Erich Schwartzel on China's Dominant Censorship Of Hollywood
The Chair Is Against The Wall
Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel has a new book on the dominant role China has come to play in dictating the behavior of Hollywood in the biggest blockbusters and more. It’s a topic of enormous propagandistic importance, and an answer to why there’s no equivalent of the anti-Soviet movies of the past today. We talk about action flicks and superhero movies, John Cena’s hostage video, the depiction of homosexuality, and Hollywood’s rationale. An excerpt of the interview is below:
Erich Schwartzel: It felt like when I sold the book to my publisher in late 2018, that I was almost late to the story, because it felt like China was becoming more and more of a presence and that has only gotten more and more true as time has gone on. And what's interesting is I had been covering the film industry for The Wall Street Journal for several years at that point, but there really was a moment when I realized that this was a bigger story than just a bunch of Chinese financing flooding into the entertainment industry.
In Hollywood, there's a there's a long tradition of what they call “dumb money” coming into the studios anytime some rich finance here from overseas decides he wants to make it in the movies. He comes over to Hollywood and soon loses his shirt, and it looked at first like that might be it might be China's turn with with the money that was coming in and the box office grosses that we were seeing out of the country. But then when I started to realize that there was actually a motivation here deeper than just financial there was a political motivation on the part of the Chinese and the Chinese Communist Party to try and mount a competitor to Hollywood, that it felt like Hollywood was sliding into a larger debate that we were seeing a larger rivalry that we were seeing formed between the US and China.
Ben Domenech: Now one of the examples that comes up that is often cited to me by friends, because I have a lot of friends who are connoisseurs of 1980s action movies, is the same example that appears in the excerpt that ran in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, which I hope a lot of people have paid attention to, which is “Red Dawn”. The film obviously is something that you know comes from the midst of the Cold War but is targeted really at both action movie audiences but also younger audiences to try to relate and and propagandize to a certain extent the way that we view the communist threat — that it can come to the American heartland and not be something that is just far afield or in the world of spy and diplomatic movies. And you run through the story of what happened when you had an MGM studio that was looking for something they could return to, an old franchise that they could revive as we see so often within today's Hollywood, and yet, when when everything played out, there was absolutely no way that they could use the threat of Communist China for a number of different reasons.
Schwartzel: Yeah, I think you know, Ben, for moviegoers of our generation, you're right, the original Red Dawn has a really special resonance, it's an interesting movie to return to these days. I call that era in the book “The era of rah rah cinema”, where you had, as you said, a lot of movies kind of implicitly or explicitly exploring Cold War themes and showing America victorious over Soviet forces, whether it was Rambo or rocky or the teenagers in Red Dawn, and the movie in from the 1980s, as you said, had this kind of special resonance.
And so when MGM in 2009 wanted to look for possible reboots, it seemed like an obvious choice. And not only that, but casting China as the villain was the obvious choice. I mean, think about it. I mean, Russia in 2009 — did it make sense as an invading force? China was really the only superpower that seemed like a plausible option. And also at the time, I think this is right after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. And it's also right after the financial crisis of 2009, where we start to see kind of the early indications of some kind of ascendancy and maybe some suck some kind of decline in America standing in the world.
So when MGM hired a couple screenwriters to give a give a pass to a Red Dawn reboot. They said, “Yeah, go ahead, write it as a Chinese scenario.” And what's fascinating is, one of the screenwriters came up with a scenario that it really seems quite prescient today, which involves China invading Taiwan, forcing the US response, and then dumping a lot of US debt that sends the American economy into a tailspin. I mean, he wrote this in 2009. It sounds like prognostications that some people some people have today, and so they they filmed the movie. Chris Hemsworth is in it. I'm not gonna say it should have won every Oscar, but it's a fun teenagers with guns movie about China invading the US.
But between the time that the movie was put into production, and it was ready for release something very important happened, which is the China's box office, started to grow very, very fast, and America's box office started to stagnate. So it didn't exactly take a Harvard MBA to realize if you were running a studio and you wanted to target growth, you had to appease China and get your movies into China. And whenever Chinese authorities heard about this remake of Red Dawn, they started putting articles in state run media saying that this was, you know, a bad move on Hollywood's part and that MGM would be punished if the film came out.
And so the studio did something really extraordinary. Before releasing the film, they hired a visual effects company to go in and frame by frame change the villain from China to North Korea. So in the finished product, the movie that was released in theaters, it is a North Korean invasion of America, not a Chinese one. I talked to the visual effects workers who had to do this, and a lot of them were just really nice guys who I think woke up one day and found themselves in the middle of an international incident. And they said it was just a nightmare. I mean, it's just like it was more than just a copy and paste operation. You really had to overhaul the the aesthetic of the entire film.
The cruel irony is that today, North Korea wouldn't even be an option because I think studios would be concerned about being hacked as Sony was a few years later when they made a critical film of North Korea. But at the time, it was the only way to get the movie released.
And still, a decade later, we have not had a movie put into production by a major Hollywood studio that have China cast as the villain.