WASHINGTON – China’s huge film market means the Communist Party can put pressure on Hollywood to produce films that will skyrocket at the country’s box office and avoid those that may displease Beijing.
At a time of increasingly examining how Hollywood is bowing to Chinese censorship, Chris Fenton, a longtime Hollywood executive who has witnessed how Beijing’s political preferences have shaped the film industry , published a memoir: Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma of Hollywood, the NBA, and US Affairs.
During his tenure as president of DMG Entertainment, Fenton produced 21 films, many of which attempted to overcome the tension between artistic independence and Hollywood’s desire to enter China’s burgeoning market. He recently spoke with VOA about how Hollywood film executives have responded to Beijing’s influence campaign. Notes have been edited for clarity.
Journalist: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me, Mr. Fenton. You spend a lot of time in your book talking about how much you tried to persuade your colleagues that it was necessary to make films relevant to Chinese audiences, or to change the scripts to pass them through Chinese censors. I understand that makes sense commercially, but how are you going to convince people that you are not going to bow to China, especially at this sensitive time?
Fenton: As the book progresses, it becomes clear that I am starting to realize that what we are doing, which is like bowing down to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) or China. And it was really amplified, and it really occurred to me when Daryl Morey, [former] Houston Rockets general manager, tweeted his support for Hong Kong. Suddenly this huge controversy erupted. Not in China, I knew he said delicate and forbidden things for Chinese purposes because the NBA was a big deal there.
What I didn’t expect was that the American public would react in a completely stunned and completely oblivious way to the kind of Chinese government bending and appeasement going on, not just with the NBA, but with Hollywood. and various other businesses, for as long as it lasted. So that was a real wake-up call for me, because it was a 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 Hollywood’s problem, it’s not just technology’s problem, it’s not just basketball or sports, or various other industries. It’s everywhere. To get products and services in this market, there are certain rules that you have to play to get past the CCP, so they give you access to consumers. But these processes, these regulations, these things that we need to live to do so have deteriorated more and more and amplified over time. And the encroachment on what’s true for Americans has gotten to the point where we either have to stop it now and fight back, or we’re just going to lose because it’s going to the point of no return.
Journalist: So, you say you didn’t think you were appeasing the Chinese until the Daryl Morey moment?
Fenton: What I was saying was that prior to the Daryl Morey moment of October of last year, the awareness of the American public as to how all businesses and industries engaged with China was pretty minimal. Right? They weren’t paying attention to what we were doing. Frankly, myself and the other cogs and cogs in the capitalism machine between the two countries weren’t really thinking about how what we were doing was damaging America, or damaging the world as a whole. or helping to give more influence or power to the Chinese Communist. Party. We were just doing a job. We were trying to gain access to a market. And we were trying to create reasons for the Chinese government to allow us to access the Chinese market, to monetize that. That’s all we did, just get the job done.
Journalist: Is China Really So Big In Hollywood? Or is it overkill? Chinese media suggest that there are tiny additions of Chinese elements in Hollywood films and that Chinese actors and actresses have just played supporting roles. Is there more influence?
Fenton: They have an incredible influence on Hollywood. There are several versions. One is a premeditated version of what’s censored before it’s even written or scripted, which is that idea with all kinds of sensitive topics, whether it’s Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Tibet, things that have something to do with human rights, whatever it is. These are essentially taboos in Hollywood.
Even though a particular movie or TV series shouldn’t be monetized in China. Maybe they’ll say: this movie’s budget doesn’t need the Chinese market to generate revenue. We’re going to work on it, be free with the content, and do it for America and other democratic countries. Well, in this case, China finds out about these movies and knows about them, even if that particular movie doesn’t enter China, China will penalize the studio or the filmmakers involved in that particular movie, so that they can’t get other movies.
We saw it with Red Dawn in 2012, where China was presented as the villain. The filmmakers, Sony and MGM, ended up doing it again, but the damage was already done. China said, we know you did it again, we’re still not going to let it in our market, but on top of that, we’re going to make it very difficult for Sony and MGM to bring in other movies for the year. next. This retaliation goes beyond a single movie, and that’s why premeditated censorship is practiced in Hollywood when everyone knows you don’t want to offend China.
And this is definitely something we need to stop. We are the backbone of creative freedom and free speech as a Hollywood industry. And to hush that up because we’re thinking about a particular market and what they might like and dislike is completely hypocritical to the very core of the business.
Journalist: How is China’s censorship different from that of other countries? Are you doing this for other countries too?
Fenton: You made the movie, knowing it’s not noticeable, whatever. You introduced yourself to China, and China gave you things that you need to get rid of to be played in that market. It’s something I can live with and obviously I know Hollywood can live with it. We do it for other markets, we did it for South Korea, Japan and Middle East market. It wasn’t just with China. I can say that everything is fine.
Premeditated [censorship] is wrong. The setup to access this market on its own is OK. But then the other one, which is terrible, is the one where they ask us to edit the movie for the world. They don’t want the world, for example, to see the Tom Cruises jacket in Top Gun, because it has the Taiwanese and Japanese flags on the back. So Paramount, the director of this movie, said alright, we’re going to either remove that or scramble it for the Chinese market. But China said: No, no, no, it’s not just for the Chinese market, we don’t want this to be seen anywhere in the world.
It’s a problem, because now they’re saying what we can and can’t show to someone in Argentina, or someone in Dallas, Texas, or someone in Frankfurt, Germany. It’s not acceptable.
Journalist: Has Hollywood done something about it yet?
Fenton: Industrialists have remained relatively silent, mainly because speaking out is detrimental to their businesses. Right now, as a squeaky wheel, it’s hurting my business. But I think that’s enough, we have to push back. I am not advocating decoupling, but we must seriously disrupt this relationship so that we can tackle inequalities and inefficiency and rebalance it so that it is favorable to the democratic world. Because at the moment, China has the upper hand.
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