19 Sep Chinese censorship: Kowtow or Rise up?
How America can get a fairer deal without kowtowing.
American producers are keen to tap into China’s billion plus audience. And now that China’s movie theaters are beginning to re-open (again) – Hollywood is counting on box office receipts from China. But to get distribution in China, you need to pass censorship. Since the Chinese government purposely keeps the rules vague, western filmmakers are beginning to self-censor. This self-censorship is exactly what the Chinese government is hoping for.
For companies who cater to China’s whims – there are ramifications.
When the credits rolled on the live-action film Mulan, viewers were in an uproar which was reported in the article Disney faces more ‘Mulan’ backlash after film thanks Xinjiang government agencies in credits.
Many outraged fans called for a boycott when in the credits, Disney “thanked Chinese government agencies that have been accused of extreme human rights violations in the Xinjiang province.”
The article said, “The province is home to detention camps that have held Uighur Muslims, where detainees have allegedly been subjected to terrible human rights violations, such as torture and forced sterilization.”
In June, Mulan’s lead actress Liu Yifei caused a backlash from Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and Taiwan when she posted a message on Weibo (Chinese Twitter) that said “I support the Hong Kong police. You can beat me now”.
THE GOOD NEWS
Another report entitled Chinese censorship on its domestic films allows Hollywood to step up and fill the void highlights how Hollywood is relying on China for box office success. But the current trade war strikes fear that Hollywood will lose out on its biggest market.
“But those fears are misplaced, experts say, and China’s ever-tightening censorship of its domestic movies means a gap is actually opening up for American blockbusters to fill. Chinese censorship hurts local Chinese films too. This is reflected in the decreased number of films, both domestic and foreign, shown in China this year (2019). Sixty-eight movies were scheduled to be shown in the country from late June through August (2019), Quartz reported in July, citing statistics from China’s Maoyan movie-ticketing site. That was down from 137 in the same period last year.”
HOLLYWOOD FILMS STRONGER ABROAD THAN CHINA’S
Additionally, Hollywood makes about two-thirds of its ticket sales from abroad as highlighted in the article Hollywood’s Chinese conundrums. It said “China may be especially keen to shape Hollywood’s storytelling because it struggles to break through with its own narratives beyond its borders. Since the early 2000s American studios have made more money at the international box office than at home. These days about two-thirds of their ticket revenues come from abroad.”
THE BAD NEWS
The article warned though that “China’s censors are becoming more active in shaping the tales that Hollywood tells, imbuing America’s soft power with Chinese characteristics and angering American politicians. The great screen romance between Hollywood and China is turning into more of a drama.”
US politician Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) proposed The SCRIPT act – to combat Hollywood’s kowtowing to China. SCRIPT Act stands for Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity, and Protecting Talkies. Senator Cruz’s proposed legislation suggests the US government not work with Hollywood filmmakers. His website reported this in the article Sen. Cruz to Introduce Legislation Cutting Off Hollywood Studios Over Complicity in Chinese Censorship.
He said “It is common for major Hollywood action films to contract with the Pentagon to use U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) assets, such as jets, tanks, or naval bases, for example. The SCRIPT Act prohibits the DoD from providing technical assistance or access to assets for U.S. companies that censor their films for screening.”
But some – even military personnel see this as another form of censorship. Some military is pushing back on this. Former Army Ranger Jim Lechner published his opposition in the article Oppose China’s censorship, but don’t kill the Hollywood-military partnership. Lechner wrote “While China’s communist government poses a real and prominent threat to our nation, efforts to mitigate this threat should bolster — not undermine — our freedoms. In spite of its stated goals, new legislation from Senator Ted Cruz will only serve to undermine liberty in the United States. The most obvious concern with Senator Cruz’s “Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity, and Protecting Talkies,” or SCRIPT Act, is that it does just the opposite of what its title implies. The legislation would institutionalize censorship, but it would be censorship from the U.S. government, directed at American businesses.”
Streaming gives Hollywood an advantage over China.
In the article mentioned above Hollywood’s Chinese conundrums – it reported that “In America, by contrast, a film’s takings at the theatre are usually eclipsed by what it earns through television rights, merchandising, video-game licensing and so on. It, therefore, makes sense for American studios to produce films and send them straight to streaming, as Disney is doing with “Mulan” in many markets. Disney’s films are in effect merely the intellectual-property engine that drives a much larger machine. Before social-distancing edicts obliterated businesses that rely on crowds.” More good news for Hollywood as the article reiterated “That ought to put American studios in a better position than Chinese rivals to keep telling stories in a world of declining cinema attendance—a trend that long predates COVID-19.”
LOCALIZATION & DUBBING
Localization is the key to future markets. But will subtitles deter audiences from watching content? Not so. In the article Dubbed content is on the rise thanks to streaming services such as Netflix dubbing has enabled foreign films to reach a worldwide audience. It reported that “The 31 languages Netflix now dubs into is an increase of about 30 percent in only two years, while the streaming service says consumption of dubbed content on its platform is rising at a rate of 120 percent annually.” It went on to say “With the rise of global streaming, audiences been offered a vastly increased selection of shows and movies to watch from every corner of the globe.”
4 WAYS TO BEAT THE CHINESE CENSORS
You can check out my previous blog post on beating the Chinese censors here.
KOWTOW OR RISE UP
The “China Unscripted” podcast recently featured an old-China hand who offered words of wisdom on beating Chinese censorship. In season 1, EP 83 How China Subverts Hollywood Chris Fenton, – former president of DMG entertainment group and author of Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business offered ideas on combating Chinese censorship.
He said:” We need to push back. If we push back with just a single entity, a single GM of Houston Rockets (who tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protestors), a single company, a single CEO, single celebrity – it’s not going to work. It’s whack a mole, sacrificial lamb. But if we do something like we’re seeing right now with the BLM movement, where the NBA pulls in all the other sports leagues and they get behind it. This is a domestic issue obviously. But they get behind that very important domestic issue, why can’t we get behind an international issue like China?”
He added “If we get all the sports leagues together and say – hey we stand behind what Daryl Mori (GM of Houston Rockets) said. We’re not going to allow you to retaliate and if you do, you don’t get any of our sports content from any of these. And you don’t get any of the products and services that Nike makes, or Under Amour makes or Adidas makes. Then on top of that Hollywood joins that solidarity and says ‘You’re not getting any of our content. We are protecting the rights of this individual and our rights here in America. Suddenly China will back up.”
YOU CAN BEAT ME NOW
My latest project is a TV series that pushes boundaries. It will feature rarely seen characters (an American wife and her Chinese husband) who must choose between love and country. Now, I’m not naïve to think this will get airtime in China. But if it entertains and sparks a conversation – then I will have done my job.
I support daring content. You can beat me now.
If you think this TV series will spark a conversation in Hollywood and China – let me know in the comments.