

It really is an example of Hollywood underestimating the Chinese audience. As soon as Chinese moviegoers went to see these movies, and they realized that this was a bait and switch, they got very angry at the pandering. They started calling the women in these bit roles “flower vases,” and they said that any movie that leaned too hard into trying to appeal to the Chinese market was “getting soy sauced.”

Nonetheless, Hollywood still does it, as evidenced by your observations.

But the other ways you’d see this in American moviegoing was that it fueled the top-heavy nature of the studio slate. It allowed studios to justify investing more and more into their tentpole franchises, because those were the global releases.

The threat of censorship has also exerted pressure, kind of, on plot points and other elements of the moviemaking process too, right? It’s easier to change a film for the censors before you make the film, even if you haven’t talked to the censors yet.

Right. I think it’s easy to see how it quickly went from a culture of censorship to self-censorship. When studios started getting their movies into China, even back in the ’90s, not only did they see what movies of their own got in and were rejected, but what other movies got in or were rejected.

So very quickly you had this data pool that you could look at and say, “Well, this one didn’t get in,” or “This one had to cut that scene.” So at the script level we can start to change these films so we don’t run into those problems.

In 2009, MGM wanted to remake Red Dawn, a classic of the VHS era, about a group of teenage vigilantes who want to defend their hometown against Soviet invaders. MGM said, “Well, you know, we can’t make Russia the invader” — that sounds ironic today, but it was 2009. “But we could make China the invader,” they said, because that’s the country that could plausibly mount a land invasion in the US. So they film the movie. They have a Hemsworth brother in it.

Then Chinese authorities hear of this movie being released. Now, it’s important to point out that no one at MGM thought this movie would be released in China at all. China was not necessarily an economic consideration in this case. But nonetheless, Chinese authorities start communicating through Chinese state media that this movie is going to be a problem for them.

That’s bad for MGM, because even if Red Dawn isn’t meant to be shown in Chinese theaters, MGM also releases the James Bond movies, and it releases a bunch of other films that do rely on the Chinese market. And Chinese authorities have demonstrated in the past that if they want to punish a studio for making a certain film, they might just do it wherever they can.

So MGM has a decision to make; ultimately, they decide to send the finished film to a special effects company. They had to take every reference to China — every Chinese flag, every line of dialogue referencing China, every Chinese military uniform — and change it to North Korea. It cost the studio a million dollars, and took hours and hours of overtime to get it done.

But it was still ultimately worth it, if it meant not releasing a movie that was going to anger Chinese authorities. What’s so fascinating is that the movie ultimately came out; people knew the editing change happened. It was reported on. But it was received kind of nonchalantly: Like, I guess that’s just what you have to do to work with China today.

I think it’s a sign of how much has changed in relations between the two countries, because I think if that happened today, there might even be congressional hearings on it. To say nothing of the problematic nature of taking actors who were playing Chinese characters and casting them instead as North Korean through the change of subtitles.

That brings us to the very recent past, where some movies that were hailed in the West for Asian representation were greeted with a yawn by Chinese audiences, and Disney’s been having increased difficulty getting its movies into China, including the MCU. No Marvel movie has been released in China since Avengers: Endgame, right?

The MCU challenges have really been quite fascinating to watch because it’s hard to know the reasons behind any film being rejected for release in China. There’s certainly been a pattern when it comes to the MCU. Starting with Black Widow, their films haven’t been allowed in.

Interestingly, the American call for better representation in movies seems to have introduced landmines for studios that want to access the Chinese market. I’ll give you an example. The Eternals was director Chloe Zhao’s first movie after winning the Oscar for Nomadland. [Zhao was born and raised in Beijing.] Her hiring was obviously, at least in part, due to the call to bring new voices into those kinds of films. But during the Oscar campaign, she became persona non grata in China after years-old comments she had made that were critical of the country resurfaced.

It’s hard to know if that’s exactly the reason why The Eternals didn’t play in Chinese theaters, but it’s a pretty good guess. Something similar happened with Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, though there’s no doubt that movie was greenlit at Marvel because of its inherent appeal in China. Then, of course, ironically, it doesn’t play in China at all, perhaps because its lead actor Simu Liu also made comments years earlier that were critical of China.

So you see how there’s a troubling world where studios going forward say actually, you know what, let’s avoid any and all Chinese casting decisions or Chinese stories, because it really just sets up too many trip wires. It’s not like some run-of-the-mill superhero movie that we can just sort of plug anyone into.

So are we seeing a story here that’s bigger than just the movies?

The movies have become a proxy for the broader rivalry forming between the US and China. I think it ultimately becomes a story of values, and what values are shipped around the world. For a hundred years, Hollywood’s movies have been considered the default global entertainment; someone once said that the movies helped turn America into “an empire by invitation,” a gravitational pull toward the country and its way of life. I think China, which sees its turn at dominating a century, wants to copy that playbook.

So there will be major implications beyond the cinema, when it comes to which heroes are elevated, what stories are told, what stories aren’t told, and ultimately how moviegoers around the world see themselves and see the people in charge. For the book, I traveled to Kenya, where China is making inroads economically and through satellite entertainment.

One of the more startling interactions I had was with a young gay man in Kenya, who lives in a country where the entertainment minister is aligning himself with China and Chinese censorship. He told me over and over again of the workarounds he’s had to find to watch things like Call Me By Your Name, or to access movies that you and I could find with a couple of Google searches. The precautions he has to take at work in the event that people find out he’s gay. What he has to navigate in terms of what his family knows about his life. You see how the images on screen and the narratives elevated by the movies quickly translate and then reflect lives offscreen, too.