A day that U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Sen. Ted Cruz and PEN America agree on the basics of anything is obviously a chilly one in Hell, but Wednesday is such a day with the publication of a candid new report by the free speech organization condemning “Hollywood’s approach to acceding to Chinese dictates.”
“Beijing has sent a clear message to the filmmaking world, that filmmakers who criticize China will be punished, but that those who play ball with its censorship strictures will be rewarded,” proclaims the hard-hitting “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing” report from PEN America in language echoing recent strident statements by America’s top law enforcement official and the Texas GOP senator. “The Chinese Communist Party, in fact, holds major sway over whether a Hollywood movie will be profitable or not — and studio executives know it,” the 94-page document adds, with 1997’s releases of Seven Years In Tibet and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun lamented as the last year of Hollywood sovereignty.
Yes, Quentin Tarantino is applauded in the report for refusing to bend to Beijing’s demands last year that he make cuts to the Oscar-winning Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, and Netflix is a non-entity because of the streamer’s absence from the Middle Kingdom. Otherwise, in the long report short (read it here) most of the movie industry is lambasted for making a deal to do the “dirty work” for the successors of Mao Zedong.
“As U.S. film studios compete for the opportunity to access Chinese audiences, many are making difficult and troubling compromises on free expression,” PEN America states. “Steadily, a new set of mores has taken hold in Hollywood, one in which appeasing Chinese government investors and gatekeepers has simply become a way of doing business.”
“The result is a system in which Beijing bureaucrats can demand changes to Hollywood movies — or expect Hollywood insiders to anticipate and make these changes, unprompted — without any significant hue or cry over such censorship,” PEN America continues, regarding what many in the industry have come to accept as the price of doing business in one of the world’s largest and potentially most lucrative movie markets.
In many ways, unlike the current China-bashing political tactics of Donald Trump allies Barr and Cruz, it is that bottom-line mind-set that the PEN America report is strategically aiming to realign, with its calls for transparency and respect for human rights to a Hollywood already distinctly responsive to social justice concerns domestically.
Piling up a plethora of examples of Disney, Universal and other heavily invested studios repeatedly tailoring the likes of Doctor Strange and the admittedly ghastly Red Dawn remake to get quota approval, preferred release dates, and score possible co-productions for China’s growing box office of more than $9 billion, the report notably hopes to use the crux of the arrangement to shift focus.
“PEN America recommends that all Hollywood studios pledge that, if they comply with anticipated or actual censorship from Beijing, either in response to a direct request from regulators or in an anticipatory effort to self-censor, that they do so only for the version of the film made available within mainland China, not for the film’s global release,” the report compiled by the organization’s Deputy Director of Free Expression Research and Policy suggests. The report also “recommends that Hollywood studios commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by government regulators for their films.”
In its pitch, PEN America even offers a treatment of sorts for the studios:
Such a disclosure could take the form of an annual report—similar, in some ways, to the disclosures that technology platforms make in regards to government take-down requests and their responses. Additionally or conversely, it could come in the form of disclosures in the credits of movies themselves, similar to the “no animals were harmed” end credits disclosure that has demonstrated Hollywood’s commitment against animal cruelty for the majority of films that involve animal actors.
Were Hollywood studios willing to make such a unified public commitment, it would be a powerful demonstration that Hollywood executives are interested in addressing the problem of government censorship in a thoughtful and conscientious way… rather than simply hoping the problem remains invisible to the average global moviegoer.
Calling on the likes of the MPA, WGA and DGA to add their heft to a long march to openness on Hollywood’s dealings and deals with China, the dense document also advocates for greater representation on-screen for “substantive, three-dimensional Asian and Asian-American characters” to help defang Beijing’s constant insistence on “uncritical portrayals of Chinese characters.”
While additionally offering pointed criticisms of the terribly titled SCRIPT Act introduced by Sen. Cruz and the wider implications Stateside of using federal resources to punish “studios altering content” to curry favor with Chinese regulators, the report isn’t hesitant to split hairs on the insidious forms that Beijing’s intentions can take. For instance, the government of Xi Jinping is taken to task for its attacks on freedom of expression and also for flexing its muscle with the #SupportMulan movement. With state intervention widely presumed, the topic exploded on social media last year after the Disney film’s Crystal Liu posted her support of the Beijing-orchestrated repression against Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
“Disney’s lack of engagement presumably made sense from a business perspective, allowing them to refrain from alienating one or more potential audiences for the movie,” the report says of the House of Mouse’s muteness on all fronts after Liu’s remarks became political tools in China’s sophisticated propaganda machine. “Even so, the studio’s public silence — in connection to a movie that centers around one woman’s courage to fly in the face of a restrictive society, no less — further enabled Beijing to utilize the studio’s movie as a tool of antidemocratic propaganda without pushback,” the report mourns.
Stateside, the Motion Picture Association has distinctly declined to push back in the face of attacks on Hollywood by members of the Trump administration and Cruz, one of its stalwart supporters on Capitol Hill.
Last month, Barr blasted the movie business in a speech at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum, going so far as to accuse the industry of giving the Chinese Communist party a “massive propaganda coup” by self-censoring content to appease Beijing censors. Singing from the same anti-China choir book that is seen as a vital piece of Trump’s reelection campaign, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a July 23 speech at the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace, also singled out Hollywood. He said the industry, as the “epicenter of American creative freedom, and self-appointed arbiters of social justice, self-censors even the most mildly unfavorable reference to China.”
Cruz, meanwhile, introduced legislation in June that would cut off U.S. government cooperation to American filmmakers unless they agree not to censor their movies to gain entry into the Chinese market. The legislation, though, has no co-sponsors, and largely seemed to be a way for Cruz to blast the industry on the Senate floor, as he outlined specific examples where studios have altered their product to appease China.
While attacks on Hollywood, which leans left, are nothing new coming from conservatives, the PEN America report holds additional significance because the organization has hardly been one to do Trump’s bidding. Rather, the organization has been critical of the president’s attacks on the news media, and filed a brief against the Justice Department effort to block the release of John Bolton’s book. PEN America also condemned the use of unidentified federal law enforcement personnel to detain demonstrators in Portland.
Yet, when it comes to this case of China and Hollywood, it is strange bedfellows, at least for now.
Deadline’s Ted Johnson and Nancy Tartaglione contributed to this report.