China's massive movie market means the Communist Party can pressure Hollywood to produce films that will soar in the country's box office and avoid those that may displease Beijing.
At a time when there is increasing scrutiny on how Hollywood bends to China's censorship, Chris Fenton, a longtime Hollywood executive who witnessed how Beijing’s political preferences have shaped the movie industry, published a memoir: Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Business.
During his tenure as the president of DMG Entertainment, Fenton produced 21 films, many of which tried to navigate the tension between artistic independence and Hollywood's desire to access China's booming market. He recently spoke with VOA about how Hollywood movie executives responded to Beijing’s influence campaign. The remarks have been edited for clarity.
Reporter: Thanks so much for taking time to talk to me, Mr. Fenton. You spend a lot of time in your book talking about how hard you tried to persuade your colleagues that there was a need to make movies relevant to Chinese audiences, or change the scripts to get them through Chinese censors. I understand it made business sense, but how are you going to convince people that you are not bowing down to China, especially at this sensitive moment?
Fenton: As the book progresses, it becomes clear that I start to realize that what we are doing, what looks like kowtowing to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) or to China. And it was really amplified, and it really became driven home to me when Daryl Morey, [former] general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted out his support for Hong Kong. Suddenly that huge controversy erupted. Not in China, I knew he said things that were sensitive and were not allowed for China purposes because the NBA has a big business there.
What I didn’t expect happening was the American public to react in a way that was completely stupefied and completely unaware of what kind of kowtowing and placating of the Chinese government had been ongoing, not just with the NBA, but with Hollywood and various other businesses, for as long as it had been going on. So that was a real wake-up call to me, because it was a wake-up call to the American public about how companies were engaging with China that wasn’t really part of being a patriotic American.
It’s not just the Hollywood issue, it’s not just the tech issue, it’s not just the basketball or the sports issue, or various other industries. … It’s all across the board. To get products and services into that market, there are certain rules you have to play in order to get past the CCP, so they allow you access to the consumers. But those processes, those regulations, those things that we need to live by to do it have gotten worse and worse and more amplified over time. And the encroachment on what’s true to Americans has got to the point where we either need to stop it now and fight back, or we are just going to lose because it’s going to the point of no return.
Reporter: So are you saying that you didn’t think that you were placating the Chinese before the Daryl Morey moment?
Fenton: What I was saying was that prior to the Daryl Morey moment of October last year, the awareness of the American public in regard to how all companies and all industries that were engaged with China was pretty minimal. Right? They weren’t paying attention to what we were doing. Quite frankly, myself and other cogs and wheels of the machine of the capitalism between the two countries weren’t really thinking about how what we were doing was detrimental to America, or detrimental to the world overall or helping give more leverage or power to the Chinese Communist Party. We just were doing a job. We were trying to get access to a market. And we were trying to create reasons for the Chinese government to allow us access to the Chinese market, to monetize that. That’s all we were doing, to just get the job done.
Reporter: Does China really exert such great influence over Hollywood? Or is it overblown? The Chinese media suggest there are tiny additions of China elements in Hollywood movies and the Chinese actors and actresses just played supporting roles. Is there more influence?
Fenton: They have amazing influence over Hollywood. There are a couple of versions of it. One is a premeditated version of what is censored even before it was written or scripted, which is this idea with any sort of sensitive topics, whether it has to do with Taiwan, or Hong Kong or Tibet … things that have something do with human rights issues, whatever it is. Those are essentially taboo in Hollywood.
Even if a particular movie or TV series isn’t expected to be monetized in China. Maybe they go and say: “The budget for this film doesn’t need the China market to create revenues for it. We are going to work on it, be free with the content and make it for America and other democratic countries.” Well in that case, China does find out about those movies and knows about them, even if that particular film does not get into China, China will penalize the studio or filmmakers involved with that particular movie, so that they can’t get other movies in.
We saw that with Red Dawn back in 2012, where China was featured as the villain. The filmmakers, Sony and MGM, ended up reshooting it, but the damage was already done. China said, “we know you reshot it, we are still not going to let it in our market, but on top of it, we are going to make it very difficult for Sony and MGM to get other movies in for the next year.” That retaliation goes beyond just one single film, and that’s why premeditated censorship is done in Hollywood when everybody knows that you don’t want to offend China.
And that’s definitely something we need to stop. We are the pillar of creative freedom and freedom of expression as the Hollywood industry. And to stifle that because we are thinking about one particular market and what they might like or not like is completely hypocritical to what the whole foundation of the business is.
Reporter: How does China’s censorship differ from that in other countries? You do that for other countries, too?
Fenton: You made the movie, knowing that it’s not sensitive, whatever. You submitted to China, and China gave you things that you need to cut out of it in order to be played in that market. That’s something that I am OK to live with and I know obviously Hollywood can live with it. We do it for other markets, we did it for the South Korea, Japan and Middle East market. It was not just … with China. I can say that’s all right.
Premeditated [censorship] is wrong. The editing to get into that market by itself is OK. But then the other one, which is a terrible one, is where they ask us to edit the movie for the world. They do not want the world, for instance, to see Tom Cruise’s jacket in Top Gun, because it has the Taiwanese and Japanese flags on the back of it. So Paramount, the filmmaker of that movie, said “fine, we will cut that out or blur it out for the China market.” But China said, “No, no, no, it’s not just for the China market, we do not want that seen anywhere in the world.”
That’s a problem, because now they are saying what we can and can’t show to somebody in Argentina, or somebody in Dallas, Texas, or somebody in Frankfurt, Germany. … That is not acceptable.
Reporter: Has Hollywood done anything about it yet?
Fenton: Industrial players have remained relatively silent, mainly because speaking out is damaging to their businesses. Right now, as a squeaky wheel, it’s damaging my business. But I feel that enough is enough, we need to push back. I’m not advocating for a decoupling, but we need to seriously disrupt that relationship so we can address the inequality and inefficiency and rebalance it so it’s pro the democratic world. Because right now, China has the upper hand.