The author captures the unique imbalance between the creators across the Pacific, with the ones in Hollywood struggling to get the Chinese money to sustain their market across the globe.
Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. Erich Schwartzel. Penguin Press. Pages 400. Rs 1,742
Tom Cruise’s Top Gun, released in 1986 was a testament to the idea of America back then. Adrenaline pumping action celebrating the saviours of democracy, the Americans. More than thirty years later, when the sequel of the movie, starring Cruise himself was announced, the world was a different place. Americans were no longer the saviours of the global order, and even the mind-boggling trailer, and what many call one of the best advertisements for the aspiring aviators, had to be customised to suit the Chinese whims and fancies.
In the first part, released in the Ronald Reagan era, Cruise’s character Maverick highlighted the USS Galveston tours to Japan and Taiwan, amongst other countries in the Pacific. The flags of those countries were visible below the collar, on the back of his jacket. When the sequel was in the works, the Chinese investors pointed out that the flags of Taiwan and Japan, both American allies, would be a problem, for one, Taiwan was not recognised as an independent country by China, and two, Tokyo’s decades-long cold shouldering against Beijing meant that American producers wanted to avoid any further trouble. Maverick was flying, but his strings were with the Chinese.
Erich Schwartzel has many such stories in his book that elaborates on the complex working relationship between Hollywood and China. Even for the creators from the land of the free and the home of the brave, censorship, today, comes naturally, as they begin factoring the Chinese interests.
For instance, released in 2013, Brad Pitt’s World War Z, a movie on zombie apocalypse, the outbreak was attributed to India, and scenes implying that the Chinese had anything to do with the spread were cut. Eerily similar to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) was doing in the beginning of 2020.
The second sequel of the Men In Black franchise, released in 2012, had the protagonists, as in the earlier movies, a memory-wiping device for the eyewitnesses each time they apprehended an alien. Before the movie could make it to the Chinese theatres, the memory-wiping plot point had to be done away with, for the censors were concerned it would reflect the authoritarian control of the Communist Party.
In Mission Impossible:3, Tom Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt runs through the streets of Shanghai in an action sequence. When the movie was taken to the Chinese censors, they wanted the background to be blurred, for the drying laundry in the sun would make the country look backward.
The censorship tales are many. Disney’s Iron Man 3, released in 2013, had an entire plot point changed from the comic books, to ensure that the antagonist was not from China. Eventually, within the same franchise, a Chinese superhero was introduced who takes down the same antagonist. The movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, was released in 2021. China also had a problem with the Harry Potter franchise. Schwartzel mentions in his book on how the censors wanted any reference to wizards or wizardry to be done away with in a Harry Potter movie!
There is an exception to this, however. Released in 2008, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the second part in the widely-acclaimed and popular Batman Trilogy, there is a sequence where a Hong Kong national is extracted from the city by the protagonist via an aeroplane, stumping both the police and the private security. Censors, disappointed over the sequence, wanted it to be removed from the plot, but Nolan refused to budge, and consequently, the movie, one of the best superhero movies in the history of cinema, did not get a release in China.
The story of Hollywood’s financial tryst with China goes beyond the censorship and focusses largely on three aspects. One, Hollywood’s penetration into China in the 1990s. Two, how China began flexing its muscles, both on the creative and financial side, during the 2000s, and three, how post-2010, China has been trying to create an export replica of Hollywood to supplement its Belt and Road ambitions, especially in Africa.
Often underplayed, Hollywood’s importance in the emerging markets, especially India and China, is elaborated upon. From how piracy undercut the potential revenues of filmmakers in China, to how state-owned studios were mandated to create a set number of movies in order to win a part of the distribution pie when it came to Hollywood movies, to the eagerness of the likes of Disney to do business with China, even at the expense of their principles and formulas, the book documents the decline of America’s negotiating prowess on a cultural front.
Schwartzel captures the unique imbalance between the creators across the Pacific, with the ones in Hollywood struggling to get the Chinese money to sustain their market across the globe, and their counterparts looking towards the state to create a market that celebrates their creations as they celebrated Titanic, Kung-Fu Panda, or the Transformers franchise while suppressing their political insecurities.
For instance, apprehensive about the success of James Cameron's Avatar, released in 2012, the Chinese agencies pulled it down less than two weeks after its release, for they were worried that the plot (indigenous Na'vi's taking on the greedy capitalists) may inspire residents in the countryside to protest as their lands were being taken away by the provincial governments for a construction spree.
The Chinese have had their scattered successes, most recently with Wolf Warrior 2 and The Wandering Earth, released in 2019, but the question remains if Beijing can replicate its export success story in the movie business.
Like Rush Doshi’s Long Game, Schwartzel’s Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy is a book worth reading cover to cover, and has to be one of the best books this year on China’s understated global assertion on the cultural front.
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