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Media & Entertainment

Hollywood panned in US for caving to Chinese censors

PEN America calls for 'substantive, three-dimensional' Asian American characters

Performers pose in Beijing's Forbidden City at a 2013 promotional event for "Iron Man 3" before its release in China.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- As concerns over Chinese censorship mount, American writers, journalists and movie fans are calling out Hollywood studios all too ready to accommodate Beijing's inclination to limit free speech.

The nonprofit PEN America this week published a report titled "Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing" that details how major film studios in the U.S. increasingly self-censor to "avoid antagonizing Chinese officials" who serve as gatekeepers.

And "if Hollywood -- the center of global filmmaking -- is unwilling to stand up to the censorship demands of a foreign government, there is little chance that filmmakers elsewhere will take such risks," the report said. "In effect, Hollywood's approach to acceding to Chinese dictates is setting a standard for the rest of the world."

The interview-based 94-page study shows how Beijing is driving changes in Hollywood films as the price of access to the massive Chinese market. Such titles as "Doctor Strange," "World War Z" and "Top Gun: Maverick" are listed as cases where creative choices were made with an eye toward pleasing Beijing.

"World War Z," a 2013 zombie flick starring Brad Pitt, initially had the zombie virus originating in China. This was deemed a nonessential element and altered in a failed attempt to secure a Chinese release.

Before the pandemic hit, China was expected to surpass the U.S. as the world's biggest film market in 2020, according to PwC and other industry watchers. But while the two countries are roughly even in terms of box-office revenues -- each commands about a third of the global total -- Hollywood still churns out the bulk of the world's movies. Titles of Chinese origin had only a 20.2% share of the global market in 2018, according to Box Office Mojo, against 67.6% for American movies, Nikkei reported in December.

"We recognize that the commercial stakes here are high, and are not expecting studios and executives to simply turn their backs on the Chinese market or Chinese investors," said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America and a lead author of the report, in a news release. "Indeed, we would not want to see them close off this important space for cultural and artistic engagement across borders. But as an industry built on creative freedom, Hollywood has an essential role to play in ensuring that foreign censorship does not reshape the landscape of American and global storytelling on film."

PEN America calls on Hollywood studios to resist self-censorship and censorship requests from Beijing. If refusal is not economically possible, they should make a Chinese version for mainland instead of showing the altered version to the global audience, according to the report.

"In attempting to depict the ways that Chinese censorship manifests itself in Hollywood, we are describing a phenomenon that takes place largely behind closed doors: meetings or conversations between Hollywood decision-makers in which the public is not present and for which there is no public record," said the report, which calls for more transparency.

It is important to have "studios actually working together and keeping track of the types of requests they get, and from whom they get those requests," said University of Virginia media studies professor Aynne Kokas, author of "Hollywood Made in China," at the report's virtual launch event. "Even if they don't share them publicly, if they're able to save that data, then they can actually push back against it collectively."

PEN America also wants Hollywood studios to give Asian American stories more attention and create more Asian American characters so as to avoid leaving a "vacuum" exploitable by Beijing.

The absence of Asian voices in Hollywood "only creates a vacuum for Beijing to enter in and insist on its own portrayals of Chinese characters in ways that serve its own interests rather than that of the audience," Tager said at the launch event. "We call for Hollywood to deepen its commitment to the inclusion and promotion of substantive and three-dimensional Asian and Asian American characters," he said.

As censorship pressure increases from the Chinese government, not only in China's own film industry but also in Hollywood, the researchers are very concerned about losing diverse voices and views on China and on the Communist Party.

Kokas said she loves seeing "films about a hundred years of the Chinese Communist Party, because it helps me to understand ... how China understands itself and how the Chinese Communist Party understands itself," she said. "I think the main issue is, are we able to have all of those diverse voices," including a hundred years of responses to the party across the world, she asked.

"And I think that we are in a danger of losing some of those voices," Kokas said.

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