China is getting more and more involved in the American movie business, and there may be some negative consequences.
The Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese multinational conglomerate corporation, plans to invest billions of dollars in Hollywood’s “Big Six” studios, the China Daily reported. Wanda controls thousands of movie screens around the world and is owned by the richest man in China, billionaire Wang Jianlin.
The corporation recently acquired Dick Clark Productions for $1 billion, and it purchased AMC in 2012 and Legendary Entertainment earlier this year in billion-dollar deals. But Wang is still looking for more — he wants at least one of the ‘Big Six’ film studios.
AMC bought Carmike in May, turning AMC Theaters into the largest theater chain in the world and giving Wanda greater control over American movie screens. After Wanda bought AMC, the number of Chinese movies shown in the U.S. annually in company theaters jumped from zero to 10.
Wanda attempted to buy a 49 percent share in Paramount Pictures a few months ago, but the deal fell through. Afterwards, Wanda signed a co-financing agreement with Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Wanda is interested in all of the Big Six studios, which Wang calls “real global film companies” and essential parts for the building of a “real movie empire.” “My goal is to buy Hollywood companies and bring their technology and capability to China,” Wang told Reuters in August.
One of Wanda’s major competitors is Disney, one of the Big Six. “We want to smash them,” Wang explained to CNN in September, “It’s not personal — it’s where the interest of the company lies.”
There are growing suspicions in the U.S. that Wanda’s interests extend beyond business and into the political sphere.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on a quest to make China’s voice heard internationally. “President Xi Jinping has vowed to promote China’s cultural soft power by disseminating modern Chinese values and showing the charm of Chinese culture to the world,” China’s Xinhua News Agency wrote in 2014. “The stories of China should be well told, voices of China well spread, and characteristics of China well explained,” the president said, according to the state-sponsored paper.
Wang told the Economist that China’s soft-power policies are “very beneficial” to his company, and Wanda reportedly has a number of key investors with political ties. Furthermore, it would be highly unusual for the Chinese government not to have links to a cultural enterprise of this size and level of influence given increased state involvement in creative cultural industries.
Wang’s goal is to “change the world where rules are set by foreigners,” he revealed on a Chinese talk show in August.
Representative John Culberson (R-TX) wrote a letter to Assistant Attorney General John Carlin in early October calling for an investigation into whether Wanda is in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which protects the U.S. from foreign lobbyists and propaganda entities. Culberson cited concerns that Wanda may use studio acquisitions for propaganda purposes.
Not everyone is opposed to Wanda’s increased investment in Hollywood though. “It certainly props up Hollywood. If you look at the history of Hollywood, it’s propped up by equity investment from third parties, and without it we would be a dying industry, so that’s great,” Schuyler Moore, partner of the corporate entertainment department at Stroock & Lavan LLP, told the China Daily. “If somebody wants to come in and put in equity, it gives us another couple of years to figure out (who else will) come in and invest in Hollywood. It’s part of the non-stop attraction of Hollywood.”
Regardless of their intentions, Chinese film industry leaders are already reshaping Hollywood.
“One main character is Chinese … it is very simple. Without that requirement it does not meet our standards,” Miao Xiaotian, the general manager of China Film Co-Production Corporation, explained at the recent U.S.-China Film and Television International Expo.
“You have to include Chinese elements within the story itself,” said Xian Li, director of production for 20th Century Fox.
Wei Zhang, president of Alibaba Pictures and SVP Alibaba Group, told Chinese-American actors to learn Chinese. She also said that they should visit China to “make sure [they] understand [their] country.”
The Chinese movie market is strictly managed by the Chinese government, which believes “art serves politics.” China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) maintains tight control over what enters the market, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report from last year. A 3D release of Top Gun was rejected because it highlighted American military dominance. Parts of Men in Black 3 were nixed because the scenes in which civilians have their memories erased could be perceived as a commentary on China’s internet censorship. Sony’s Captain Phillips did not make the cut, for it showed America investing impressive amounts of military power into saving one soldier, which could spark criticisms that China might be unwilling to do the same.
Hollywood is already changing to appease the gatekeepers for the Chinese film market. For Mission: Impossible 3, a scene of clothes drying on a clothesline in Shanghai was removed because it did not present the city in a positive light. Skyfall was forced to delete a scene of James Bond killing a Chinese security guard because it is unacceptable for a Chinese person to be killed by a foreigner.
Neither the remake of Red Dawn nor World War Z, despite conciliatory adjustments, were released in China. Even the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid — which was filmed with a Chinese sanctioned-script put together by the China Film Group — was rejected after the project was completed because the villain was Chinese. When the movie was finally released in China, 12 minutes were removed.
The China factor is likely to become more pronounced as Chinese companies buy up or sign deals with American film studios, boosting the power of the Chinese film industry. The same will probably be true as the Chinese film market becomes more valuable.
China has a rich culture with many creative ideas that would appeal to the American audience, and there are a number of talented Chinese actors and actresses. But there is one big pitfall: China’s growing involvement in American media opens the door to Chinese propaganda in the U.S. or foreign censorship of American films.
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