A string of events this month related to China and ongoing protests in Hong Kong has tarnished major U.S. brands from the NBA to Apple to Activision Blizzard. While Hollywood usually finds itself in the thick of such controversies, it has managed this time to mostly avoid major reputational damage, at least for now.
Viacom in particular has been on the front lines after one of its signature shows, Comedy Central’s often-risqué South Park, provoked China by brazenly mocking the nation’s strict customs (and Disney’s simultaneously). Gemini Man, a Paramount release in the U.S., is being distributed in China by Fosun and made an estimated $10.8M on Friday to top the local box office chart. The fates of future Paramount releases such as Terminator: Dark Fate and next summer’s Top Gun: Maverick are unclear, but as of now it appears unlikely they would feel heat.
Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a hit in the U.S. and elsewhere, illustrated how fickle the fate of Hollywood releases in China can be on Friday when its release was halted with just a week’s notice. A fight scene featuring Brad Pitt’s character and Bruce Lee appears to be the irritant in the case of Quentin Tarantino’s film, as relatives of Lee filed a complaint about the scene with China’s film board.
After the South Park episode, “Band in China,” aired on October 2, many press reports said it had been yanked from circulation and the entire series scrubbed from the internet. In fact, the show has not been licensed to China (nor has any other Comedy Central series), so pirated streams are the only way for co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s irreverence to reach viewers there.
Viacom, despite having built up significant ties to China and now being led by a longtime international specialist Bob Bakish, has opted to stay mum, allowing the show to respond publicly. Stone and Parker issued a not-apologetic “apology” that only added fuel to the fire. They continued in subsequent weeks to add glancing China rejoinders to the show, including an elbow thrown this week at NBA star LeBron James for his dissembling over the China affair.
Sources familiar with Viacom’s thinking indicated that tackling controversy head-on — both in the show and in speaking about it publicly — has been South Park‘s M.O. for more than two decades. “It didn’t make sense to do anything on a corporate level when Matt and Trey are more than capable of responding in a way that’s authentic to them,” one insider said.
The stakes are significant for Viacom and its media peers, with untold billions on the line, so conversations aimed at shoring up relations have been taking place away from the media spotlight. CBS, soon to merge with Viacom, recently faced its own dust-up over Chinese censorship. The company ruffled the feathers of producers Michelle and Robert King by deciding to remove a potentially offensive animated short from CBS All Access show The Good Fight before it streamed on the service.
With returns a bit uneven from Viacom’s MTV and Nickelodeon businesses in China, the company also is exploring the possibility of trimming its stake there, though no concrete plan has been determined.
A Viacom rep declined to comment.
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While the threat of retaliation by China often sends shivers through Hollywood, USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen isn’t so certain that the Middle Kingdom will punish other Viacom-owned properties for South Park‘s sins. “I think China is currently taking a step back from confrontational issues, as can be seen by their advisories to Chinese media and platforms for social media to turn away from the harsh, negative attacks on the NBA.”
The larger context of the controversy is a growing reliance by U.S. companies on revenue from China, which is a massive economy second only to that of the U.S. Communist rule and, for entertainment companies, stringent requirements limiting the kind of content that can appear in the territory make it a complex and often frustrating marketplace. In 2019, a bitter and costly trade war between the U.S. and China has loomed large, and the Hong Kong protests have challenged any business in the U.S. inclined to champion free speech to stay quiet. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey prompted the whole wave of problems with a seemingly innocuous tweet in support of the pro-democracy protesters.
Rosen maintains that China is mindful of the risk of a negative impact on its image abroad, which would even mean the danger of a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Any such movement in support of a boycott would take the narrative “out of China’s hands,” he said, and “draw so much attention to Hong Kong that those who haven’t followed the events there will be stimulated to find out more about why the protests are occurring.”
For Rosen, South Park “is unique in the sense that the creators are not concerned with the China market and their reputation is based on parodies of everyone, including China. I would think that China would be wise enough, particularly at this point in time, to understand that there is no way that Viacom or Comedy Central would go after South Park over this issue. Think of South Park‘s next episode in response to that!”
Also, he says: “whereas the NBA issue resonated strongly in China because of its popularity and the tweet from the general manager of a team enormously popular in China, the removal of South Park and its discussion from all China platforms has not led to any real discussion, in large part of course because no discussion is allowed. They’ll just let this fade away, as they did with the South Park episode — ‘The China Nightmare’ — on the Beijing Olympics, which had Cartman and Butters repeat ‘F*ck China’ a number of times as they tried to organize an American Liberation Front to deal with the expected Chinese invasion of the U.S.”
The NBA, Hollywood, luxury goods and other categories “are very different. Comedy Central understood this when they put the offending South Park episode on YouTube for everyone to see.”
Rosen doesn’t believe the brouhaha will affect CBS, though the network in 2014 saw then-Chinese watchdog SAPPRFT order local video sites to halt streaming of some U.S. TV shows including The Good Wife. At the time, there was no reason given for the clampdown, though it has been suggested it owed to an episode that showed a Chinese dissident character being tortured. Also at the time, online streaming was less hindered over its content as compared to state television and movies which are routinely censored.
The Good Fight flare-up stemmed from the 2014 issue. Jonathan Coulton, who makes the shorts, told The New York Times that the video started with a reference to the Good Wife ban and went on to refer to a host of other topics that have been censored on the Middle Kingdom’s internet.
Still, says U.S.-Asia Institute Trustee Chris Fenton: “Just because Viacom has major Chinese partners involved with its various interests, that doesn’t necessarily provide security from potential retaliation on the China side. The NBA has partners with similar stature, like Tencent, and we saw how that played out.”
One key variable for Paramount film releases is financing. Gemini Man, Terminator: Dark Fate and Top Gun: Maverick all are backed partly by Chinese companies. Gemini Man has co-financing from Skydance (in which Chinese conglomerate Tencent owns a large minority stake) as well as Chinese companies Alibaba and Fosun, the film’s distributor in China.
Skydance — and thus, Tencent — is also a backer of Terminator and Maverick. Tencent is the distributor on Terminator locally and a November 1 release date was confirmed this week. One international distribution exec says of the two films, “Neither of them are released by Paramount, so I don’t think” there will be any impact on them.
Avoiding political talk while promoting films in the region is a long-established practice. A non-studio source puts it this way: “Every company and movie opening up over there, and talent and filmmakers, are not wading into the political quagmire.”
If Chinese authorities retaliate against the movies, it could result in doing damage to the bottom line of local box office in a year that has only recently seen a slight upswing, not the long-promised boom.
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