Filmart: Is Netflix Giving Up on China?

Courtesy of Sundance
'Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower'

For years, Netflix has tried — unsuccessfully — to get a foothold in China’s enormous online entertainment market, which may be further exacerbated by 'Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.'

Netflix subscribers around the world will soon be getting better acquainted with the improbable story of Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong student activist who became the face of the mass pro-democracy movement that brought the city to a standstill in 2014.

Director Joe Piscatella’s recent documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower centers on the then-17-year-old Wong’s courageous efforts to rally thousands of local kids to skip school and occupy Hong Kong’s streets after China’s Communist Party backtracked on its promise of political autonomy to the city.

The film premiered to positive reviews in January at Sundance, where Netflix promptly scooped it up in a seven-figure global rights deal. Later this year, the streaming giant will be making the doc available to its 93 million members in 190 countries.

Wong and his fellow activists have hailed the Netflix deal for the attention it will bring to their movement and their city’s political plight. “The most important thing is to reach the people who are interested in the democracy movement in Hong Kong,” Wong told the South China Morning Post shortly after the sale.

The Hong Kong indie film community has also taken some encouragement from the pickup. “As a local filmmaker, we welcome that Netflix will be air[ing] the documentary worldwide,” said Jevons Au, one of the directors of the indie omnibus Ten Years, which became a runaway local hit last year — the film’s gritty, dystopic vision of a future Hong Kong under China’s more direct control resonated widely in an anxious city.

One faction that can be counted upon to be less pleased by Netflix’s global broadcast of the doc is China’s party leadership in Beijing, which views Wong as a notorious dissident and rabble rouser, whose movement poses an existential threat to China’s political order and national sovereignty.

“Clearly, the Chinese government will not like it,” says Stan Rosen, a professor of political science at USC who specializes in the entertainment industry.

For years, Netflix has tried — unsuccessfully — to get a foothold in China’s enormous online entertainment market. As with many leading U.S. internet companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, Netflix has been blocked by China’s regulators, which instead have encouraged homegrown firms to develop similar platforms to serve the country’s 1.3 billion potential customers.

Had Netflix already gained access to China, regulators almost certainly would prevent the company from making the Joshua documentary available there — and probably would also seek to punish Netflix in some way for picking it up, insiders say. But as things stand, Netflix had little to lose.

Adds Rosen: “It’s very possible, even likely, that Netflix has seen the handwriting on the wall — that they’re not getting into China within any foreseeable future projection and, by standing up for ‘freedom and civic engagement,’ the company looks good internationally and can even make a bit of money. After all, it’s hard not to sympathize with a 17-year-old who stands up to overwhelming pressure — the David and Goliath angle.”

Netflix has previously found limited success in China by licensing some of its original content to local streaming services, such as House of Cards, the first two seasons of which found a huge Chinese fanbase before the show was blocked.

But the streaming giant said in an earnings call to investors last October that “the regulatory environment for foreign digital content services in China has become challenging,” and that it expected only modest revenue from the licensing business.

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