Red carpet Hollywood, China, and the global battle for cultural supremacy

Erich Schwartzel

Book - 2022

"An eye-opening and deeply reported narrative that details the surprising role of the movie business in the high-stakes contest between the U.S. and China"--

Saved in:

2nd Floor Show me where

1 / 1 copies available
Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 791.43/Schwartzel Checked In
New York : Penguin Press 2022.
Main Author
Erich Schwartzel (author)
Physical Description
xix, 380 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 365-366) and index.
  • Banning Brad Pitt
  • Hearts and minds
  • Opening
  • Development hell
  • Spielberg in Beijing
  • Censorship
  • Fakeistan
  • Transformed
  • The rise and fall of China's richest man
  • Magic Kingdom
  • Hollywood's translators
  • The hero's journey
  • Heartland
  • Agents of the state
  • Wolf warriors
  • Watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Kenya
  • Epilogue: Sequels.
Review by Booklist Review

The history of China's relationship with Hollywood is a drama in acts, suggests Wall Street Journal reporter Schwartzel. It began when China opened theaters to U.S. films in the 1990s, and Hollywood studios began to realize the money-making possibilities of the massive Chinese marketplace. In the decades that followed, the studios increased their engagement with China, financing theater construction and becoming increasingly reliant on Chinese investment for big-budget films. But filmmakers clashed with government censors on sensitive issues, including Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square, and even on thematic concerns, such as stories in which an underdog challenges authority. Eventually, studios learned to avoid such collisions by self-censoring and incorporating overtly Chinese elements in their scripts. The poignant third act, playing out today, is a robust Chinese film industry that is no longer dependent on Hollywood and is more effective than ever before in projecting Chinese soft power around the world. Schwartzel's narrative emphasizes the trajectories of specific films and is leavened by interviews with directors and studio executives as well as a sophisticated understanding of internal Chinese political dynamics.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Wall Street Journal reporter Schwartzel makes an eye-opening debut with this accomplished account of how soft power--namely, entertainment--helped China become one of the most influential players on the global stage. In 1994, the country started allowing Hollywood movies in theaters, and soon after imported films began screening there, Schwartzel writes, the country rapidly became "a market too big to ignore and too lucrative to anger." But the country's government disapproved of politically inclined films such as Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. Studios that ran afoul of the regime (including Disney) were denied access to the Chinese market, and the government engaged in box office "blackmail" in order to make North Korea the villain (instead of China) in MGM's update of Red Dawn and to incorporate Chinese actors in Transformers. Schwartzel covers a lot of ground, explaining how, for instance, China's tactics for "using... movies to change minds" were learned from old Hollywood. While later chapters on China's influence on African infrastructure projects feel like filler, it's overall nonetheless an illuminating look at what China learned from Hollywood, and why Hollywood needs China to survive. It's a fascinating take on the crossroads of film and global politics. (Feb.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

As the United States and China duke it out for dominance in multiple domains, one interesting area has emerged as a source of real contention: the movies. With China now a key source of revenue for the U.S. film industry, Hollywood studios are scrambling to make movies that will draw in Chinese citizens while satisfying the strict Chinese Communist Party censors. Meanwhile, China has built its own formidable film industry. Get your tickets for this important story; Schwartzel has reported on the film industry for the Wall Street Journal since 2013.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

How China muscled its way into Hollywood moviemaking from the mid-1990s on to begin directing what America watches. "By 2020, China would be the number one box-office market world, home to grosses that routinely neared $1 billion--a market that became too big to ignore and too lucrative to anger," writes Wall Street Journal film reporter Schwartzel. While largely closed to American moviemaking before 1994, China recognized, as indeed Hollywood had learned after World War II, that making movies not only could be America's No. 1 export, but could also influence the public--and exercise political sway. The growth was slow but incremental, as the author demonstrates, from the creaky opening up to American culture after the death of Mao Zedong and China's embrace of capitalism in the 1990s to its full-blown censorship efforts under President Xi Jinping "as an essential arm to a recast Middle Kingdom." Schwartzel's examples are both fascinating and disturbing--e.g., the ability of China's behind-the-scenes influence to remove the Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise's iconic bomber jacket in the remake of Top Gun: Maverick in 2019; squelch the marketing of movies about the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, such as Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun; and vilify and ban publicly pro-Tibetan actor advocates like Richard Gere and China critics like Brad Pitt, as well as Nomadland director Chloé Zhao. The author adds that China finagled a deal at the time of the Beijing Olympics to build a Disney theme park in China, while Hollywood, eager to please, filmed an appalling remake of Red Dawn to please China ("anticipatory censorship"), with North Korea as the villains. As Schwartzel demonstrates, China has the money to demand an entertainment business that will support its new political rise, and Hollywood, aware of the vast Chinese market, is not saying no. Avid viewers will be surprised by this exposé of the seedy partnership between Hollywood and the Chinese government. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

one Banning Brad Pitt The dead would be moved for Disneyland. Generations of villagers lay buried under the acreage outside Shanghai that officials had allocated for China's first Disney theme park, but the ancestors would not get in their way. Homes could be razed, remains excavated, and families relocated. Even in the early 1990s, when Peter Murphy, the head of strategic planning for the Walt Disney Company, traveled to Shanghai, it was clear the country held larger ambitions for the miles of rice fields and shanties that the city's construction cranes hadn't reached. To Murphy, the acres of low-ceilinged homes and bicycle riders hardly looked like the setting for a polished, perfect Magic Kingdom where Snow White and Goofy might stroll. But when his host, Shanghai mayor Zhu Rongji, took in the expanse, he saw something different. "This," Zhu said, "is where Disneyland will be." When executives suggested it wasn't the right time to open a park, Zhu didn't understand what the holdup was. Chinese construction crews could clear the land the next day, he told Murphy. They could pour foundation on a Saturday and start building that Monday. The Shanghai government had already allocated the land for the future park in 1990, shortly after Zhu visited Disneyland in Southern California. In the minds of Chinese officials some twenty years after the Cultural Revolution, there could be no greater validation for their nation's economic miracle than the erection of their own Disney park in Shanghai. Murphy suspected that Zhu was right. There would be a Disney theme park in China-someday. But there was a reason that the company operated only four Disney parks around the world at that point. A company built on precision and customers' expectations of perfection didn't simply start building a park when someone suggested it. There was a playbook Disney deployed when introducing its brand to a new country. First, it would broadcast on local airwaves the Disney Channel, a twenty-four-hour network that introduced shows like Darkwing Duck and characters like Pluto in short order. Once families grew attached to the characters, Disney would open toy stores where they could express that love by buying stuffed animals and action figures. Only then would the company consider spending billions of dollars to build a theme park, which families wouldn't visit if they hadn't been seeded with affection for the characters in the years-long campaign. China would get its park, but on Disney's time line. Like China's ruling party, Disney operated in five-year plans, and in the mid-1990s, a crucial part of that plan was generating more business overseas. Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola and Ford were selling soda and cars to the Chinese, while Disney remained heavily weighted in the domestic sphere-about 80 percent of its revenue came from American consumers during this time. The Chinese, though, "had a lot of money under their mattress," as Lawrence Murphy, then Disney's chief strategic officer, told his colleagues. The one-child policy, enacted in 1980, had spawned a generation of only children in Chinese homes; for the first time in recent history, Chinese parents had money to spend on their children. Just a few decades earlier, Western entertainment had been banned in China, and only top officials had TV sets. The 1990s would be a decade in which China, in the eyes of American business, turned from a country into a market. All of that promise and ambition were suddenly endangered in 1996, when Murphy received a phone call to his Los Angeles office. It was the Chinese embassy in Washington. An official there had called Disney's general line and been directed to Murphy. "You started, in the last forty-eight hours, shooting a film in Morocco about the Dalai Lama called Kundun," the embassy official said. Murphy was dumbstruck. He had never heard of a movie called Kundun. He barely paid attention to most movies Disney made. A thirty-four-year-old Wharton MBA and strategic planner known as "the Enforcer" within Disney's notoriously political C-suite, Murphy kept the longest hours among executives and made sure the divisions making movies stayed within their financial parameters. He had little interest in the creative side of moviemaking. Disney's business was one of imagination, filling children with inspiration and aspiration on its best days and cementing gender roles and black-and-white morality on its worst. Murphy might as well have worked as an executive at a car company, taking carburetors instead of fantasy abroad. He called himself a "suit," proudly. He had to ask around about Kundun. His colleagues told him that it was, as the embassy official had said, a drama being directed by Martin Scorsese about the Dalai Lama. It had taken only two days after cameras started rolling for word of the production to travel from its set in Morocco to Beijing, where officials were not happy. After learning about the film and the story it told, Murphy realized that the making of this movie endangered Disney's entire future in China. He didn't know it at the time, but that phone call to his Burbank office was the start of a cautionary tale for all of Hollywood-in fact, it was a sign that the capital offered in China was inextricably tied to politics. On the afternoon of the call from the Chinese embassy, a future in which China would exercise remarkable power in Hollywood-the ability to green-light projects and change scripts like an invisible studio chief-began to take shape. In the meantime, though, Murphy needed to put out this fire. He called the person who was already on retainer to help Disney navigate the Chinese power structure. Henry Kissinger listened to Murphy as he laid out the Kundun issue. Murphy's mind was racing with the implications it might spell for Disney's plans in China, but the former secretary of state remained unfazed by the whole thing. Granted, Kissinger had negotiated Nixon's meeting with Mao Zedong in 1972, a dZtente that reorganized the world order. Given China's economic growth and the political power it had accrued since Nixon and Mao shook hands in Beijing, it was fitting that, twenty-four years later, he would be called in to save Mickey Mouse. Across town at Sony Pictures Entertainment, a government relations executive named Hope Boonshaft received a perplexing phone call of her own only a few months later, in the spring of 1997. Of all things, it also concerned a politically sensitive movie about the Dalai Lama, this one called Seven Years in Tibet. Howard Stringer, Sony Corporation of America's top executive, explained that the film had been shown to some Chinese officials, and it had so offended them that there was now concern that they might expel all Sony business from the country. The film wasn't just putting Sony movies at risk; in the mid-1990s, the Chinese box office could have hardly covered a few executive salaries anyway. It was threatening "big Sony," as employees put it-the manufacturer of computers and televisions that had led Japan's electronics boom since its founding just after the end of World War II. The prospect of losing access to China's factories and customers meant billions of dollars were on the line. "Howard," Boonshaft said to her boss, "that's a bit above my pay grade." Stringer told her to figure it out. Work on Seven Years in Tibet had begun innocently enough. In the early 1990s, Jean-Jacques Annaud, a French director known for little-seen but well-respected art house movies like The Bear and The Lover, was drawn to Asia after filming a movie in Vietnam. He had a strong desire to return and explore the continent's spirituality and asked his assistant for books he could adapt into movies on the theme. She brought him Heinrich Harrer's memoir. Harrer was a mountaineer who'd left Nazi Europe to summit Nanga Parbat in British India, only to be taken prisoner and eventually find himself tutoring a teenage Dalai Lama as war broke out between Tibet and China. "Fabulous," thought Annaud as he read the book and assessed its cinematic potential. "Here's a blond Aryan Nazi who becomes the teacher of the Dalai Lama." Brad Pitt, Hollywood's most famous blond, got the part. The movie was perfectly timed for the Dalai Lama's own star-making moment in Hollywood. He was born in a shed and identified as the fourteenth incarnation of the Dalai Lama at four years old, and now the docile monk lived in Dharamsala, where a government-in-exile of about 113,000 Tibetans sandwiched between China and India is based. As repression of Tibet grew, the Dalai Lama's public persona rose. In 1989 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1992 he guest-edited the December issue of French Vogue. The next year, Richard Gere, star of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman, went off script before announcing the winner for Best Art Direction at the Academy Awards to decry the "horrendous, horrendous human rights situation" in Tibet. Sharon Stone called herself a disciple. In a 1997 ceremony in India attended by 1,500 monks and nuns, Steven Seagal, the star of ultraviolent revenge fantasies like Hard to Kill, was anointed a tulku, a "reincarnated lama and radiant emanation of the Buddha." Disney's ABC put Dharma and Greg, about a young American woman embracing Buddhism, on its prime-time lineup. A charming monk who encouraged others to shun all earthly possessions had become the patron saint of Beverly Hills. His Holiness was so popular, in fact, that soon there were not one but two movies about him under way. Also, among those taken in were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial screenwriter Melissa Mathison and her husband, Harrison Ford, already a fixture in the Hollywood firmament as the star of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The couple had traveled to Tibet in 1992 and met a tour guide, Gendun Rinchen, who was accused by China of being a spy and imprisoned for nearly a year. Mathison was there preparing to write Kundun, a screenplay about the Dalai Lama's teenage years. Mathison wanted to ground Tibet in the story of the real people caught in a political and spiritual tinderbox. "Part of the tragedy of Tibet is that it's been Shangri-La" in Hollywood movies, she said, presented as a caricature and not as a pressing humanitarian crisis. "Nobody believed it existed in the first place, so its destruction was the destruction of a fantasy." She began telling associates in Hollywood that hers would be the authentic Dalai Lama production of 1997; she and Ford had flown to India and read the Kundun script with the man himself. Martin Scorsese came on board to direct. Then the Dalai Lama, ever the diplomat, also endorsed the story that had inspired Seven Years in Tibet. "Harrer is one of the few Westerners who [are] fully acquainted with the Tibetan way of life. His book is beautiful and good," the Dalai Lama said. He added, "Since I was 15 or 16 there has been a tragic situation in my country and most of my life has been spent under difficult circumstances. Buddhist teaching has helped me to retain hope and determination in this time, so perhaps a story about such a person must be a good thing." The history that both Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet explored was nearly fifty years old, but it was fresh in the minds of Chinese officials. China invaded Tibet in 1949, its soldiers sweeping through the region and ordering monks to reeducation camps. Soldiers destroyed religious temples and killed villagers. Bronze statues from the region were melted down for copper. A decade later, Chinese soldiers handily defeated a Tibetan insurrection, and the Dalai Lama escaped to India, worried his murder or capture would spell the total end of Tibetan Buddhism. He still lives there today, his power defined more by where he cannot go than by where he can. To Americans, Tibetans can be viewed as spiritual brethren to their country's own colonists, persecuted for their beliefs and forced to find refuge elsewhere. But to many Chinese, the Tibetans' argument for sovereignty, as one scholar put it, is akin to an American hearing about a "rally calling for Hawaii to be returned to the descendants of the last king of those islands." His mere presence-let alone his star power-is a one-man rebuke to what China considers its rightful borders. There was at least one U.S. executive who knew making a movie about this history was bad for business. Edgar Bronfman Jr., the CEO of Canadian beverage company Seagram, had acquired Universal Studios in 1995. Scorsese had a distribution deal with Universal at the time, but things quickly grew tense between him and the new owner. The director had recently wrapped his three-hour epic Casino, and Bronfman wanted him to cut forty-five minutes from the film to make it commercially viable. Scorsese refused, prompting Bronfman to wonder why a studio had employees if they weren't going to listen to the boss. Then Scorsese brought the boss Kundun. "I'm not doing this. I don't need to have my spirits and wine business thrown out of China," Bronfman said. Through his beverage deals, Bronfman was already aware of a principle Hollywood was learning in real time: in China, political mistakes are punished with economic sanctions. Alienating China with a movie wasn't about losing the paltry box-office sales it might yield. It was about allowing that movie to become a contaminant in the larger corporate structure, one that put far larger revenues at risk. For Sony, China was threatening a disruption of an electronics supply chain that would cost billions to rebuild. At Disney, where Scorsese took the project after Bronfman's refusal, it was the TV channel, theme park, and Mickey Mouse plush dolls that might not pass through Chinese borders because of a midbudget drama being made through a production deal signed by a subdivision of a subdivision. Chinese officials didn't care what the studio executives knew or when they knew it. "We are resolutely opposed to the making of this movie," said Kong Min, an official in China's film bureau said of Kundun months before it was scheduled to hit theaters. "It is intended to glorify the Dalai Lama, so it is an interference in China's internal affairs." When had a movie release ever been received with the language of spy craft? For the first time, a certain kind of message had been sent from China to Hollywood at large, as effective as if couriers had been dispatched to every office with a telegram. There's a saying in Chinese, sh j jõÿng h--u, which roughly translates to "kill the chicken to scare the monkeys." The chicken was the person who could be made a public example of; the monkeys were everyone who watched and learned from that person's mistake. The cases of Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun were the first clash of Hollywood moviemaking with Chinese politics, but as the industry's entanglement with China grew, Sony and Disney would have a lot of company in the coop. Excerpted from Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy by Erich Schwartzel All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.