The Sino-Hollywood Alliance - Dreams of Electric Sheep

“I want to give an all-fireworks illumination of the intense passion in Stahr’s soul, his love of life, his love for the great thing he’s built out here, his, perhaps not exactly satisfaction, but his feeling certainly of coming home to an empire of his own—an empire he has made.”F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon

The American Dream is an interesting idea – one that has no other equal in history; there is no Turkish, Russian, or European Dream held in the same regard. In fact, in many of these nations, the notion of having a dream in the first place would be antiquated – why dream when those in charge will crush any form of change? But America was different; it’s sui generis character is often traced to the pilgrims who escaped the throes of European religious persecution and believed the New World was their City on a Hill.

When it became clear that America had its own destiny – that people would be allowed to aspire to something greater than merely their next meal or a warm bed, free from violence – the notion of a national character was born. In the midst of the Great Depression, the “American Dream” was a term eloquently captured by the historian James T. Adams who referred to the founding moment of America as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement."

Indeed, nowhere was this dream more accurate than in the world of cinema. Art blossoms in times of global distress and in the 1930s, Hollywood experienced one of its golden decades. The vitaphone and the introduction of talkies changed the nature of film and opened up new avenues of cinematic exploration. This feeling of endless possibility is highlighted by the tumultuous life of media juggernaut Samuel Goldwyn. In Scott Berg’s Goldwyn: A Biography, we witness the life of a man, born into a Jewish family as Samuel Goldfish, who immigrated to America with nothing from Poland: first taking work as a glove-cutter all the while navigating his destiny into the movie business. From scratch, Goldwyn built a media empire that changed how we look at and consume media.

In the early days of Hollywood, the majority of studios (MGM, Universal, and Paramount Pictures) were formed by Jewish entrepreneurs. Men like Samuel Goldywn, were the reason that Hollywood, and effectively the American Dream that they lived, propagated around the world and spread its Judeo-Christian values into the farthest reaches of the world. “The Hollywood Jews created a powerful cluster of images and ideas,” as Neal Gabler stated, “so powerful that, in a sense, they colonized the American imagination. No one could think about this country without thinking about the movies.”

Yet, over the past decade, Hollywood has had its values inverted: everything that was once accepted is now profane; the movies are designed, not for an American audience, but for one that’s Chinese as the Middle Kingdom is the biggest box office in the world. And slowly but surely, Hollywood – the institution where Disney, Hughes, and Mayer made their mark – is being strangled through Chinese censorship.

(Chinese) Funding Secured

“All are free to dance and enjoy themselves…But freedom to choose an ideology - since ideology always reflects economic coercion - everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same.” Theodor Adorno

Take a look at these plot-lines from some of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade – notice any bias towards a certain ethnic group?

  • In 2012, the Chinese government has the prescience to build arcs that save the world while the west flounders (interesting to think about in our times).
  • In Gravity, Sandra Bullock is rescued with the help of the Chinese space station; the movie was such a success in the Middle Kingdom that Chinese executives asked Bullock to re-shoot the Blindside, but with an underprivileged table tennis player.
  • To be true to the Dr. Strange books, Strange’s mentor was meant to be played by a Tibetan monk; however, in a twist of fate, the role was actually played a Celtic woman. This is quite peculiar until you realize that the film’s launch coincided with spurred tensions in the Tibet sovereignty dispute and, according to director Scott Derrickson, the team wanted to avoid “Asian stereotypes.”
  • In the Chinese-version of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark is saved by Chinese surgeons at the end of the movie. It would be unthinkable to see the reverse, an American surgeon saving a prominent Chinese figure, released in the CCP’s territory.

The dilemma is clear: either portray China in a patriotic, heroic light where they’re the heroes or don’t distribute your movie to the world’s largest movie market. Clearly, the studios had an easy decision to make.

Moreover, the reason for Derrickson’s removal of the Tibetan character has nothing to do with Asian stereotypes, but because the movie originally characterized Tibet as a sovereign nation with its own set of culture and people who are, in fact, Tibetans and not ethnically Chinese. The CCP famously wants to censor any mention of the 3 Ts in cinema: Tienanmen, Tibet, and Taiwan, where Tienanmen represents the discussion of any human rights violations carried out by the government.

Hollywood’s Shackles

So, how did Hollywood become intimate with China in the first place?

There are two main reasons. First, China only allows 34 foreign films a year into the country, so studios battle to the death, not unlike the Hunger Games, to make the cut. The reward is unquestionably worth it, especially if your movie tanks domestically: Warcraft, based on the eponymous game, performed tragically in America, but more than doubled its box office revenue in China.

Secondly, it’s a buyers market and China holds the pair of aces as the biggest box office in the world; the Marvel franchise did so well in part because the Middle Kingdom possesses the largest group of Millennials in history: they were the last generation to grow up devouring comic books and had just come into employment as the first Iron Man released, so they had ample spending power like I touched on in Consumption’s Death Spiral. This is an enormous issue in the sense that American audiences are now subject to the censorship standards of a foreign country – merely a form of brainwashing with fewer steps.

We get shown a very benign view of China, in which China is a normal country, no different from Paris, or Britain, or Germany. That is not the case obviously. If you speak against the government in Germany, nothing happens to you. If you speak against the government in China, they'll throw you in jail.

But like I declared in Exporting Tyranny, we can’t keep treating China as “a normal country, no different from Paris, or Britain, or Germany” for the ideological impasse is too steep; the price to pay is much too high. With the Uighur reeducation camps, China is committing the biggest human rights violation since the era of Mao and it’s happening under our noses without so much as a word of protest from western countries. Arguably, Hollywood is the most persuasive institution that could shine a light, literally, on this issue, but they avoid this topic because they’re hellbent on staying in the CCP’s good graces.

Movies penetrate the cultural psyche. There are some movies and TV shows that summarize generations, capturing their hopes – or even more starkly – their greatest fears. A by-product of the Greatest Generation, Star Trek inspired the spirit of adventure, leading to NASA’s audacious Apollo 11; on the other hand, Sex and the City characterized gen-X, one that is quixotically struggling to make their way in an America over-leveraged with status games and finance; yet, the Marvel movies are the perfect example of stagnation – instead of fixing their problems, Millennials gave up on the American Dream and eagerly searched for existential answers in the next Avengers sequel. This ideological vacuum has led movie makers awry and even into the waiting arms of a foreign government.

Is streaming different?

Regardless of warped ideology, studios were already disintegrating, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Will streaming platforms necessarily follow in their footsteps?

For good reason, the dominant western streaming platforms aren’t available in China, therefore they have no need to reconfigure western content to a Chinese audience. However, I think Netflix and such platforms are nevertheless pushing a different agenda, but that’s an issue for another day. It doesn’t seem likely that the CCP suddenly accepts these platforms over their homegrown ones like iQiyi because the content of Netflix et al. is orthogonal to their values – they can’t suffocate every TV show, like South Park, that pokes the bear. It’s easier when you only let in 34 films a year rather than thousands of TV shows.

Luckily, streaming has an entire industry to consume before geopolitics become an issue. Streaming companies won’t get their money from the CCP if they don’t have to. The global box office was $42.2 billion last year and with nearly 99% of the world’s theaters closed, the movie industry is projected to lose more than half of that this year. That pessimism belies a wonderful opportunity for such platforms to steal ample market share going forward and completely upend the movie industry, realigning incentives between consumer and company.

Yet, the disintegration of movies that share the American spirit could be a cause for the divisiveness that we’re seeing nationally. As someone who loves cinema and especially the dynamic analysis of film commentary, it’s tough to stand by and watch a staple of American culture trampled by circumstance – another sector that has been ingloriously chewed up and spat out by a silicon valley upstart. Still, the industry has moved so far from its roots as to become unrecognizable; thankfully, out of crisis, we’re given the opportunity to choose the road that leads to a different future, not to one that is always the same.

Here are some books and documentaries if you’re interested in the roughshod formation of Hollywood and its eventual marriage with the CCP:

Until next week!

  • Anirudh