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Hollywood’s cultural revolution

Hollywood’s cultural revolution

When China opened up to the West, Hollywood saw a massive opportunity. But China had its own dreams. Now the movie studios are beginning to realise what they gave away

Date commissioned
14 April 2022

Date published
20 June 2022


Why this story

There’s nothing particular to the movie industry about the theory of Western engagement, whether that’s with China or Russia. That’s why the way Hollywood behaved in order to gain a foothold in China is so important, because it stands for the whole. 

In fact, even to call engagement a theory risks overcomplicating it. It’s really a simple hope that the more people in societies built along different lines can see Western values, beliefs and lifestyles, the more they’ll want to experience them. The West thought it might triumph not by speaking softly and carrying a big stick but by shouting enthusiastically and carrying a credit card. And big corporations could make lots of money along the way.

But what if your partners in this endeavour don’t really want engagement? What if – as Hollywood’s adventure in China foretold – they’re more tenacious and dogmatic about their values than we in the West are about ours? The deal collapses, as it has between China and Hollywood.

China doesn’t need or want Hollywood anymore. And the beauty of Hollywood’s experience is that it’s a parable as well as a case study. We could have told the same story of the dashed hopes of engagement with China about the internet, the corporate world, human rights, academia or a dozen other spheres, and we’d have arrived at the same conclusion. The West invested a lot in engagement but whether because it wasn’t assertive enough about its values, or because the profit motive was too strong, it got the wrong end of the bargain. Ceri Thomas, editor

Transcript

“You should be at least a two star admiral by now, yet here you are: Captain. Why is that?”

“It’s one of life’s mysteries, sir.”

Top Gun

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Top Gun is back, and in the sequel, it’s not only Maverick that’s the Top Gun. 

It’s America too. 

There is an unnamed geopolitical rival, but the US is still the world’s leading power and the secret to that power, according to Top Gun: Maverick, is not the hypersonic weapons, but the people, the individuals piloting  those planes. 

What’s driving American power according to this movie, is character, it’s grit, agility, a bit of a maverick, a flawed, troubled but, ultimately, caring person out on a journey for redemption. It’s the American hero. 

Oh, but hold on a second. 

What was that? 

I’m watching the trailer and Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, just put on the bomber jacket from the first movie. But this time, the Taiwanese flag patch on the back has been replaced with a weird red triangle. 

This is a film that oozes American confidence and military  prowess, so why did the makers in Hollywood remove the Taiwanese flag from the patch on the jacket in the trailer? A lot of Top Gun fans and US politicians were asking this question too.

They wanted to know if the movie makers were placating China’s government because if the film was blocked from China’s box office, the movie would lose a projected $100 million in revenue. 

Over the last decade, America’s dream factory has been self-censoring movies according to China’s Communist Party’s regulations, taboos and tastes. Even in the last couple of years when Washington has grown more suspicious of China’s Communist  Party, as it’s become increasingly authoritarian and powerful, Los Angeles has continued to be complicit with China’s regime. 

Under mounting criticism about this tiny costume detail, a few weeks ago the makers of Top Gun: Maverick announced that the Taiwanese flag would be replaced on Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket for the film’s release. 

But that doesn’t mean that Hollywood’s acquiescence to China’s Communist Party is over. 

Erich Schwartzel: I would resist putting too much on Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket because I think that, yes, it appears as though the calculation was made that it was not worth changing the film in a way that would anger Americans for a market that was likely not going to let the movie in anyway. Because the Chinese box office has grown so inaccessible to major Hollywood releases, the calculation is a little trickier now. Do you make changes? Do you self-censor a film and, potentially, risk alienating audiences at home for a market that is not going to let you in anyway? 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Hollywood still banks on China, but it seems China doesn’t need Hollywood as much as it did before.

Erich Schwartzel: What had been something of a marriage for 10 or 15 years, an awkward one, and certainly not a perfect one, but a marriage nonetheless, is now becoming more and more of a separation and China’s officials seem to be indicating that they do not feel that they need Hollywood films economically. Chinese audiences, in their tastes, have shown that they don’t care for Hollywood films as much as they once  did. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: One of the main and most popular channels of cultural expression in the West has rendered itself unable to critically examine the biggest story of our time: the rise of China. 

That’s why there’s no Hollywood movie about the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the re-education camps in Xinjiang. There’s no Hollywood movie about Falun Gong or about how the CCP crushed one of the largest ever protests in the world when two million people took to the streets for Hong Kong’s freedom. 

And there’s no likelihood of Hollywood making any of these movies anytime soon. I’m trying to understand why this is? What’s at stake? And does it even matter? 

I’m Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, and this is The Slow Newscast: Hollywood’s cultural revolution

I want to know: how did it all begin? How did the world’s most powerful storyteller fall in love with the world’s biggest box office and decide it was okay to let China’s Communist Party call the shots? 

And I think I found the moment when the Hollywood-China romance caught alight and the person who helped make it happen. 

Chris Fenton: Anyone with an IQ of more than one would see the opportunity in China back then in the early 2000s. So, of course, I dove head first into it knowing that, yes, this was a crazy turn of events in my life, but that it would pay off. And it did.

“So this is your first time in China?”

“I’ve been looking forward to coming here for a long time, and so this is a dream come true for me.”

Robert Downey Jr interview

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This is Robert Downey Jr. It’s his first time in China and people are excited. He’s at a press conference for the release of Iron Man 3. It’s the first Hollywood red carpet premiere to take place in Beijing, and this is Chris Fenton who made it happen. 

Chris Fenton: We decided to do the first live ever telecast of a Western Chinese premiere, and we not only just did it live with a huge fanfare, but we actually shot it inside the Forbidden City. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The organising team needed barriers to protect Robert Downey Jr when he walked down the red carpet. The team had built a wooden fence, but a few hours before the event was supposed to kick off, they realised that it was too flimsy and would collapse once the fans crowded in. 

The team didn’t know how they were going to make it work until one person had an idea to gather a thousand farmers from surrounding fields, buy each of them a cheap suit and ask them to create a human shield along the edge of the red carpet. 

Chris Fenton: They were so blown away by the scene themselves, they became part of the problem and the process. And then on top of it, in the Forbidden City there’s all these different plum trees and various other things. So we had lots of the fans that were climbing up in the trees and the trees hung over the red carpet and they were jumping off the trees onto people on the red carpet. It was quite chaotic. 

Chris Fenton: And, ultimately, we did have somebody jump on top of him. Fortunately, his bodyguard was able to take the brunt of it, but it was chaos. And Robert rolled with it and it was a perfect example. 

I remember talking to his publicist after and she said, “I can’t wait until China figures out how to do this right and starts doing it the way that we expect them to.” 

And I said, “No, this is China. They’re going to do it the way they want to and we’re going to have to live with that.” 

So my rise was far from perfect. It had a lot of falls and a lot of fails, right? And the Lehman moment was one that obviously hit me very personally. I’m still pretty angry about it even today. 

And it also opened my eyes to the fact that our system has lots of flaws too. So it really opened my eyes to think about all the positives that occur on the China side and the positives of their form and system of government and how well it was working for the people there. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: That year, 2008, significant events converged around Chris in both the US, China and in Hollywood. 

Erich Schwartzel: I mean, in the early 2000s, DVD sales were so robust that they really kept the lights on at a lot of studios. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This is Erich Schwartzel, a journalist and writer in LA. He’s written a book about Hollywood’s relationship with China. 

Erich Schwartzel: Around 2008 or so, because of the recession and because Netflix started shipping DVDs by mail, the sales just completely fell off a cliff. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Chris had had his eye on China for a while. 

Chris Fenton: When I got involved, that was the early 2000s, China was still pre-adolescent as far as an economy was  concerned, but they used to say the national bird was the crane, meaning the construction crane. Every  time I went over there, you’d see a new building that wasn’t there a few months prior and you started to  really notice, “Wow, all the projections of how big this country is going to be as far as market size, were all starting to come true and maybe even going farther than what those projections were.” So even in  the early days, maybe the money wasn’t that big, but you knew it was going to be huge. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And in that year, 2008, Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. It was boom time. 

Here was China, a country of over one billion people with only 5,000 movie screens. China’s Communist Party looked like it was opening more to the world. 

Chris saw the potential and was perfectly placed to be a China-Hollywood go  between. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: After some success, bringing Hollywood movies like Looper to China, Chris saw the potential for Marvel and he had his sights on Iron Man 3

Erich Schwartzel: Marvel held a focus group with toddlers, where they gave them a bunch of toys and they noticed that the kids gravitated toward Iron Man. So they said, “Okay, we’ll start with Iron Man.” And arguably the most successful franchise in Hollywood history was born. 

Chris Fenton: When you looked at Marvel prior to Iron Man 3, they had a real problem building the brand over there. There just wasn’t much awareness of the Marvel characters. They were probably a little too pro US or  pro West anyway. So the highest grossing movie they had before we committed Iron Man 3 was Iron Man 2 and it made roughly $20 million in that market, which wasn’t a lot. Iron Man 3, ultimately, did $20 million on its first opening day. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: So how did he do it? His idea was that bringing Chinese investment would help guarantee the film’s acceptance into China’s market and make it a success there. 

First, he had to convince Marvel to come on board with his plan. So Chris and his team at DMG Entertainment invited a Marvel exec to Beijing and from the moment he touched down on the tarmac at the airport, a charm offensive began. Chris and DMG fast-tracked him through immigration to a fleet of cars driven by former PLA soldiers and F1 drivers. 

Chris Fenton: We would, literally, shut down the Forbidden City, which is probably the mecca of all things that somebody wants to see in their lifetime when it comes to China. We would kick out everybody that is  there and there’s tourists, you can barely move through a lot of those courtyards during the day. 

We would have the police and soldiers shut down the outside of it and then we would bring our VIP guests through there because we wanted them to feel the same way as an emperor walking through those empty corridors. We wanted them to experience pure silence in the middle of the busiest city in the world.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: So how did the Marvel exec respond? 

Chris Fenton: He was blown away by it and he went back and reported that we seemed to deliver on everything we said we could, and that’s how the deal moved forward and the rest is history. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. There was still a lot to work out creatively, especially with China’s censorship department. 

Chris Fenton: Anything that we thought was slightly sensitive was removed from the script or removed from the production as it happened. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And on China’s side, they wanted a Chinese character in the movie. Of course, not a villain, someone  who saves the day, and Chris had the idea that it could be a fictional child of the soon to be China’s Communist Party Chairman, Xi Jinping. 

Chris Fenton: If you’ve seen the movie, there’s a kid in the middle of the heartland of the United States of America who opens a shed and Iron Man’s glove flies out of there. It finds Iron Man down in Florida, and that glove comes on and, boom, the third act happens and it’s very successful. We wanted that kid to be Chinese. And the reason we thought it would make a great Chinese character is that Xi Jinping lived in Iowa at one time and he was about to be, essentially, the head of China back when we were making the movies and that would cause this movie to make a gazillion dollars because of it. 

Well, Marvel wanted nothing to do with it. They thought that was heavy handed, that was way too  pushy of the Chinese government to even suggest that idea. But, ultimately, they said, “You know what? We’re not going to give you that Chinese kid, but we’re going to give you Dr Wu, and he’s a scientist that actually helps take the RT, that device, out of Iron Man’s body without killing him, and that’s going to be our character. And he is going to be in the movie for roughly 60 seconds.” 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: It was this negotiation over how to get China’s Communist Party’s agenda or vision into the script that Fenton had to learn to master. 

Chris Fenton: I think the lesson that was taught to me by my Chinese colleagues was that there were two entities. In order to be a successful business in China, there were two entities you had to sell to. But the first one, if you weren’t successful with it, allowed you never to get to the second one. The first one was the government.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Chris believed in what he was doing. 

Chris Fenton: Of course there were a handful of corporate greedy capitalists that were going to sell out the soul of America and the West in order to make a dollar in China. That happens in every industry with every market. But, for the most part, a lot of us saw it as a great opportunity to further our careers and make a  good living. 

Chris Fenton: The second thing was that the idea of getting, particularly in my business, which is cultural, the more  cultural products, things that had aspirational qualities of the West that got into that Communist Party, the more that those would influence the 1.4 billion people there to become more like us and more like us in the best version of that, which is the best version of democracy and freedoms and human rights and all that other stuff. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The assumption that Chris had that many people had was that trading with China would help bring democracy there. 

Chris could only get his products into China’s market by adapting them to help boost the power and image of China’s Communist Party. So if trade could only take place on those terms, then how could it bring about democracy? More likely it would reinforce the status quo or further empower the one party state. 

Meanwhile, back in those boardrooms with Chris, the push and pull of the negotiations between Marvel, DMG and China state film censors just became the normal stuff of his day to day work. 

Chris Fenton: It was a really interesting chemistry that worked and became the reason why China allowed Iron Man 3 and why they allowed it to be the biggest hit ever at that point and why it allowed Marvel to become the most valuable entertainment IP on earth in that market. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This is how looking away and self-censorship became part of the chemistry, the sparks that ignited this China Hollywood affair. 

Commercially it worked. Iron Man 3 boosts Marvel’s fortunes beyond their dreams. 

Chris Fenton: I mean, the movie was only supposed to make $700 million worldwide and our deal was based on those projections, but the movie made £1.3 billion. That was one of the most successful movies of all time. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Chris and DMG Entertainment do well out of it too.

Chris Fenton: We took this company that was worth maybe $50 million when the US… When I got involved and over time because of Iron Man 3 and Looper and a lot of the stuff we were doing on a global basis, we went public on the Shenzhen and had a market cap of $1.8 billion. It was quite a ride. 

Anne: Iron Man 3 is a really important moment where we see that there’s this… It’s this first big Marvel  blockbuster in the era of the growth of Marvel blockbusters that brings together the Chinese market and  the US market in a formal way. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: This is Anne, an academic who writes about China and Hollywood. So it’s a milestone and commercially it’s a hit, but interestingly Iron Man 3 was critically panned by the People’s Daily, China’s state newspaper, and Chinese audiences didn’t like how Dr Wu was not really a fully formed character and was just clearly tacked on to the movie. Hollywood had given a lot, but it wasn’t enough. 

And so this is your first time in China?“It’s very exciting and I’ve been looking forward to coming here for a long time. And so this is like a dream  come true. But people who know me back in America, know that I’m very interested in all things Chinese. I live a fairly Chinese life in America.”

Robert Downey Jr interview

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Robert Downey Jr isn’t exactly clear about what he’s referring to here. Apparently he’s into traditional Chinese medicine and Kung Fu. I don’t think he’s referring to life under Chinese Communist Party censorship, but he might be.

“I love your movies.”

“Can you name some?”

“Well, yeah, I probably name about three. How long do you have?

Robert Downey Jr interview

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The Hollywood-China romance starts out a little bit awkward. 

Fast forward a few years and now it’s much clearer to everyone. Top Gun: Maverick lost its Chinese investor. Cinema audiences in Taiwan are whooping with joy every time they see their flag on Tom Cruise’s jacket. But in those intervening years, the self-censorship in Hollywood for the CCP has become part of the norm. 

Erich Schwartzel: It still feels like for a studio making the decision to put Dumbledore back in the closet in China, the calculation becomes, “Well, do I risk three or four days of bad press in the US to access the Chinese market?” And the answer has been “Yes” so far. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And, instinctively, it all feels wrong. Corruption on the CCP side, complicity on Hollywood’s, but it’s unclear now what the alternative can be. 

Erich Schwartzel: This is a story far bigger than Hollywood because the minute we run into ideology determining whether  or not Western businesses can continue doing business with China, we’re talking about studios, we’re talking about Tesla, we’re talking about Apple, we’re talking about sports leagues, we’re talking about Louis Vuitton. I mean, every conceivable Western sector is going to have to be answering for this if it tips into a political no-go zone. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And I feel a bit confused about it all. On the one hand, there are over a billion people in China on the other side of China’s Communist Party censorship rules, and we want to be open and interconnected. Is a little bit of self censorship okay? 

Or do each of these tiny examples build up into something more problematic for democracies and also for people inside China?

I’ve been in a fog about all this for weeks, and I kept getting stuck in the same loop until I saw a film at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End, London, in the middle of March this year as part of the Hong Kong Film Festival in the UK. 

This film shunted everything into perspective for me. But before I tell you about it, there’s another Hollywood superhero movie that came out a year after Iron Man 3 that I’d like to tell you about first.

It’s 2014 in Hong Kong and a giant silver Transformer robot is glistening on the edge of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. Paramount Pictures are hosting their world premiere of Transformers 4: The Age of Extinction in Hong Kong, where some of the film is set. 

The release is taking place at a sensitive time of year in Hong Kong, the anniversary of the territories returned to China from Britain when China promised a one country, two systems approach and political autonomy for 50 years. 

For a couple of years before the Transformers 4 release date, a protest movement known as the Umbrella Movement had been active around that date. These protests were started by a group of secondary school students who were angry that references to the Tiananmen Square massacre had been removed from their school curriculum. 

Anne: So I was there with a bunch of students and actually a bunch of Transformers fans. So they were all extremely excited about this. And I went to see the film in the Imax version, so it was really in full relief.

Erich Schwartzel: Hong Kong is being destroyed by giant robots, and if you watch the film today, there’s this very curious scene where they cut to Beijing and the Beijing defence minister says, “We will protect Hong Kong at all costs.” And China shows up to save the day before the Americans do. And it was actually inserted into  the script at the request of Chinese authorities. 

Anne: Warships or naval ships enter Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong and they’re mainland naval ships that are designed to protect Hong Kong from an external threat, a national security threat in this case, the threat of the Transformers. So in some ways it’s very fanciful, but in other ways it really presents a vision of mainland national security control over Hong Kong. It felt like a moment where, for me, the importance of Chinese government influence on Hollywood studio films crystallised. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Cut to five years later, 2019. Now, Victoria Harbour and the streets of Hong Kong are thrumming with protesters. They’re in a battle with the CCP for the city’s freedom.

“Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement took to the streets again today for a massive and peaceful March. An estimated 1.7 million people, a quarter of the territory’s population, took part.”

“In Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets for a huge rally against a  proposed extradition law. The law would allow suspects…”

“The spokesman for the Hong Kong office of China’s government condemned what he called ‘the protesting thugs’, and promised they’d be punished. ‘I would like to warn all these criminals. Don’t even misjudge the situation and mistake our restraints for weakness. Don’t ever underestimate the firm resolve and the immense strength of the central government and the people of the whole country to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and safeguard the  fundamental interests of the nation.’”

News clips

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: So, in 2014, when Transformers was made, who knows to what extent people in Hollywood could have twigged that they were prefiguring a real message that the CCP would use again a few years later. 

A propaganda message, a fake news message, against people trying to hold onto their freedom. 

Erich Schwartzel: It should come as no surprise that Chinese officials really control what audiences in China see, but they really control what audiences outside of China see. And only the shiny, glossy, developed version of  China is shown to foreign audiences. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: During those 2019 protests, Chris Fenton happened to be in Hong Kong. He’s there as part of a congressional visit. And this time he’s in a boardroom with Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s then chief executive, the person implementing on Beijing’s behalf, this extradition bill, that sparked the protests.  

And Chris was hearing Carrie Lam’s side of the story and he sympathised with her. 

Chris Fenton: It was a part of me that thought she had the hardest job on earth because she had to placate Beijing and  had a populace that she was in charge of that was very, very frustrated and upset. And then sitting with  protestors was fascinating too, because you learned a lot of the nuance of what they were frustrated  about and how the media was covering it, but then also really what the underlying story was. 

Chris Fenton: It was startling when you saw pepper spray being sprayed on protestors, when you heard a protestor talk about what their problems were, when you saw graffiti that said “Free Hong Kong” on every street, that was quite daunting.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Even up close in Hong Kong, it was hard for Chris to take in that a new oppressive political reality was taking hold. 

But there was another filmmaker on the streets of Hong Kong in 2019. Kiwi Chow, and he was trying to get the protester side of the story out to the world. 

Kiwi Chow: I was hoping to appeal to the world. The documentary was not just for Hong Kong people to watch, but for the whole world to watch. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Kiwi usually makes romcoms, but over the years he’d been worried about the gradual ebbing away of Hong Kong’s freedoms and the self censorship in Hong Kong’s film industry. Once the protest started, he decided to document them. 

Kiwi Chow: I became the front line. I had to use this helmet to shield myself for a bit. My skull felt a shake and I was  the most scared then because I could feel the force. It came just like that. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: He was filming an impossible battle. Hong Kongers against the might of the CCP. The code word for going to protest was “going to dream”. 

Kiwi Chow: This event relates back to the feeling movies give me, which is that you are not alone. You are not alone in this. When you come out and you see those actual people, you see that the energy is very powerful. If you ask me, it was really like a dream come true. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: One of the main protest slogans was: Free Hong Kong. Revolution of our times. The protestors used this phrase because they felt that they were on the front line of a global struggle against the increasing rise of China’s authoritarianism. 

Kiwi decided that Revolution of Our Times would be the title for his film. 

In early 2020, the protests were suppressed, the pandemic hit and Hong Kong introduced a new national security law. Now, even to say those words, “revolution of our times”, was illegal. 

This is what direct Chinese Communist Party censorship looks like. 

Kiwi Chow: Merely being sympathetic towards the protestors of 2019 meant one might be convicted. That’s very hard to swallow. If you were filming a documentary, it was already very dangerous and risky. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Kiwi had to decide whether to drop his documentary about the protests and get on with his next romcom or risk prison and respond to what was happening around him. He decided to act. 

Kiwi Chow: Self-censoring leads fear into one’s heart. As in everything you do, you’ll be thinking left and right,  fearing left and right. It’s a tormenting thing. It’s like being held by the neck. As a creative, you have this strong desire for freedom. The belief is the more freedom you have, the more wild your imagination can go, right? Thinking left and right, I think that’s a stressful and fearful process. You’re strangled and you’re dead. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: He talked it through with his family, even with his seven year old son. 

Kiwi Chow: I asked him this question. I said, “There’s the potential of dad getting arrested because of the movie dad has filmed. And if arrested dad will have to be separated from him for a long time. Should dad still pursue the movie?” I didn’t think he would answer me like this, but he said, “The Hong Kong government, after watching dad’s film, will become a good government again.” When he put it like that, it filled me with hope. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Kiwi decided to slip the film to a friend abroad to see if it could find an audience like a message in a  bottle. 

It’s 2021. And China’s Communist Party not only has influence over Hollywood studios, but also distributors in film festivals. So Kiwi is stunned when he hears that the Cannes Film Festival has invited him to screen Revolution of Our Times. He was full of conflicting feelings. To have your films screened at Cannes is a dream for any filmmaker but, on the other hand, it’s so high profile, it could lead to his arrest. 

Cannes had a plan. They were going to keep the screening totally secret and only announce it once it had taken place so if nobody knew about it couldn’t be stopped. 

So Kiwi decided to hunker down in Hong Kong and let Cannes screen the film. 

Kiwi Chow: I will use an analogy: psychologically I prepared myself for typhoon level 10, which is the highest rating  for a typhoon in Hong Kong. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The screening was a success and to date Kiwi hasn’t been arrested, but international sales for the film didn’t come quickly. When the Hong Kong Film Festival in the UK announced a screening of Revolution of Our Times, the box office website crashed, the phone didn’t stop ringing, and dozens of people lined up outside for tickets.

The Genesis Cinema in East London told me they’ve never seen anything like it. 

I managed to get a press ticket and I watched it with around 500 Hong Kongers. 

Before the movie began, the audience were chanting the protest slogans, “Free Hong Kong. Revolution of Our Times,” and once the film started, the audience began to weep. And as the film showed the protestors being beaten by official police and by hired gangs, it felt like a warning as though the film was saying, “This is the logical conclusion. The extreme end of what can happen when you start giving in to authoritarianism. This is what it looks like to lose your freedom. Don’t give it up.” 

Chris Fenton: All of us got smacked in the nose at some point and realised, “Wait a minute. This is not in the best interest of the West or allies in the United States of America. It’s actually to the detriment of our long term health.” 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: It wasn’t at the protest in Hong Kong where Chris got his smack in the nose. It was a month later back home in LA. 

Chris Fenton: I was standing on a soccer sideline watching my kid play soccer and it was a timeout and I looked down  at my phone and somebody forwarded me this Tweet from Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” or something like that. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: The Houston Rockets, a basketball team. 

Chris Fenton: I looked at it and I go, “Geez, who’s Daryl Morey?” And I realised he was the GM of the Houston Rockets, and I said, “Oh, my God. He just took the side of Hong Kong and the protestors. That’s going to be  terrible for the NBA.” 

And the dad standing next to me said, “Well, why is that? He should be able to say  that?” And I was, “Yeah, he should, but he can’t because the NBA’s biggest market outside of the US is  China.” 

And he’s, “Wow, that’s crazy.” I said, “Well, just wait. You’ll see.” And then over the next 24  hours we saw it unfold where China just got ripping mad at the NBA and shut them down and all the businesses and the partners fled and everything. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: And for some reason, which is hard to explain, it was the NBA’s cravenness towards China, the deletion of Daryl Morey’s Tweet and the response to that in the media, which became the moment when the scales fell from Chris’s eyes. 

Chris Fenton: From that trip, when I got back and it spilled into the moment a month later when Daryl Morey tweeted that and all the geopolitical controversy occurred around the NBA, for me, it was a buildup of that straw that broke the camel’s back rather than one simple moment, because even with that, “Fight for  freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” tweet, that didn’t wake me up out of the trance. It was actually watching, over the next several days, all of this controversy erupt and all the criticism erupt and that was when it started to all come together for me.

And I watched the bumbling and fumbling of their response to that, the criticism about that, and I realised looking at myself and self-reflecting, going, “Oh, my God. I’m just as bad as what everybody thinks the NBA is bad at.” 

Imagine doing 20 years of something that you thought was the right path and then suddenly realising maybe it wasn’t. That’s a very difficult thing to digest for anybody. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Chris had been on a hopeful adventure in China. Up to this point, he’d always defended his decision to work in the interest of the CCP. Now, he was questioning it. 

Erich Schwartzel: I don’t think it’s a toxic romance, but I do think it’s in divorce proceedings. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Last year, at the world box office, the second biggest film was The Battle for Changjin Lake. It’s a Chinese propaganda film about the Korean War. 

One Chinese film critic I spoke to told me that when she gave it an unfavourable review, the popular film platform she wrote for was temporarily shut down. China doesn’t need Hollywood anymore. The CCP can create their own Hollywood style movies now and control the content and the critical response. 

Chris fits the bill of the American hero. He went down the wrong path, discovered what was at stake and now he’s trying to make up for it. 

Chris Fenton: There’s nobody in the engagement of China, whether a business person, a political leader, a critic, a journalist, a citizen, et cetera, that’s not aware of how bad China is to continue this engagement the way it is, how bad it is for the long term health of democracy and the West. No one’s unaware. It’s just a question of how much conflicting interest do they have that allows them to look the other way? 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: Hollywood knows how to make heroes. It’s villains that it doesn’t have worked out. It’s as though the dream factory doesn’t know quite where to cast the shadows. 

In Iron Man 3, the villain of the piece says a line, “Give evil a face: a Gaddafi, a bin Laden, the Mandarin, and you hand people a target.” The twist in the Iron Man 3‘s plot is that the baddie isn’t the Mandarin at all. The real villains are the guys controlling the Mandarin, the American tech capitalist and the vice president of the USA, the corrupt Western political and business elite. 

It’s almost as though the script writers are trying to put on the screen something of what’s going on behind the scenes. 

But Anne thinks that if the writers are trying to be self-reflective, they’ve mislocated the source of the problem. 

Anne: It’s the quintessential irony for the individualist capitalist to be the major villain in a Hollywood studio film. So that shows a certain lack of self-awareness about the role of US film studios and US media conglomerates in the global economic ecosystem.

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: She’s making the point that maybe it’s not entirely fair to blame the individuals when actually there’s a  problem in the system, which is that multinational conglomerates are designed to put profit above everything. 

Chris Fenton: I think the capitalistic instinct you had was you could put your foot in two different boats and the boats would stay close enough that you could avoid getting wet. And I think, over time, the boats now are separating and it’s becoming obvious to almost anyone doing business there in China that you’re going to have to pick one of the boats to stand in. 

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, narrating: What I’ve come to see is that China and Hollywood’s love story and potential separation isn’t a story about a clash between two different ideologies. It’s actually about clashes within the West, the tensions that exist between free speech and free market. 

By exacerbating these tensions China’s Communist Party is shining a light on some of the fault lines and cracks in liberal democracy and capitalism. 

Perhaps one day, those years when China and Hollywood came together to try to make movies with the broadest possible appeal, will look like a hopeful, even if naive and problematic moment in US-China collaboration. 

But I hope not. 

I hope that Hollywood and China will find better ways to collaborate and make movies together, but in ways that strengthen democracy rather than bend to authoritarianism.

And Chris Fenton is on the case. 

This episode was written and reported by me, Poppy Sebag-Montefiore. It was produced by Joanna Humphreys. Sound design is by Tom Burchell, and additional reporting and production was done by Phoebe Davis and Xiang Wong.

How we got here

In February, Tortoise held a ThinkIn asking whether Netflix had a political agenda. My editor James Harding mentioned that he’d heard that streamers and studios were routinely policing their own stories in order not to fall foul of China’s Communist Party’s restrictions on sexuality and identity, lest they lose access to China’s huge market. One of the speakers, a documentary producer called Michael Flaherty, responded that he’d not only heard this – he’d seen it happen. That was the seed for this week’s episode, in which we examine Hollywood’s self-censorship towards China and try to unpick what it tells us about the relationship between the West and Beijing. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, reporter


Past reporting

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