March 23, 2017 8:05 am JST
Business Insight

Disney chooses its battles in Malaysia and China

China's emerging pink economy factors in 'Beauty and the Beast' saga

JEFFREY TOWSON

Walt Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" missed its original opening date in Malaysia due to the company's refusal to accept cuts by state censors involving a gay character. But the movie opened on time and in a big way in China, in complete, unedited form.

The film reportedly had 100,000 screenings on opening night, adding up to 43% of all the country's showings on March 17. Not only was the movie released uncut in a country where many Hollywood films draw censors' attentions, it even received an explicit nod from the government. The People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, tweeted: "Controversial gay moment kept in Disney's #BeautyAndTheBeast... requires no guidance for minor audience." 

This raises the question, would Disney have behaved the same way if China's film board had made similar objections to Malaysia's about the movie given that other Chinese media regulators have previously expressed concerns about same-sex romance? How is Disney making these decisions in Asia's growing entertainment market?

The "Beauty and the Beast" saga is actually a more complicated case than it first seems. China's entertainment market is certainly too large to ignore and Hollywood studios are always going to be acutely sensitive to government sensitivities. The Malaysian market is fairly small, so it is not surprising that Disney felt it could just walk away. However, a little controversy is actually helpful. "Beauty and the Beast" director Bill Condon was clearly stoking controversy by highlighting the movie's "gay moment" prior to release.

There is another issue that Disney is also likely sensitive to in this situation: China's large lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population and its emerging "pink" economy. As the world's most populous nation, China's gay population is likely 40-100 million, larger than Malaysia's entire population of 31.7 million.

Over the last couple years, China's gay population has been increasingly visible. Last May, some 34 companies, including Morgan Stanley, Starbucks, Citigroup, 3M and Didi Chuxing, participated in China's second annual LGBT job fair, drawing more than 500 prospective recruits. Also last year, Taobao, Alibaba Group Holding's popular shopping site, attracted more than 2,000 entrants for an online contest with gay dating app Blued in which six couples were chosen to fly to West Hollywood to be legally married.

Another area of the pink economy now getting significant attention is tourism. Gay consumers typically spend more time and money than heterosexuals on tourism, entertainment and other leisure activities as well as on gyms, beauty services, physical therapy and related aspects of personal image building. Meanwhile, gay dating app market leader Blued, founded only in 2012, has rapidly grown to more than 15 million Chinese members, giving it the largest such user base in the world. Meanwhile, Beijing Kunlun Tech last year bought control of Grindr, a gay dating app better known in the West, for $93 million.

Ashman's legacy

Finally, the "Beauty and the Beast" story can also be seen in relation to the legacy of Howard Ashman, the writer and lyricist for the original animated version of the film. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, shortly after the movie's premiere. Bill Condon has said that he added the "exclusively gay moment" that set off the Malaysian drama over the new live-action film as a tribute to Ashman.

While Ashman had a long history in theater and movies, it was his five years at Disney for which he is best known. With composer Alan Menken and animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, he created "The Little Mermaid," Disney's first new animated movie in 30 years. This was followed by "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." The three films revived Disney's fortunes and started a renaissance in animation.

Of these three films, it is "Beauty and the Beast" that most clearly speaks with Ashman's unique voice. Belle with, "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere." Cogsworth with, "If it's not baroque, don't fix it." And Gaston's famous,"I'm especially good at expectorating." Condon has said that the new movie drew on unused lyrics Ashman wrote for the 1991 movie.

The "Beauty and the Beast" saga raises interesting questions about how Disney approaches Asia's growing entertainment market. Viewed this way, Malaysians will, it now seems, only get a delayed look at the movie in theaters because the authorities wanted to cut its tribute to Howard Ashman, but China and its emerging LGBT community got to see it right away. That sounds like a pretty good result and a nice legacy for Ashman in Asia.

Jeffrey Towson is a professor of investment at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management and co-author of "The One Hour China Book."

In this "Business Insight" column, we track business activity in Asia, shedding light on changes and structural problems of the region's economy, politics and society.

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