Hollywood Is "Increasingly Normalizing" Self-Censorship for China, Report Finds

20rep_page4_W_main- H 2020

For years, studios have tailored movies to gain access to the country, the world's second-largest box office market. But now the U.S. government and a human rights nonprofit's new report are criticizing the state of affairs.

On Aug. 5, PEN America published an explosive report that may put Hollywood on the defensive. Titled "Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing," the 94-page study details how the major studios and A-list directors increasingly are making decisions — including cast, plot, dialogue and settings — "based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials."

The nonprofit that champions free expression cites examples of the studios inviting Chinese government regulators onto their film sets to advise "on how to avoid tripping the censors' wires," including on Marvel's 2013 film Iron Man 3. (The studios did not respond to PEN America when asked about claims in its report.)

The report — which chronicles creative choices on such films as Dr. Strange, World War Z and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick — coincides with criticism from the White House that the studios routinely "kowtow" to the authoritarian government's censorship demands. In addition, Richard Gere — the most high-profile actor to feel China's wrath because of his pro-Tibet statements — appeared before a Senate committee June 30.

In his testimony, Gere suggested that economic interests drive studios to avoid social issues that Hollywood once addressed, including Tibet. "Imagine Marty Scorsese's Kundun, about the life of the Dalai Lama, or my own film Red Corner, which is highly critical of the Chinese legal system," Gere said. "Imagine them being made today. It wouldn't happen."

Back in 1998, then-Disney chief Michael Eisner apologized for Kundun, which depicted Chinese oppression of the Tibetan people, calling it "a form of insult to our friends," and the studio hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to help with the fallout of the movie. To this day, the film remains radioactive for the studio. (Kundun is not available on Disney+, and the studio did not respond when asked if it plans to add it to the platform.)

Appeasement means profits. American movies earned $2.6 billion in China in 2019, with Disney's Avengers: Endgame pulling in $614 million there alone. Perhaps considering the stakes, Disney stayed silent when Mulan star Liu Yifei drew fire last August for posting on social media during the Hong Kong protests: "I support Hong Kong's police, you can beat me up now."

The Trump administration also has been on the attack. In a July 16 policy speech, U.S. Attorney General William Barr took aim at studios, saying they have provided "a massive propaganda coup for the Chinese Communist Party." Barr added that Paramount told producers of 2013's World War Z to remove a scene in which characters speculate that a virus, which triggered a zombie apocalypse, may have originated in China. The film, which grossed $540 million globally, never received a release in China, likely because the government frowns upon themes of the undead, ghosts or time travel. (A knowledgeable source says China's zombie film ban is the biggest reason that Paramount wouldn't greenlight a $200 million David Fincher-Brad Pitt pairing for a sequel.)

Though PEN and Barr fall on the same side of the fence on China's influence on Hollywood, the nonprofit is no friend of the Trump administration. In 2018, PEN sued President Trump in federal court in an effort to prevent him from using the machinery of the government to retaliate or threaten reprisals against journalists and media outlets for coverage he dislikes (a federal judge in New York ruled in March that the suit can proceed). In a 2017 open letter written by PEN, 65 writers and artists blasted Trump’s visa ban covering seven Muslim-majority countries.

The report lays out the growing phenomenon of self-censorship among the studios, fearful of having their films denied entry in the lucrative market and the ways in which flattering the government has become a powerful incentive as it can lead to better release dates, preferential advertising arrangements and a more friendly relationship with Chinese investors and regulators. 

"Our biggest concern is that Hollywood is increasingly normalizing preemptive self-censorship in anticipation of what the Beijing censor is looking for," says James Tager, PEN deputy director of free expression policy and research and the report's author. USC professor Stan Rosen, an expert on China's film industry, calls the censorship criticism "a perfect storm" that will put a spotlight on the entertainment industry. "It's going to get harder and harder for Hollywood to not respond," Rosen notes.

For those working to raise awareness about human rights abuses when it comes to China's 61-year occupation of Tibet, Hollywood was once a friend and is now a foe. Films like the 1997 Brad Pitt starrer Seven Years in Tibet have been replaced by movies like DreamWorks Animation's 2019 film Abominable, which reinforces Beijing's territorial claims to the South China Sea. For 2016's Doctor Strange, Disney's Marvel was willing to face criticism for whitewashing an Asian character played by Tilda Swinton, and in the process avoided featuring a character who was Tibetan in the comic books. And Skydance/Paramount's Top Gun: Maverick was criticized, as the PEN report notes, for the "mysterious disappearance of the Taiwanese flag" on a flight jacket that was seen in the 1986 original.

"If Hollywood is siding with the money, sooner or later they will be on the wrong side and lose money because the general public will stop watching [all] movies," says Washington-based activist Tenzing Barshee, who is president of the Capital Area Tibetan Association.

Even more immediate, the industry could be stuck with a damning label when it comes to its relationship with China: hypocritical. Says Tager: "Hollywood enjoys a reputation as being willing to speak truth to power with its own government, which we applaud. We just want that standard to be applied to the rest of the world."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.