When Hollywood Met China

When “Top Gun” came out, in 1986, every detail of its release seemed carefully orchestrated to prop up an image of American power. Recall the glossy-haired, twenty-three-year-old Tom Cruise, effortlessly speeding on his motorcycle, or flying an F-14A Tomcat and donning his iconic aviators. The film earned a hundred and eighty million dollars domestically, and managed to do what years of state-produced recruitment videos could not: upon its release, Navy and Air Force enrollments surged. Even Ray-Ban sales shot up. Yet the film’s most essential icon was perhaps Cruise’s bomber jacket, decorated with emblems celebrating America’s military campaigns in the Pacific.

But, when the trailer for the sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” was released, in the summer of 2019, something looked a little different. The patch on Cruise’s bomber highlighting the U.S.S. Galveston tour, previously featuring the flags of Japan and Taiwan, had been replaced with two different symbols of similar colors. The motivating factor for the swap? China.

While Chinese audiences had missed the first “Top Gun”—in 1986, their options were mostly limited to propaganda films and the odd Hollywood import—“Top Gun: Maverick” was entering a radically different media landscape. In 2019, China not only had access to Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters but often contributed to the largest portion of its ticket sales. Japan and Taiwan might have been American allies in real life, but any positive acknowledgment of them in the world of “Top Gun: Maverick” would run the risk of Chinese state censorship, potentially costing the film hundreds of millions. Paramount executives removed the offending flags for the preview without Chinese officials even needing to say a word.

The journalist Erich Schwartzel’s new book “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy” lays out, among other things, the history surrounding the disappearing badges. “This book is the story of what happened between the two ‘Top Guns,’ ” he writes in his introduction. For Schwartzel, a reporter who began his career covering the fracking boom for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, publishing a book on China’s creeping influence over Hollywood came as an unexpected development. But, upon joining the Los Angeles bureau of the Wall Street Journal in 2013, Schwartzel “soon started seeing China everywhere [he] looked.” Whether in the form of Chinese stars in American movies, or American movie theatres backed by Chinese investors, China’s encroachment on the American film industry was no passing fling. If anything, China had been putting its moves on Hollywood since at least the nineteen-nineties, just a few years after the first “Top Gun” was released.

Much of “Red Carpet” reads like a cautionary tale for American corporations seduced by the lure of the Chinese market. In Schwartzel’s telling, billion-dollar business decisions take on the erotic charge of romantic courtship, and turn on the thrill of a cat-and-mouse chase. The book unfolds “the story of this unexpected relationship,” as Schwartzel puts it, in three acts. The first opens with the founding of Hollywood itself—an American Dream factory that manufactured one of the nation’s biggest exports. Act II follows what happened once a post-Maoist China began letting American-made movies into its theatres, detailing the myriad miscommunications that ensue when a liberal democracy suddenly begins doing business with a Communist country that’s home to more than a billion potential new customers. The finale spotlights China, which, having absorbed the lessons of Hollywood in the past thirty years, now threatens to commercially eclipse it: about a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s annual ticket sales finally surpassed those of North America, making it the No. 1 box office in the world. “China wants to use the movies to brand itself to the world,” Schwartzel explains, “and it learned how to do so from the best.”

A key film in establishing the rules of engagement between Hollywood executives and Chinese officials is one you’ve probably never seen. Martin Scorsese’s 1997 movie “Kundun” was geared to be a prestige hit celebrating the life of the Dalai Lama. But, no less than two days after shooting began in Morocco, news of the film travelled to Beijing, setting off a series of unhappy phone calls back to Los Angeles. Panic began to spread among the Disney executives backing the film. (That Sony Pictures was filming its own Dalai Lama bio-pic, “Seven Years in Tibet,” that year didn’t help.) While “Kundun” depicted history that was more than half a century old, it was still far too soon for China. Peter Murphy, the then head of strategic planning at Disney, quickly realized that making this film could endanger the company’s entire future in China, where criticism was often punished with economic sanctions.

Caught between the threat of losing China’s business if it didn’t pull the film and a Scorsese-led media backlash if it did, Disney settled on a compromise: it would release the film, but as quietly as possible. After financially starving the promotion campaign to insure “Kundun” would bomb on opening week, Disney could then use lousy box-office numbers to tell Scorsese that it wasn’t worth expanding the film nationwide. “The bad news is that the film was made,” as the Disney C.E.O. Michael Eisner would later say. “The good news is that nobody watched it.” Yet even that wasn’t enough to appease Chinese stakeholders. On November 1, 1997, China announced the immediate cessation of “all business cooperation” with Disney, as well as Sony and M-G-M, who had similarly overstepped with politically sensitive films. It would take an extended apology tour from Eisner, and the release of the animated film “Mulan,” before China finally allowed Disney back into its fold, in 1999.

“Kundun” was only one of many unfortunate missteps in the initial pas de deux between Hollywood and China. “The early 2000s were the early days of the courtship,” Schwartzel explains, “with both sides getting to know each other, awkwardly misinterpreting intentions and setting boundaries.” Recall when the U.S. accidentally bombed a Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, in 1999, prompting China to retaliate by banning American movies in their theatres for six months. Or when Rupert Murdoch proclaimed telecommunications to be “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere” after purchasing the Hong Kong-based Star TV, only to have China outlaw private satellite dishes in response. (Murdoch would later apologize, shifting his business interests away from Hong Kong and toward Beijing.) And who can forget when Chinese censors blocked the 2004 workplace comedy “In Good Company,” starring Topher Grace as a young business executive who climbs the corporate ladder, because the very premise of the spunky upstart taking on the system challenged Communist Party ideals? Schwartzel recounts these blunders with playful levity. The awkward plotting between American businessmen and the Chinese government here appears to follow the beats of a romantic comedy—a feisty and hazardous affair that allegorizes not a battle of the sexes but one of empires.

As the relationship started heating up in the twenty-first century, both parties quickly realized that they would need to establish some ground rules. Because Mao banned American films in 1950, China had been largely absent from Hollywood’s ascent during the twentieth century, when the American film industry became a key tool in the nation’s rise as a global power. Schwartzel frequently cites the U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye’s 1990 concept of “soft power,” which often takes the form of popular culture or entertainment, appealing to the global market through attraction and persuasion, rather than the military force of “hard power.” Instead, China had been undergoing a different relationship to artistic production—one that prioritized the Party line above all else, as exemplified in Mao’s famous 1942 speech at Yan’an. While American directors were making global blockbusters such as “Star Wars” and “Saturday Night Fever,” Chinese ones were busy filming what were known as “main-melody” movies—propaganda films that expressed the values of the ruling party. By the 2008 Summer Olympics, translated copies of Nye’s theory of soft power had been passed among Beijing government officials, who were eager to project a picture of Chinese power that didn’t feel so forced. As Nye told Chinese university students a few years later, “The best propaganda is not propaganda.”

Even as American films were progressively allowed into Chinese theatres after Mao’s death, some boundaries remained in place. A deal known as the “master contract,” which would allow ten imported movies a year, was first formalized in 1994. The first film to enter under this contract was the 1993 action thriller “The Fugitive,” starring Harrison Ford, but it wasn’t until “Titanic” raked in forty-four million dollars at the Chinese box office—a number beyond what executives thought mathematically possible—that Hollywood really perked up to the potential scale of the Chinese market. The terms of the master contract would eventually double from ten to twenty in 1999, as part of a compromise China made to join the W.T.O. Today, the number stands at thirty-four.

American studios quickly learned that negotiating with Chinese studios would involve dealing with Chinese censorships—a “crash course,” as Schwartzel calls it, “in political, economic, and cultural concerns—and the most important foundational element of doing business there.” By 2008, China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television had even published a list of nineteen codicils laying out conditions that foreign movies needed to meet in order to be shown in Chinese theatres. Although some of the terms were fairly straightforward (no ghosts or time travel, lest these fantastical elements give citizens undue faith or hope), others were more open to interpretation (nothing that would pose a threat to Chinese national security). Soon, Hollywood films weren’t just being screened in Chinese theatres; Chinese policies were infiltrating Hollywood filmmaking as well.

Much of the intrigue in reading “Red Carpet” lies in the revelation of all the cinematic editing that would otherwise be undetectable. The original cut of 2006’s “Mission: Impossible III,” for instance, includes a scene of Tom Cruise running in Shanghai (a location choice made to appeal to Chinese audiences) that shows underwear drying on clotheslines in the background. But, after Chinese officials expressed concern that the image might portray their country in an unflattering and potentially “backward” light, Paramount Pictures omitted the “dirty laundry,” as Schwartzel puts it, from the scene.

One of Hollywood’s most expensive disappearing acts involved the reboot of “Red Dawn,” about a group of teen-agers defending the U.S. from foreign invaders. When M-G-M first envisioned the plot, in 2008, China was initially imagined as the antagonist. But, as Schwartzel explains, by the time editing had finished in 2010, “no Hollywood executive would touch a movie that turned their most important new customer into the villain.” Instead, M-G-M hired a special-effects company that painstakingly examined every shot in the film featuring a Chinese flag or emblem, and replaced those symbols with North Korean ones. (The actors, being East Asian, could at least stay the same.) The change was minor—barely noticeable to most American viewers—but it cost M-G-M a million dollars. While “Red Dawn” made mediocre returns in America, it ultimately accomplished something far more important: the film bypassed the ire of the Chinese government. “It was a movie most Chinese citizens would never see,” Schwartzel writes, “and yet it had changed at their government’s behest.”

As American producers learned what to remove from their movies, they also acquired the art of adding cinematic flourishes that might subtly bolster Chinese nationalism. These ornamentations, known as “Chinese elements,” work in service of a kind of contemporary Orientalism—one that benefits not the Western viewer but the Asian one. “One postproduction editor working in China was . . . under orders to make the movie ‘feel more Chinese,’ ” Schwartzel writes, “so it would carry a stronger patriotic message.” If “Red Dawn” enacted anticipatory censorship, then films like “Mission: Impossible III,” with its fleeting Shanghai backdrop, represented “a kind of reverse censorship in which a studio would stuff as many ‘Chinese elements’ into a script as possible in the hope that it would appeal to bureaucrats and audiences there. For the first time since Hollywood’s founding, creative decisions at the root level of moviemaking—casting, story lines, and dialogue—were being made with China, not America, first in mind.”

The “global battle for cultural supremacy” between waning America and rising China encountered a strange plot twist when “Top Gun: Maverick” finally came out, in May, 2022, after years of COVID-related deferrals. Framed as a sequel, which takes place more than thirty years after the original and in which Cruise’s character makes a comeback as an aging pilot who can still outfly the younger generation, “Top Gun: Maverick” dramatizes the staying power of the American empire—and, maybe even more compellingly, of Tom Cruise himself. (As generic Hollywood propaganda for the U.S. military, “Maverick” really has no business being as good as it is.) In what looks like another instance of preëmptive censorship, the movie’s antagonist—an Eastern enemy power whose pilots are inscrutable behind their helmets—remains conspicuously unnamed. Curiously, though, the offending flags of Japan and Taiwan had been reinstated on Cruise’s jacket in the final cut.

“Top Gun: Maverick” made record-breaking sales even though it was ultimately never screened in China at all. (An ironic outcome, given how much the Chinese audience loves anything starring Tom Cruise.) In the wake of its unprecedented box-office numbers, some American commentators even wondered if the film signalled a potential shift between the two superpowers. With returns like these, they asked, does the American film industry really even need to continue kowtowing to China?

“Red Carpet” doesn’t answer that question definitively. After all, it was published almost four months before “Maverick” hit theatres. But, throughout the book, Schwartzel warns of the risks of such imperial hubris. The story of the United States and China, as he tells it, is one in which China is never far behind: the circular, syncopated rhythms of his storytelling model the booms and busts of empires in transition. Schwartzel makes repeated comparisons between the current rise of China and that of America during the early twentieth century, the latter of which itself drew from the strategies of the former British Empire. He also recounts numerous examples of “technology transfer,” where China actively lifts from Hollywood’s playbooks, such as when the Dalian Wanda Group kept Warner Bros.’ theatre blueprints even after their partnership deal fell through, or when Western crew members noticed their Chinese counterparts taking cell-phone photos of scaffolding plans on the set of “The Great Wall.” Schwartzel frequently takes care to show the material substructure of China’s entertainment industry, tracing the overlapping histories of new media formats like DVDs and streaming. But perhaps more important than the take-up of new gadgetry and technological tricks is the country’s tentative acceptance of subliminal storytelling: over the years, China has begun to learn that the best propaganda does not feel like propaganda.

Even if China’s culture industry insists on replicating Hollywood’s infrastructure and generic templates, the ambient movie magic that permeates American cinema has proved difficult to reproduce. A memorable chapter in “Red Carpet” details the unexpected success of DreamWorks Animation’s 2008 movie “Kung Fu Panda” in China. (Schwartzel reports that the movie made “a healthy $26 million” there.) The film’s central conceit—a panda must learn kung fu in order to vanquish an evil snow leopard—originated not as a strategic ploy for the growing Chinese market but out of the spontaneous frisson of the DreamWorks writers’ room. A star was born in the movie’s protagonist, Po, a haplessly endearing panda who works at a noodle restaurant run by his father, a goose named Mr. Ping. Inspired by an array of Chinese texts and genres—kung-fu movies, ancient battle paintings, classical philosophy—the movie was both a loving homage to the country’s cultural history and the kind of idiosyncratic hero’s journey that Chinese filmmakers would typically be discouraged from making.

The Chinese viewing public’s love for “Kung Fu Panda” confounded the country’s authorities. With hopes of uncovering—and perhaps replicating—its secret code, Chinese officials and filmmakers interrogated stakeholders such as the producer, Melissa Cobb, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks, about the unusual narrative choices that made “Kung Fu Panda” such a hit. Why would they take an iconic emblem of China and turn him into an awkward and tired creature who overeats when he’s stressed? Was there something seditious implied in the choice of making the panda’s father a bird? “It’s just a goose,” Katzenberg replied. ♦

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