WASHINGTON, DC – China’s massive film market means that the Communist Party can pressure Hollywood to produce films that satisfy that country’s box office and sidestep those that do not please Beijing.
At a time of heightened scrutiny of how Hollywood bows to China’s censorship, Chris Fenton, a longtime film mecca executive who witnessed how Beijing’s political preferences have shaped the film industry, has published a memoir. : ‘Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Billionaire Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Corporations’.
During his time as president of DMG Entertainment, Fenton produced 21 films, many of which attempted to navigate the tension between artistic independence and Hollywood’s desire to access the burgeoning Chinese market.
Fenton recently spoke with the Voice of america on how Hollywood executives have responded to Beijing’s influence campaign. His comments have been edited for clarity.
VOA: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, Mr. Fenton. You talk quite a bit in your book about the efforts you made to persuade your colleagues that there was a need to make films relevant to Chinese audiences, or to change scripts to pass Chinese censors. I understand it made business sense, but how are you going to convince people that you were not bowing to China, especially at this delicate time?
Fenton: As the book progresses, it becomes clear that I began to realize what we were doing, which looks like bowing down to the Chinese Communist Party or China. And it was amplified and it really hit me when Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for Hong Kong. Suddenly that immense controversy exploded. Not in China. I know he said things that were delicate and were not allowed for Chinese purposes because the NBA has a great business there.
What I did not expect to happen was that the American public would react in a way that was totally unaware of the kind of prostration and appeasement of the Chinese government that was happening, not only with the NBA, but with Hollywood and various other businesses, for a long time. . So it was a wake-up call for me, because it was a wake-up call to the American public of how companies were embroiled with China in a way that was not truly patriotic.
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It’s not just the case for Hollywood, it’s not just the case for technology, it’s not just the case for basketball or sports, or various other industries, it’s everything. To bring products and services to that market, there are certain rules that must be followed to go through the Communist Party, so that they allow access to consumers.
But those processes, those regulations, those things that we need to go through have gotten worse and worse and amplified over time. And the sense of what is valuable to Americans has reached the point where we need to stop right now and fight back or we will lose because we are going to reach a point of no return.
VOA: So you say you didn’t think you were placating China before the Daryl Morey time?
Fenton: What I was saying is that prior to the Daryl Morey moment in October last year, what the American public knew about how all companies and all industries dealt with China was minimal, correct? They weren’t paying attention to what they were doing. Frankly, I and other cogs in the machinery of capitalism between countries weren’t really thinking about how what they were doing was hurting America or hurting the world at large, or helping to give the Chinese Communist Party more influence or power. We were trying to create reasons for the Chinese government to give us access to the Chinese market, to get there.
VOA: Does China really have that much influence over Hollywood? Isn’t it overrated? The Chinese press suggests that there are very little Chinese elements in Hollywood movies and that Chinese actors and actresses only get supporting roles. Is there more influence?
Fenton: They have a surprising influence on Hollywood. There are two versions of that. One is a premeditated version of what is censored, even before there is a script, which is the idea of sensitive issues, whether they are related to Taiwan or Hong Kong or Tibet … things that have something to do with human rights, what to be. All of that is essentially taboo in Hollywood.
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Even in a particular movie or TV series that is not expected to be marketed in China. Perhaps they say: “The budget for this film does not need revenue from the Chinese market. We are going to work on that, release the content and make it for the United States and other democratic countries ”. In that case, China discovers those movies and knows about them, even when a particular one does not make it to China, and it will penalize the studio and the filmmakers who participated in that particular movie so that other movies cannot be shown.
We saw it with ‘Red Dawn’, in 2012, where China was the villain. The filmmakers, Sony and MGM, ended up filming again, but the damage was done. China said: “we know that you refilmed it, we are not going to let it enter our market, and on top of that we will make it difficult for Sony and MGM to enter other films during the next year.” This retaliation goes beyond a single film and is the reason for the premeditated censorship that occurs in Hollywood when everyone knows that China should not be offended.
And that’s definitely what we have to stop. We are the pillars of creative freedom and freedom of expression as the Hollywood industry. And suppressing that because we are thinking about a particular market and what they may like or not like is completely hypocritical to what the whole foundation of the business represents.