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In early June, UTA began shopping a redhot documentary project based on Chris Fenton’s 2020 book Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business, with Oscar winner Alex Gibney producing and Emmy nominee Gabe Polsky writing and directing. But instead of the film being greeted by a bidding war, sales agents faced closed doors. Sources say the major players in the doc space, including Netflix and HBO, declined even to see the project pitch, which touts “a character-driven essay film exploring how the United States and Western countries helped to build an ultra-powerful rival with an increasingly totalitarian agenda.”
As Hollywood faces a deteriorating relationship with China, it appears committed to keeping the flame alive even if that means going to humiliating lengths, like F9 star John Cena apologizing to China for saying that Taiwan is a country. On June 11, Hong Kong authorities announced that any movie deemed “a threat to national security” would henceforth be banned from distribution, which may exacerbate the shaky situation. The policy, which mimics mainland rules that already have stifled the film industry in the country and abroad, is certain to affect Hollywood’s limited ability to exercise free speech when it comes to China, particularly on the documentary front.
“The new film rules in Hong Kong will have a chilling effect,” says Joe Piscatella, who directed 2017’s Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, the Netflix doc that followed jailed Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong. “One of the last vestiges of free speech in Hong Kong is now gone. The result is self-censorship by filmmakers who now have to question what might run afoul of the new rules and increased scrutiny by financiers and distributors who now must consider that very same question.”
The film censorship guidelines, which so far apply only to the theatrical space, were the latest step in the implementation of Hong Kong’s repressive new national security law, which Beijing imposed in 2020 to crush the pro-democracy movement that roiled the city throughout 2019. More than 100 arrests of activists and opposition politicians have been made under the law — and it has had the intended effect: Protesters have been driven underground, and a chill has swept through the creative community and civil society as a whole. Meanwhile, Hong Kong school curriculum has been rewritten to teach fealty to the Chinese Communist Party, books have been banned, and pro-democracy journalists arrested at their jobs.
Although the censorship guidelines apply to imported films as well as local titles, the changes won’t have as great of an impact on Hollywood studio fare, thanks to the longstanding practice — much maligned by politicians in Washington and free speech advocates everywhere — of carefully vetting their theatrical output to remove any element that might generate offense to Chinese censors and the country’s online ultra-nationalists.
But the Hong Kong authorities’ steadily escalating encroachment on freedom of expression in the city — as recently as June 17, some 500 police officers descended on the offices of pro-democracy newspaper The Apple Daily to arrest five executives — has accelerated discussions over when the crackdown might begin to more broadly impact internet freedom. And it’s there — online — where the crackdown will begin to come into direct conflict with U.S. tech and media interests.
“[The government] takes away freedoms bit by bit, until a flashpoint with protestors gives them an excuse for more aggressive actions,” says a policy researcher named Alexander from Keyboard Frontline, a nongovernmental organization that monitors digital rights in Hong Kong (he asked that only his first name be used because of the risks of speaking with foreign media outlets in today’s climate). Keyboard Frontline expects Beijing and its local proxies to follow the same halting but relentless approach to steadily tightening their control over Hong Kong’s internet, he says.
The new theatrical censorship guidelines already have created stark imbalances between what can be shown on the big screen and what Hong Kong citizens can access on their phones at any moment — and such imbalances ultimately make little sense for an authority bent on complete control over political messaging. For example, last March, even before the new censorship guidelines were codified, a sold-out theatrical premiere of protest documentary Inside the Red Brick Wall was canceled because of pressure from a pro-Beijing newspaper.
Unlike the American film industry, much of the U.S. tech sector, from search to social media to streaming video, has long been blocked from accessing mainland China’s vast consumer market, as Beijing has sought to cultivate its own domestic tech champions while maintaining strict control over online discourse and consumer data. With little exposure to mainland China’s market sway, companies like Netflix, Amazon, Google and Twitter haven’t been subject to the same business pressures that have pushed Hollywood down the path of self-censorship (Google famously shut down its China search engine in 2010 after disputes with the government over requests to censor results).
Up until now, these companies have operated in Hong Kong in much the same way they would in any major democracy. Immediately after the national security law was introduced last June, U.S. tech giants Facebook, Google, Twitter and others said they would stop complying with Hong Kong government requests for user data. Many local activists nonetheless have migrated their private communications to encrypted apps like Signal, yet Twitter, Facebook and YouTube remain hotbeds of pro-democracy discourse. On Netflix, Hong Kong subscribers can also still stream Piscatella’s Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, as well as other politically driven movies like Ten Years, the 2015 indie hit that satirizes an imagined dystopian future under growing mainland Chinese control.
Analysts believe it’s inevitable that Hong Kong authorities will eventually wield the national security law to try to expunge such content and bring foreign tech platforms to heel. In market terms, Hong Kong, home to a population of 7 million versus mainland China’s 1.4 billion, is relatively small, but as the city becomes a proxy battleground for free speech ideals, its symbolism looms large. Ready compliance with Beijing’s anti-free-speech dictates would undoubtedly damage the democratic bona fides of the tech giants in the U.S., and it would be sure to invite scorn and scrutiny in Washington, D.C. Refusal would thrust the companies directly into the fray of Beijing’s crackdown. And though Netflix likely will never see its platform enter mainland China, it does do some business there, selling its content for local remake rights. Employees also could be at risk for Chinese detention based on the security law, which grants Hong Kong police sweeping powers of enforcement. If a company refuses to comply with a data or takedown request, authorities can arrest company staff, levy fines, seize equipment or even shut down a service.
“Eventually, companies like Netflix, Facebook and Google are going to be forced to make difficult decisions in Hong Kong — it’s only a matter of time,” says Alexander. As for Feeding the Dragon, UTA will continue to shop the project, which will likely find greater traction among distributors that are not part of global conglomerates. Despite facing similar self-censorship challenges, the agency eventually found homes for Bryan Fogel’s Jamal Khashoggi doc The Dissident (critical of Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman) and Gibney’s Citizen K (which took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin). Still, Piscatella has long been developing a Tiananmen Square doc that he says no one will touch.
Although Fenton, the former U.S.-based president of DMG Entertainment, declined to discuss pitch specifics on Feeding the Dragon, he remains optimistic about its prospects. “Look, this film is an amazing project, on a hot issue, with the best filmmakers in the space,” he says. “It will get made. It will be great, and it will make a real, positive difference.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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