Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel’s book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, warns in its prologue: “China’s pressure on Hollywood and its own entertainment industry have the potential to challenge the American film industry as the chief narrator of the twenty-first century.”
The book overall looks at the history — and sometimes shocking vagaries — of the Chinese film industry through to the modern era. Schwartzel’s lens takes in political and cultural ambitions as well as the rise and fall of some prominent players.
Red Carpet is also a cautionary tale for doing business with the Chinese film industry. A coveted market for Hollywood with its 1.4 billion population, it’s also become increasingly thorny to navigate as it turned more inward-facing over the past year and allowed fewer studio movies onto its screens. With turnstiles under the strict control of a Communist government that puts patriotism and towing the party line above all else, it can also be a minefield that controls its internal messaging by making examples of stars, such as Fan Bingbing, who have fallen foul of the authorities. And, it’s not above punishing foreign companies or individuals for what seem from the outside to be minor infractions.
So is it all still worth it? And what lessons can Hollywood take away from the recent past? In my wide-ranging conversation with the author below, we discuss the intersection of Hollywood and China; the latter an unpredictable bedfellow, but one which Schwartzel believes is too big to ignore.
DEADLINE: Let’s start with the Fan Bingbing affair which kicked off just after The 355 had been such a hot project at Cannes in 2018. What kind of lesson is that for Hollywood in terms of how to navigate such a slippery slope when one of the linchpins in your movie is tied to an industry where the dictates are made by a controlling Communist government?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I see it as part of a trio with Shang-Chi and The Eternals in that all three movies made casting or hiring choices that they thought would give them an advantage in China but instead became political liabilities. I think it speaks to how aggressive Chinese leaders have become and the role that they expect the entertainment industry to fulfill in their country. The fact that we’re in this moment when decades-old comments can be unearthed and kill a movie’s chances I think says a lot about how China exercises more scrutiny over how its citizens, or even its non-China based citizens, behave.
When Fan Bingbing was put in The 355, it was one of the reasons that package was so hot because it seemed like it would all but guarantee some appeal in China. Instead, because of things happening in China, any kind of direct involvement like that becomes more and more of a liability… I wonder if it’s a case of her involvement ironically making it harder to release in China.
DEADLINE: You mentioned liability, but it’s also incredibly unpredictable. In a country that’s so heavily surveilled, there have been serious consequences from things outed on the internet. Chloé Zhao’s years-old comments were unearthed and Simu Liu’s years-old comments appeared after that, essentially kiboshing the releases of Nomadland, The Eternals and Shang-Chi. And then John Cena gets called out for referring to Taiwan as a country. It feels purposeful. Is that targeted, do you think? Who is doing that? Who is sitting there searching for that?
SCHWARTZEL: It’s such a great question — it’s like insane oppo research, and I think it’s hard to know where it originates and then once it spreads, whether or not it’s being spread organically by these nationalist mobs in China, is it being spread by state actors, or if it’s a mix of both?
Whenever we see these online mobs descend on Chloé Zhao, it feels like some of it is everyday patriotic or nationalist Chinese civilians. But then part of it also seem amplified by state channels that want to make sure that if there’s a lesson to be learned, that it’s imparted.
DEADLINE: So somebody maybe randomly finds it, or maybe it’s oppo research as you say, and then it’s relied upon to use that as the thing to then spread and sow?
SCHWARTZEL: We know that the government can take things off of the Chinese internet if it wants to, and so when these mobs and these stories just proliferate without any kind of censorship or constraints, it feels like there might be a reason why.
DEADLINE: Okay, Fan Bingbing is one thing because it was a tax issue. But Chloé Zhao and Simu Liu’s comments are from a long time ago — so is there another layer behind of, “We don’t want Marvel movies to continue their dominance,” or is it less micro than that and more that nobody can say anything against China and that’s it?
SCHWARTZEL: I think it’s more (the latter). I think that a) right now there’s a lot of sensitivity about Chinese-born people who leave the country and have citizenship elsewhere and b) I think the lesson it imparts is, “Don’t say anything negative about China EVER because we will find it years later and comments you make today that you don’t think will ever come back to haunt you still can.” But there is still a big question about how these comments get unearthed.
DEADLINE: It’s fascinating to me. At the same time, do you think the studios would also do that kind of pre-emptive digging going forward?
SCHWARTZEL: The effect that might have is it could be a blow to representation. Like, if you want to cast a Chinese actor or hire a Chinese director but you’re worried about some stray comment that was made a decade ago keeping the movie from playing in the country, then the studios will be playing it even safer.
DEADLINE: Fan ultimately publicly apologized, but then you have people who are not Chinese like John Cena who makes a misstatement — and this is a guy who speaks Mandarin — and he makes an apology video. In your book, you talk about Michael Eisner ultimately apologizing after Kundun upset China and Disney was banned back in 1997. So, I wonder what you think about this whole apology vs non-apology issue.
SCHWARTZEL: The conclusion to draw is that apologies work. This does go back to the Eisner story because in that transcript after he apologizes to the Chinese official, the official says, “I very much admire your courage in correcting mistakes.” And (recently) John Cena apologizes and the release of F9 goes on in China as planned.
It’s probably a thing of the Chinese officials wanting others to see those apologies as kind of a lesson that can be imparted to everyone. I also think that there’s a cultural thing where it’s just a way for China to save face in a way if the person who offends also very publicly apologizes for it.
DEADLINE: It feels like having to kowtow, but I gather in these discussions that it’s a personal decision rather than the studios putting pressure on these folks.
SCHWARTZEL: I would have to imagine that it would have to be a personal decision… I just think the pattern does show though that apologies do tend to open things back up. I think the John Cena example is instructive because it’s like very few people read his comments and thought very much of them, but then to see him have to make such a public apology kind of teaches everyone to be very careful with their words.
DEADLINE: How do you think the controversy over the Bruce Lee scene in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood may have impacted Quentin Tarantino going forward in China?
SCHWARTZEL: It’s hard to say for sure. His movies have a rocky history in the market, and are rarely seen as obviously appealing to audiences there. He’s one of a handful of directors — Christopher Nolan is another — who can push back on studio edits for the Chinese market. But when it comes to the Bruce Lee controversy, China has banned directors and actors for less.
DEADLINE: So, how do you create reliability and guardrails that are needed to run a multi-billion dollar business when it seems like a person or a company can be banished from one day to the next?
SCHWARTZEL: That’s the challenge. It’s the unpredictability, and also I think one thing that these recent examples have reminded everyone is that one of the reasons that China makes such a big deal about what appear to be minor infractions is that it just lowers the bar with risk for anyone.
The observation becomes, “Oh, wait, China got mad about that? We have to all reassess the risk we’ll take.” It’s like the Top Gun: Maverick example (patches depicting the Japanese and Taiwanese flags were swapped out on the iconic jacket worn by Tom Cruise); studios are doing the work on behalf of the Chinese government because they’ve ingested all these lessons from other examples.
DEADLINE: Maverick is backed in part by China’s Tencent via its investment in Skydance. The company has successfully partnered with Hollywood, and so has Alibaba via its investment in Amblin — but do you know what happened with Alibaba founder and Chairman Jack Ma? One day he’s at a Lakers game with Ari Emmanuel, then he buys part of Amblin and a few years later, he retires…
SCHWARTZEL: I know, it feels like another example of flying too close to the sun. And, it seems like the art of being a Chinese billionaire is managing just how public you are.
DEADLINE: But Jack Ma seemed somewhat more humble than say Wanda Chairman Wang Jianlin who was so full of hubris then sort of crashed and burned — something else you address in the book.
SCHWARTZEL: Right, but I think the key difference is that there hasn’t been a fire-sale of the Alibaba assets like there was with Wanda. They’ve had other financial constraints put on them. It’s interesting too because (Alibaba) really were for a time the case study in how China could work with Hollywood and vice-versa.
DEADLINE: They’ve done well bringing Amblin films like Green Book and A Dog’s Purpose to China. Does that continue, even though Ma has stepped back?
SCHWARTZEL: They have got a formula that works and what I think is interesting is that it’s a formula that works but doesn’t feel like they’re overextending themselves to make it work. It’s much more targeted than a lot of the previous joint ventures were. And it did seem also like Alibaba knew how to map selling these movies to the Chinese audience. I guess the balance that would need to be struck is because one of the reasons Jack Ma was such a public figure was because of his affiliation with their entertainment ambitions. There aren’t much shorter ways to get a global profile than standing on a stage with Steven Spielberg…
DEADLINE: In terms of coproductions, or cooperation agreements, that once appeared to have such promise but have petered out after lackluster performances or lawsuits, do you think that the U.S. and China can work together in the future? And do you think anybody wants to?
SCHWARTZEL: I think there are always going to be independent producers running around with scripts about the Flying Tigers and other moments in history that feel like natural coproductions. But the impression that I’ve gotten is that people have come to think that it’s too much work and that there’s too much uncertainty, and there’s still not really a proven case of a coproduction having been worth it.
I feel like we’re moving in a direction where the major studios have realized that the best way forward is just to make big blockbuster spectacles that still aren’t made by any other market and sell those there rather than try and reverse engineer some kind of Chinese appeal in them. There are numerous examples of movies which, on paper, should have worked in China and then also all of these political tripwires coming out of nowhere because of any effort to work more closely with China.
DEADLINE: We just saw Spider-Man: No Way Home gross over $1.8 billion worldwide without China. What is an example of a movie that has suffered from not releasing in China? And what’s one that rode the wave perfectly?
SCHWARTZEL: Some of the recent Marvel movies are movies that should have had an advantage in China like Shang-Chi… Now, it’s so crazy and I think we’re not going to really know what’s going to happen until we see what happens with Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. I think Zootopia is a pretty interesting example of a film that rode the wave, especially because Disney weren’t trying, it just sort of connected on a story level.
DEADLINE: So does it become that some movies just don’t get into China and it doesn’t matter and then some do? How many times will Hollywood continue trying to jump through certain hoops to placate a market that can do anything it wants? When do they decide it’s not worth it?
SCHWARTZEL: I think that even if we do enter a world where some movies get in and some movies don’t, in some ways that still allows China to succeed. If studios are making films and greenlighting projects and approving scripts with even the possibility of getting into China in the back of their minds, then they are going to avoid anything that would jeopardize that. So, China’s efforts to influence how it’s portrayed and what is shown of its culture and of its government and of its people in the American movie will still be exercised. Oftentimes, these changes are being made to movies and the films still aren’t getting in, so it’s all for nought. Sometimes the censors say, “You have to change this and then we’ll let it in,” but sometimes it’s more pre-emptive than that, and in a way I think that makes China even more powerful.
DEADLINE: From my understanding, studios aren’t putting China in their greenlights — maybe unless you have a surefire franchise movie. Because everything is so unpredictable at this point, what do you think Hollywood should take away in terms of how it treats China?
SCHWARTZEL: I can see that making sense from a greenlight meeting perspective, but it’s not like any other market. If you’re Universal or Disney, you’ve also got a theme park to worry about, or even if you’re Paramount you have all the other parent company holdings to worry about.
There’s precedent for China economically punishing companies any way it can, and so if this means a movie is put into production that angers China, not caring about the Chinese box office isn’t seeing the whole picture of how that can come back to haunt you.
DEADLINE: During all the Trump era trade war issues, you mention in the book that local distribution and exhibition executives were concerned it would have a ripple effect of China not allowing American movies in, but that feels almost like small potatoes, like film is such a small aspect of the whole in terms of retaliation…
SCHWARTZEL: Over the past couple of decades, Chinese authorities have turned off Western influence because they want to bolster internal patriotism or support. So was the past year essentially like an extended blackout period because they wanted to bolster nationalism before the Olympics or ahead of the party congress? There’s an internal dynamic there too. It felt like during the Trump years the response of the studios and the MPAA was to duck and cover and hope that it didn’t become part of the broader trade war and just to maintain the status quo. Once a month people would point out that the (film) quotas needed to be renegotiated, that it was long past time for that thing to be discussed, and nothing would happen. So I’m not sure how much of it might be China wanting to support its own features, China wanting to bolster nationalism at home or China wanting to punish the U.S. anyway it can.
DEADLINE: After the dearth of 2021, what do you think about the recent dates that have been confirmed for films like Uncharted and The Batman? Do you think that bodes well, or just that China had a lackluster New Year period?
SCHWARTZEL: I don’t know if this makes China a good thing to write about or a bad thing to write about, but the answers always seem to be all of the above, right? I think the Doctor Strange sequel will be a key test not just in terms of whether it bodes well for Marvel, but also if the sequel does get into China it will be very interesting to see how it performs and whether or not this year of several Marvel titles not getting into the market depressed overall enthusiasm for the franchise.
DEADLINE: Can Hollywood in general ignore China going forward? Does it still matter?
SCHWARTZEL: I think it still matters. I think especially with the domestic theatrical market still being touch-and-go, I think it’s still too big to ignore and a couple high-profile rejections are not going to stop studios from doing what they can to get in there. I think the math is still pretty easy, it just requires one number: 1.4 billion — and everything else follows. So I think China still matters to Hollywood, the question is: does Hollywood still matter to China?
DEADLINE: Doesn’t it have to so China can maintain No. 1 global status? They can churn out the propaganda movies, but does the market become isolated if it shuts out Hollywood and turns off those grosses of which it keeps a big chunk — even if money is not the first thing China cares about.
SCHWARTZEL: So maybe it’s like they just control the flow so they can remain number one and when they need to let more movies in, they do.
DEADLINE: There’s clearly an appreciation in China for Hollywood. One tidbit from the book that struck me was when you went to see Renny Harlin in a hotel in Huairou, and the bathrooms were designated for men and women via photos of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.
SCHWARTZEL: What I was fascinated to see was this kind of appreciation for old Hollywood aesthetic. I saw it not only in that hotel but in other parts of China where Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin or all these sort of ancient stars of the silver screen were celebrated and referenced despite the fact that China was shut off to those movies when they were coming out.
What’s interesting to me is there certainly are Chinese stars that could have their face outside of a bathroom — what an honor! — but I think what’s fascinating is that there probably are Chinese stars that would be more recognizable than Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable and yet they still went for the Vivien Leigh/Clark Gable option rather than a Chinese option. It speaks to this feeling in China that despite the economic dominance that they’re accruing, and even the soft power that they’re accruing, that there’s still a romanticization and a seeking of the approval of the original global entertainment industry in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: Also in the book you mention Chinese film industry execs in 2019 concerned by how China could go from being a big market to being a beloved market. In today’s world, is that possible? The recent local blockbusters have not travelled.
SCHWARTZEL: They haven’t had success exporting to the West, but it does seem like the Belt and Road Initiative is giving them something of a distribution network to try. That’s why I was so fascinated to go to parts of Africa. Because those countries are more accustomed to receiving foreign entertainment than the U.S., I think there’s a greater reception to Chinese entertainment.
DEADLINE: Is that just on an entertainment level or also on a political level?
SCHWARTZEL: Based on a number of people I spoke to, there was a political element as well. I think because the movies and TV shows that China is exporting to Africa only show an amazing developed lawful country, there were people I would speak to who were getting a very specific and flattering view of China. I watched this movie with a young woman — I think she was about 18 — and we watched a movie that was about these Chinese secret agents that were busting up a drug ring. I asked her what she thought about it after and she said it was a movie about how the Americans needed China’s help to bust up this drug ring.
DEADLINE: So the message really got across…
SCHWARTZEL: Oh, it very much got through.
DEADLINE: Back in China, what was your access like? Were people wary of you when you were researching the book?
SCHWARTZEL: Access was basically okay. What I discovered was that as long as I could travel to China, there was a real reception to talking and I noticed a real sense of pride in what China had built and managed to do in just 20 years of commercializing its entertainment industry. When I would go to the Shanghai Film Festival or the Hong Kong market and walk the floor it felt like there was a real enthusiasm to talk to a reporter and share stories.
DEADLINE: Given that this is a market that doesn’t allow references to homosexuality on screen, like removing all mentions of it in Bohemian Rhapsody, did you have any extra issues as a gay man?
SCHWARTZEL: I think the gay thing didn’t really come up too much. In fact, I met and in some cases befriended a number of gay men who were working in the Chinese entertainment industry and we would go out sometimes to gay bars or things like that. I feel like if I had concerns or was taking precautions it was more from a sourcing and surveillance standpoint than from some kind of a personal fear. (Bohemian Rhapsody) feels like one of the clearest examples of how China likes a reality on screen that does not reflect the reality off screen.
But in terms of access, I was struck by how often people, if you could talk to them on background or off the record, would acknowledge how China’s system operates and that kind of thing. I always tell people this because I feel like there’s a tendency sometimes to think of Chinese audiences or Chinese film executives as this kind of monolith and like an un-nuanced group, and I can’t tell you the number of Chinese moviegoers I would meet who would say, “Oh, I thought that was pretty good for a propaganda movie.” It’s not like they’re not able to identify what’s going on or what their government wants them to see or how it wants them to interpret it.
DEADLINE: You talk in the book about 2017 blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 being a sort of turning point as it “managed to wrap Xi’s propagandistic messaging in popcorn entertainment.” But it feels like more recently the propaganda films have veered away from the popcorn. And there are fewer overall movies that are pure entertainment.
SCHWARTZEL: One thing you think China would like to see is just one of those movies crossing over and breaking out. I think it’s probably asking a lot to think this would become a steady drumbeat of crossover hits.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Wolf Warrior, I had never heard this anecdote you mention in the book about Wu Jing campaigning himself in Hollywood and getting drunk with Vin Diesel, and Dwayne Johnson promising him a role in a Fast & Furious movie…
SCHWARTZEL: Yeah, totally. I was kicking myself when I was learning about it that I did not know about it at the time and did not go out on the town with Wu Jing campaigning for his Oscar — what a freaking missed opportunity.