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Hollywood relies on China to stay afloat. What does that mean for movies?

Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel says that film studios increasingly need Chinese audiences to break even — which can result in self-censorship. His new book is Red Carpet.

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Audience members sit separately for social distancing at a cinema in China's eastern Zhejiang province in July 2020.
Audience members sit separately for social distancing at a cinema in China's eastern Zhejiang province in July 2020. AFP via Getty Images

Today's Hollywood blockbusters are specifically being crafted to appeal to Chinese audiences — and pass muster with the Chinese government — according to Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel.

He highlights a few notable situations of product placement: In the 2014 film Transformers: Age of Extinction, Mark Wahlberg's character withdraws money from a China Construction Bank ATM — while in Texas. In another scene from the same film, a character buys Chinese protein powder at a Chicago convenience store.

And just 10 days after its release, Age of Extinction became the highest grossing film of all time in China. The movie has since been overtaken at the box office by a string of other blockbusters, but Schwartzel says its influence lingers.

Schwartzel has trained his eye to spot what he calls "Chinese elements" in movies: "You'll start to see it everywhere," he says. "I go to the movies now and I can see the Chinese cell phone — even if it's blurred in the frame."

In his new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy, Schwartzel writes about China's growing influence on Hollywood. He contends that China has watched as Hollywood films helped sell America to the world — and it wants to do the same.

"As China has broadened its ambitions on the world stage and tried to become a bigger and bigger player in global politics, it has seen how culture can play a huge role in helping that effort," Schwartzel says.

China is already a powerhouse at the box office: In 2020, it overtook North America as the world's largest film market, and Schwartzel says that movie studios are increasingly reliant upon Chinese audiences to break even.

"It comes to the point where even on some of the biggest films that make tons of money around the world, like a Fast & Furious film or a Marvel superheroes movie, getting into China and making money there ... can mean the difference between profit and loss," he says.

But before a film can be shown in China, it must first get past Chinese government censors. And Schwartzel notes that the Chinese government has been quick to punish studios that take on topics it doesn't want the Chinese public to see or that it feels will make China look bad.

"No studio in Hollywood today would touch a movie that concerns a storyline involving the Uyghurs or Xinjiang or issues involving Taiwanese independence or demonstrations in Hong Kong," Schwartzel says. "Because of the economic muzzle that China has on the studios today, those things are just complete non-starters."


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Interview highlights

On China opening up to American films in the '90s

It started in 1994, and a couple of things were happening at the time. China's economy was modernizing and opening up to the world. This is a time when companies like Boeing were moving into China. ... After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese movie theaters reopened, but they really struggled because really, the only thing that the government had to offer were these very medicinal propagandistic films, and they were really the only show in town until things like television or even karaoke lounges gave people something a little bit more fun to do. And if movies were popular, it often was because they were pirated and available for sale on the city corner.

So the theaters were really struggling, and in 1994, an executive who was stationed in the region for Warner Bros. suggested to a very prominent theater owner that Western movies might help the theaters recover. And so Warner Bros. sent the first American movie over, which was Harrison Ford's The Fugitive, to screen in a theater, and a contract was drawn up that only sent 13% of ticket sales back to Warner Bros., so this was a really paltry amount. And despite having this massive population, the Chinese box office was still really small. I think The Fugitive made around $3 million [in China], which is nothing to a studio as big as Warner Bros., but was an absolute blockbuster in Chinese terms. And the Chinese audiences, who had essentially been shut off to Hollywood's influence in the 20th century, started to do what audiences around the world had done decades prior — they flocked to the theater to see American films. And by the late '90s, only a handful of American movies were flowing into China. But nonetheless, they were causing these surges in box office sales.

On how the 1997 films Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet angered the Chinese authorities and impacted Hollywood studios

These two films, Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, come out only three years after American movies are getting into China at all. And neither movie is put into production with China in mind, because no one at this point is making movies thinking they will make any money in China. And so Disney, which was releasing Kundun, had inherited the project. It was a Martin Scorsese film, and both films were about a young Dalai Lama and also China's invasion of Tibet. So both films feature not just a valorization of this Chinese state enemy, but also portray on screen in really unvarnished terms the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the persecution of Tibetans. Mao Zedong is featured in a scene in Kundun looking like an absolute buffoon next to this wise lama. It was obvious that China wouldn't like the films, but it didn't seem like it was going to be that much of an issue because no one expected the movies to play in China at all.

Nonetheless, China made it clear that not only did it not like the production of these films, but it was going to punish the studios behind them for making them at all. So Kundun was being released by Disney, which at the time had already invested more than a billion dollars in the market, and had already had aspirations to build a theme park on the mainland and start hooking Chinese children on Disney toys and movies and all sorts of other revenue streams, even back in the mid '90s, despite China's middle class still really coming into focus. Disney knew that it was going to be a source of revenue in the years to come. Sony was releasing Seven Years in Tibet, and again, Sony was releasing movies in China at the time, but the bigger economic concern was the supply chain that its parent company had when it came to Sony Electronics. And what made both of these films such cautionary tales for all of Hollywood was that after they were released, both companies were banned in China, despite the fact that the movies had not been released onto Chinese screens. And Chinese authorities made it clear by doing so that if a studio made a film that angered officials, it was not going to be about punishing that studio, but it would be about punishing its parent company. And so suddenly it seemed like a lot more was at stake than just angering officials over the release of one film.

On how Disney executives reacted to China's ban of Kundun

The executives at Disney ... knew if they canceled the production as the Chinese authorities had requested, they would have been tarred in the Hollywood community for squelching free expression, for muzzling Martin Scorsese. They knew that they would have a lot of domestic blowback if they did that, too. So they had to really thread the needle. And what they ultimately decided to do was release Kundun into theaters, but bury it. And so Kundun was released on Christmas Day on four screens, and then when it didn't perform well, the Disney executives used that lousy performance to justify not expanding it much further. And actually, despite all their efforts, they still were banned in China, and the then CEO Michael Eisner, had to fly over to Beijing a year later and meet with officials and apologize. There's a fascinating transcript that exists of his meeting with a Chinese official in which he says, "The bad news is that the movie was released. The good news is that nobody saw it."

On the deal between Hollywood and the Chinese government

The primary deal was struck in 1994 and that started to allow 10 films a year onto Chinese screens, and that hummed along for a while, until 2012, when there was a significant expansion of that deal negotiated between then Vice President Joe Biden and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, who was not yet president of China, but was the heir apparent. Biden and Xi met on one of Xi's trips to the U.S. and negotiated an expansion that would allow 34 foreign films onto Chinese screens a year, and that previous 13% of ticket sales that had gone back to the studios grew to 25%. And this is a deal that really cements China's influence in Hollywood because it means that almost every studio in town can guarantee that their biggest releases will get into the country, and not only that, that they will make significant money.

On the rules film studios must follow to get their movie shown in China

There's a literal list of rules that the censors in Beijing use as something of a checklist. So when a movie has finished filming and it is ready for release, a copy of it is sent to Beijing to the Ministry of Propaganda, where a collection of censors who tend to be a collection of state bureaucrats and even some film studies professors watch the movie. And obviously anything that might concern Tibet or Chinese history or Mao is going to be off the table. But those movies, as I said, aren't getting made anyway.

But even a superhero movie might be watched for certain scenes that contain images or themes they don't want the Chinese people to see. And it ranges from the cosmetic to the thematic.

In 2006, Mission: Impossible III filmed some scenes in Shanghai that feature Tom Cruise running through the streets, and in the background there is laundry drying on clotheslines from apartment buildings, and the Chinese authorities requested that that laundry be edited out of the frame because they thought it presented an image of China that was more backwards than they wanted the world to see. And then there are just deeper issues with some of the core tenets of Hollywood moviemaking.

So for example, there was a film that came out more than a decade and a half ago called In Good Company, and it's a pretty innocuous romantic comedy starring Topher Grace as this young guy who gets a job and displaces the older boss. And it seems like a pretty run of the mill PG-13 family friendly film. It nonetheless did not get into China. And at the time, the head of the Motion Picture Association started asking around in Beijing why that was the case. He couldn't understand why a movie that obviously was not nearly as politically charged as something like Kundun would not get into China. And the authorities said, "It's a movie about the younger generation challenging the system and taking on the powers that be, and that's a theme that we cannot abide here in China." So you realize that not only do studio chiefs today have to watch a movie and think about how every frame of China is scrutinized, but also think quite a bit about how core elements of American storytelling will be interpreted by censors in Beijing.

On how Hollywood studios rationalize the censorship

The economics have made it something of a no-brainer, because China's box office has grown as America's box office has flatlined. ... Pre-COVID, around 2008 or 2009, when studios started to wake up to how much money could be made at the Chinese box office, something else very important happened, which is that the DVD market collapsed. And it can be hard to remember this in an era where we're all streaming, but for many years, DVD sales, because they were so cheap to make and profitable to sell, really kept the lights on at a lot of studios. And so when the DVD market collapsed, studios were scrambling to find a way to make up for that lost revenue when China entered the picture.

I think a lot of studio executives, if they were on the line, would say that they censor movies for all kinds of markets. They censor movies for airplanes. It's a market reality they have to respond to. But what we've seen with China over the past decade is a scale of censorship that is unlike anything Hollywood has had to reckon with, and also a playbook of censorship that goes far beyond cutting a scene for a movie before it goes into a certain country. China has made it clear that it wants to censor films that are being made in America and released around the world, not just movies that are being released into their home market.

Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Transcript :

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When you watch a big-budget film, you may not be thinking about how China influenced the story, the characters and the product placements. But after this interview, you'll probably be on the lookout for those things. When China started allowing in American films, opening up a huge market and big profits for Hollywood, in return Hollywood had to make sure the films it wanted shown in China wouldn't offend the Chinese government. China exerted its power to reward and punish American studios, leading to Chinese censorship of American films and American studios self-censoring. How that's reshaped the American film industry and its big-budget movies is the subject of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." My guest is the author, Erich Schwartzel. He reports on the film industry for The Wall Street Journal.

Erich Schwartzel, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you start noticing the Chinese influence on American films when you started to be The Wall Street Journal's reporter on the Hollywood industry?

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It started in small ways. I joined the Journal in 2013, and I would have this morning routine of checking the trade publications, and there would be these notices - you know, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing cast in a new "X-Men" movie or this Chinese industrialist was financing a slate of films at Paramount. And it was these dribs and drabs, and I think there was a sense throughout Hollywood that this was China's turn at what they called dumb money, which is the trend of either businesspeople from certain countries or just wealthy individuals coming to Hollywood with stars in their eyes and wanting to finance moviemaking.

And at first, it seemed like this might be China's turn to lose its shirt in Hollywood. But then it became pretty clear that there was actually also a political motivation here and that China's government had broader ambitions than just merely the financial. And it seemed like there was a broader story to tell that would explain why Chinese actresses were showing up in these Hollywood movies or why these scripts were being written for these unexpected detours to Shanghai.

GROSS: So just give us a sense of what you think China's political motivation is.

SCHWARTZEL: I think since the start, as China has broadened its ambitions on the world stage and tried to become a bigger and bigger player in global politics, it has seen how culture can play a huge role in helping that effort. So I think China has seen how, for the past 100 years, Hollywood films helped sell America to the world, and it knows that if it wants to expand its reach, whether it's in parts of Asia or Africa or even within China, that culture, whether it's in the form of movies or TV shows or music, can be a complement to that effort. And I think what they're looking to do now is something of a soft power sequel to what Hollywood did for America in the 20th century.

GROSS: So Chinese influence is especially noticeable in action films, franchise films, blockbusters of all sorts. That's where the big money is. So I want you to give us a tour of, you know, a recent or fairly recent movie in which you see a lot of Chinese influence. Because I know you've been seeing a lot of movies looking for that influence.

SCHWARTZEL: That's right. I wear my X-ray goggles...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHWARTZEL: ...When I go to the movies now, and I can see the Chinese cellphone, you know, even if it's blurred in the frame. Because, you're right, you'll start to see it everywhere. And I think there was this moment in Hollywood's relationship with China when this really took a turn. And the producers in Hollywood started to realize not only can we avoid certain topics to guarantee a movie's release in China, but we can also try to strategically appeal to Chinese audiences and therefore goose ticket sales there.

So the one example I always go back to was released several years ago - was the fourth installment of the "Transformers" franchise. And this movie became something of a case study in how Hollywood was trying to appeal to the Chinese audiences because the "Transformers" movies at this point had been doing better and better with each successive installment in the Chinese market, really grossing hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales.

And so when the time came for production to start on the fourth installment, which was called "Age Of Extinction," they really threw everything against the wall. They held a reality show competition in which they cast four Chinese actors and actresses in cameo roles in the movie. They even filmed, I think, about a third of it in China, and then they also struck all these product placement deals that would suffuse the film with Chinese products, some of which make very little sense. So there is a scene in which the characters are in Chicago, and as they recover from the robot war, they have to raid a Chicago convenience store where they just happened to buy Chinese protein powder. There is another scene where an ATM has to be used in the middle of Texas. It happens to be a Chinese ATM.

So really not a lot of logic behind these choices, but it became this example of how this Hollywood movie that is still really a distinctly Hollywood film - it stars Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci - nonetheless was going to throw in what the producers called Chinese elements in an effort to appeal to Chinese audiences. And that "Transformers" example, I think, is probably the most obvious one. But it also really became the benchmark, and then a lot of other producers followed suit, some of whom would maybe try and strategically cast an actor and actress in a bit role or find a reason to take the plot to China - maybe not do as many things as the "Transformers" production did but try it out a little bit, if they could, and see if it would help them sell tickets there.

GROSS: So did that "Transformers" film do well in China?

SCHWARTZEL: It was a massive success, and it ended up making more money than every previous installment. And I think critically for the producers at Paramount Pictures, which released the film, it helped them report really robust quarterly results. So it was an example of how a lot of studios started operating on this quarter-by-quarter basis because the studios became these smaller fish in these larger corporate ponds. In the case of Paramount, it's owned by Viacom, now ViacomCBS. This studio that was once this mighty enterprise here in Hollywood is actually a subdivision of this much larger corporate hole, and that makes it all the more important that they report really robust global grosses to the corporate gods.

GROSS: So, you know, these deals between China and Hollywood, Hollywood stands to make money or stood to make money on those deals; for China, it was a way to get more Chinese elements into American films, but also it was good for the Chinese box office. China was making money from these films, too. We'll get into all of that. But - so you gave the example of this "Transformers" movie where the studio really catered to China. It did well in China. Let's compare that to "Spider-Man: No Way Home," which was - which has been the biggest success box office-wise in America during the pandemic era. How did it do in China? And I'll answer my question. It didn't do at all in China. Like, why hasn't it shown in China?

SCHWARTZEL: That's a, well, let's say, $400 million question right now because that's about how much money it probably could have expected to make in China. You're right. This new "Spider-Man" movie, which has all but saved American movie theaters, is exactly the kind of film that should sail onto Chinese screens with no problem. There's really no censorship issues. And it's just the kind of film that makes a lot of people in China happy - not just fans of Marvel and American superheroes, but also Chinese theater owners who also rely on these films to sell tickets and make money. And yet, nonetheless, "Spider-Man" was the fifth or sixth film released last year that did not get into China, that was not approved for release. And to be honest, there's a lot of uncertainty and anxiety here in Los Angeles right now because no one exactly knows why. There are a lot of theories but no answers. There - it's not like Beijing sends a memo when authorities reject a film and say, here's why. So everyone has to kind of divine what the authorities in China are thinking.

And right now there are several theories. One is that China has been looking inward more and more over the past several years. And Chinese films have reflected that. Chinese films have been doing much better in recent years than they used to. It used to be no contest. American movies did far better than their Chinese counterparts. That's become less and less the case. The other theory is that with the recent Winter Olympics and with Xi Jinping's just longer-term consolidation of power, that the spigot of Western influence overall has been tightened. And one of the main ways of controlling that influence is letting very Western movies into the country.

GROSS: Or not letting them into the country.

SCHWARTZEL: Exactly.

GROSS: China used to keep out American films. The leadership in China wanted Chinese people to see basically Chinese propaganda films. That started to change in the '90s. Why did it start to change then?

SCHWARTZEL: It started in 1994. And a couple things were happening at the time. China's economy was modernizing and opening up to the world. This is a time when companies like Boeing were moving into China. And you're right that after the Cultural Revolution, Chinese movie theaters reopened. But they really struggled because really the only thing that the government had to offer were these very medicinal propagandistic films. And they were really the only show in town until things like television or even karaoke lounges gave people something a little bit more fun to do. And if movies were popular, it often was because they were pirated and available for sale on the city corner. So the theaters were really struggling.

And in 1994, an executive who was stationed in the region for Warner Brothers suggested to a very prominent theater owner that Western movies might help the theaters recover. And so Warner Brothers sent the first American movie over, which was Harrison Ford's "The Fugitive," to screen in a theater. And a contract was drawn up that only sent 13% of ticket sales back to Warner Brothers. So this was a really paltry amount. And despite having this massive population, the Chinese box office was still really small. I mean, I think "The Fugitive" made around $3 million, which is nothing to a studio as big as Warner Brothers but was an absolute blockbuster in Chinese terms. And the Chinese audiences, who had essentially been shut off to Hollywood's influence in the 20th century, started to do what audiences around the world had done decades prior - is they flocked to the theater to see American films. And by the late '90s, only a handful of American movies were flowing into China. But nonetheless, they were causing these surges in box office sales.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Erich Schwartzel, author of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "THE SHAPE OF WATER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Erich Schwartzel, author of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." He writes about the business of Hollywood for The Wall Street Journal.

As China starts opening up its theaters to American movies, it also starts exerting control over those movies. For example, there were two movies in the '90s that had to do with the Dalai Lama. There was Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," and then there was the film "Seven Years In Tibet." China didn't let either of those movies in because, you know, they - the Dalai Lama's living in exile and protesting against China's treatment of Buddhists. So those movies are shut out. And worse than that, the Chinese government threatens the companies that own the movie studios with boycotting their products. Can you talk about the financial disaster that companies were envisioning and how they responded?

SCHWARTZEL: Right. So this is - these two films, "Kundun" and "Seven Years In Tibet," come out only three years after American movies are getting into China at all. And neither movie is put into production with China in mind because no one at this point is making movies thinking they will make any money in China. And so Disney, which was releasing "Kundun," had inherited the project. It was a Martin Scorsese film. And it was about - both films were about a young Dalai Lama and also China's invasion of Tibet. So both films feature not just a valorization of this Chinese state enemy but also portray on screen in really unvarnished terms the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the persecution of Tibetans. I mean, Mao Zedong is featured in a scene in "Kundun" looking like an absolute buffoon next to this wise lama. And so it was obvious that China wouldn't like the films, but it didn't seem like it was going to be that much of an issue because no one expected the movies to play in China at all. Nonetheless, China made it clear that not only did it not like the production of these films, but it was going to punish the studios behind them for making them at all. So "Kundun" was being released by Disney, which at the time had already invested more than a billion dollars in the market and had already had aspirations to build a theme park on the mainland and start hooking Chinese children on Disney toys and movies and all sorts of other revenue streams, even back in the mid-'90s despite, you know, China's middle class still really coming into focus. Disney knew that it was going to be a source of revenue in the years to come.

Sony was releasing "Seven Years In Tibet." And again, Sony was releasing movies in China at the time, but the bigger economic concern was the supply chain that its parent company had when it came to Sony Electronics. And what made both of these films such cautionary tales for all of Hollywood was that after they were released, both companies were banned in China, despite the fact that the movies had not been released onto Chinese screens. And Chinese authorities made it clear by doing so that if a studio made a film that angered officials, it was not going to be about punishing that studio, but it would be about punishing its parent company. And so suddenly, it seemed like a lot more was at stake than just angering officials over the release of one film.

GROSS: So you can see how hard it must have been to greenlight a movie because you not only had to please, like, you know, like, producers and funders and the studio. You had to please the studio's parent company. You might not even know who the parent company was.

SCHWARTZEL: Exactly. And I think there's another dynamic here at play, which is the executives at Disney who, when they heard about this film, "Kundun," didn't even know what it was. I mean, that's how - that's how minor a priority it was to the C-suite at the company. They had another issue, which is that they knew if they cancelled the production as the Chinese authorities had requested, they would have been tarred in the Hollywood community for squelching free expression, for muzzling Martin Scorsese. They knew that they would have a lot of domestic blowback if they did that, too. So they had to really thread the needle.

And what they ultimately decided to do was release "Kundun" into theaters but bury it. And so "Kundun" was released on Christmas Day on four screens. And then when it didn't perform well, the Disney executives used that lousy performance to justify expanding it - to justify not expanding it much further. And actually, despite all their efforts, they - as I said, they still were banned in China. And the then-CEO, Michael Eisner, had to fly over to the - to Beijing a year later and meet with officials and apologize. And there's a fascinating transcript that exists of his meeting with a Chinese official in which he says, the bad news is that the movie was released. The good news is that nobody saw it.

GROSS: (Laughter) For a movie executive to say that is amazing. You know, good news - nobody saw the film that we made.

SCHWARTZEL: Good news - nobody saw the film, and we can get back to business here. And sure enough, on that same trip, Michael Eisner would introduce officials to his eventual successor, Bob Iger, who would preside over the construction of Shanghai Disneyland, which is still open to this day. All of it had been threatened by the release of "Kundun," but when Disney apologized for their infraction and promised to never let it happen again, the walls came down, and they were allowed back into the country.

GROSS: What are some of the early deals that were negotiated between American Hollywood studios and the Chinese government to allow American films into China but only under certain circumstances?

SCHWARTZEL: The primary deal was struck in 1994. And that had started to allow 10 films a year onto Chinese screens. And that hummed along for a while until 2012, when there was a significant expansion of that deal negotiated between then-Vice President Joe Biden and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, who was not yet president of China but was the heir-apparent. Biden and Xi met on one of Xi's trips to the U.S. and negotiated an expansion that it would allow 34 foreign films onto Chinese screens a year and that previous 13% of ticket sales that had gone back to the studios grew to 25%.

And this is a deal that really cements China's influence in Hollywood because it means that almost every studio in town can guarantee that their biggest releases will get into the country. And not only that, but they will make significant money, and it becomes - it comes to the point where even on some of the biggest films that make tons of money around the world, like a "Fast & Furious" film or a Marvel superheroes movie, that getting into China and making money there and that 25% flowing back to the studio can mean the difference between profit and loss.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Erich Schwartzel, author of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." He covers the Hollywood industry for The Wall Street Journal. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS'S "SAND MANDALA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Erich Schwartzel. He covers the film industry for The Wall Street Journal. His new book, "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy," is about the deals that have been made between Hollywood and China ever since the '90s when China started to allow American movies to expand into China, which proved very profitable for Hollywood. But part of the deal was Hollywood had to cater to China's demands regarding what could and couldn't be shown. And those demands typically include not saying anything that would reflect negatively on the Chinese government or Chinese people. I asked Erich Schwartzel about the standards American films have to meet before China will allow them to be shown.

SCHWARTZEL: There's a literal list of rules that the censors in Beijing use as something of a checklist. So when a movie has finished filming and it is ready for release, a copy of it is sent to Beijing to the Ministry of Propaganda where a collection of censors, who tend to be, you know, a collection of state bureaucrats and even some film studies professors, watch the movie. And obviously, anything that might concern Tibet or Chinese history or Mao is going to be off the table. But those movies, as I said, aren't getting made anyway.

But even a superhero movie might be watched for certain scenes that contain images or themes they don't want the Chinese people to see. And it ranges from the cosmetic to the thematic. So I'll give you an example. So in 2006, "Mission: Impossible III" filmed some scenes in Shanghai that feature Tom Cruise running through the streets. And in the background, there is laundry drying on clotheslines from apartment buildings. And the Chinese authorities requested that that laundry be edited out of the frame because they thought it presented an image of China that was more backwards than they wanted the world to see.

And then there are just deeper issues with some of the core tenets of Hollywood moviemaking. So for example, there was a film that came out more than a decade and a half ago called "In Good Company." And it's a pretty innocuous romantic comedy starring Topher Grace as this young guy who gets a job and displaces the older boss. And it seems like a pretty, you know, run-of-the-mill, PG-13, family-friendly film. It nonetheless did not get into China. And at the time, the head of the Motion Picture Association started asking around in Beijing why that was the case. He couldn't understand why a movie that obviously was not nearly as politically charged as something like "Kundun" would not get into China. And the authorities said, well, no, it's a movie about the younger generation challenging the system and taking on the powers that be. And that's a theme that we cannot abide here in China. So you realize that not only do studio chiefs today have to watch a movie and think about how every frame of China is scrutinized but also think quite a bit about how core elements of American storytelling will be interpreted by censors in Beijing.

GROSS: And the censors have some very ambiguous guidelines, things like displaying passive or negative outlooks on life is not something that happens in China. Chinese people don't participate in bad habits. China is a place where rape or murder do not occur in grisly detail. So - like, or not shown in grisly detail. How do you - I mean, how does a moviemaker determine what's a passive or negative outlook according to Chinese censors or participating in bad habits according to Chinese censors? And besides, franchise films are all about negative outlooks on life and bad habits and grisly rape and murder. I mean, let's be honest. That's what they are.

SCHWARTZEL: Often, the distinction is where such bad things are happening. And as long as they're not happening in China...

GROSS: I see.

SCHWARTZEL: ...It's kosher.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

SCHWARTZEL: So it - for example, the James Bond film "Skyfall" has a scene that I think no one who's familiar with James Bond would think twice about in which James Bond is breaking into a building and has to shoot a security guard. It just so happens that the security guard he shoots in "Skyfall" is Chinese. That had to be removed because Chinese authorities worried that it made China look weak.

GROSS: You know, Hollywood studios would not stand, I don't think, in this day and age for censorship like this from American censors. They wouldn't go back to the days of the Hays Code, I don't think. But they've been willing to do this for China?

SCHWARTZEL: Absolutely. I mean, the economics have made it something of a no-brainer because China's box office has grown as America's box office has flatlined. And this is even pre-COVID. And around 2008 or 2009, when studios started to wake up to how much money could be made at the Chinese box office, something else very important happened, which is that the DVD market collapsed. And it can be hard to remember this in an era where we're all streaming. But for many years, DVD sales, because they were so cheap to make and profitable to sell, really kept the lights on at a lot of studios. And so when the DVD market collapsed, studios were scrambling to find a way to make up that lost revenue when China entered the picture.

So I think a lot of studio executives, if they were on the line, would say that they censor movies for all kinds of markets. They censor movies for airplanes. It's a market reality they have to respond to. But what we've seen with China over the past decade is a scale of censorship that is unlike anything Hollywood's had to reckon with and also a playbook of censorship that goes far beyond cutting a scene for a movie that - before it goes into a certain country. I mean, China has made it clear that it wants to censor films that are being made in America and released around the world, not just movies that are being released into their home market.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Erich Schwartzel, and he covers the movie industry for The Wall Street Journal. His new book is called "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Erich Schwartzel, author of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." He covers the movie industry for The Wall Street Journal.

Let's talk about a recent example of Chinese intervention in the American movie industry. And this is an example having to do with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." One of the stars of that film is the British Nigerian actor John Boyega. And in the Chinese poster for that film, his image, even though he's one of the stars, is shrunk and kind of in the background. Tell us the story behind that.

SCHWARTZEL: That's right. It was something that fans noticed right away when the poster was released in China. Boyega's face was about as prominent as BB-8, the little circular droid in the film. And the reason why was because Disney executives in the Beijing office had redesigned the poster because they'd feared that Chinese audiences would be less receptive to a movie prominently featuring an actor of color than audiences elsewhere would be. And it was part of an effort that was really extensively trying to sell "Star Wars" to China overall. And the diversity of the cast of the new films was read as a risk in that effort. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, one of the key elements of its business strategy was selling "Star Wars" to China, and the diversity of the new films, while cheered in America and other parts of the world, was read as a risk to that new audience.

GROSS: It's just so interesting how studios can, like, really brag, like, oh, we're becoming inclusive. We have a diverse cast. That's so great. And then in China, it's like, well, you know, kind of keep the Black guy in the background because that's not going to go over well here.

SCHWARTZEL: You know, I think - and I think another example of that is what the studios have had to do when it comes to portrayals of homosexuality on screen, another story and another theme that Hollywood has told in some very prominent films over the past several years. But if you look to see how those movies are changed for Chinese audiences, it can feel very retrograde, very 1950s. I'll give you an example, which is the Queen film "Bohemian Rhapsody," which came out several years ago. That movie was already criticized in the U.S. for sanitizing Freddie Mercury's homosexuality. But when the film was released in China, it all but shoved him back in the closet and didn't acknowledge much of his relationship with men. And even in the scene where he reveals he has AIDS, in some theaters in China, while he's saying that, the sound through the speakers just dropped out.

GROSS: Oh.

SCHWARTZEL: And so audiences wouldn't even hear what he was saying. Something very similar happened with the movie "Green Book," which has a scene in which the pianist, played by Mahershala Ali, is seen at a YMCA with a man. And it's PG, but it's clear that they had been caught in a shower together. Well, in China, when the movie was released, they cut that frame so that it's sharper on Mahershala Ali, and you don't see that there's another man there with him.

GROSS: American movie studios go through all this effort to please China so that they can take advantage of this huge Chinese market for movies because when your story starts - the story that you're telling in your book starts, there aren't that many movie theaters. But by the time your story ends, the Chinese movie industry has really blown up. There's lots of movie theaters, lots of tickets being sold. So it's a really important market. But at some point, China decides it doesn't really want to import so many films anymore, and it kind of shuts the door on Hollywood. Why did it do that?

SCHWARTZEL: Chinese movies, over the past five or six years, have grown more and more commercial. I mean, when the story starts, China's output is still really medicinal and really, frankly, just pretty confined to government-sanctioned propaganda. But then something interesting happens. As China's ties with Hollywood grow deeper, Chinese producers and directors grow more sophisticated and start making movies that look a lot more like the movies that Americans have come to know. There's, around 2018, this surge in movies that are, you know, domestic comedies and science fiction epics, and they start diversifying the kinds of stories that Chinese audiences can go see. And it shouldn't have come as a surprise to Hollywood, but it did nonetheless, that Chinese audiences started to prefer seeing Chinese movies. You know, I don't think we would have expected American audiences to go see a Chinese version of "Davy Crockett." I mean, the Chinese audiences started seeing their own movie stars in stories that they related to, and the box office started to correlate accordingly. And so around 2018, you saw a shift from American movies being the preferred default to Chinese films doing better and better. And as those Chinese films have done better and better, the Chinese industry overall has relied less and less on the American movies.

GROSS: So has it relied less on American movies or has the government closed the door to American movies?

SCHWARTZEL: It's always a mixture of both, of market realities and government controls. And when the U.S. and China tensions started to really rise during the Trump administration, we saw walls come up on the kinds of American movies let in and even the kinds of deals being struck. I think for people doing business in China, it was easy to read which way the wind was blowing. And I even - you know, I got to know a young guy who lives in China. He's an American who moved to China many years ago and started getting cast in Chinese movies. He a young, white guy. And as he told me, he would always be typecast as a missionary, a soldier, a businessman or a guy who's trying to steal the Chinese girl from her Chinese boyfriend. Those were the roles he would be typecast in. And around 2018, 2019, all of his work dried up because producers in China were just worried about working with an American at all. And so that - so those kinds of controls started to come into place. And I think it was a mixture of the government discouraging business, from doing work with Western companies, but also the businesses themselves assessing that risk.

GROSS: Have recent American movies been shown in China? Have they gotten through?

SCHWARTZEL: There have been some American movies let into China over the past year. But the ones that the studios really care about getting in, the big, expensive movies like "Black Widow" or the "Eternals," or even "Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings," starring Marvel's first Asian lead superhero, have not gotten into China.

GROSS: What impact is that having on the American movie industry?

SCHWARTZEL: Well, it is - it has an immediate impact of depriving the studios of what was probably going to be hundreds of millions of dollars in box office grosses from the country. But it's also forced an examining of the business plan that China has supported and encouraged over the past decade. So when a movie is being put into production and before anyone says, OK, let's go write a check for $200 million to make this movie, the executives have what they call a green light meeting where they say, if we release this movie, we're expecting to make this much money in the U.S. and Canada, this much money in the rest of the world. And then there's a third column for China. We expect to make this much money in China.

And oftentimes, that China number allows the studio to greenlight a movie at a higher budget than they otherwise would. And for the past decade or so, it's one of the reasons why the movies being released by these studios are bigger and more expensive than ever before. It's because China's allowed them to spend that money and justify it. Now in those green light meetings, with China being so uncertain, it's much harder to take that risk.

GROSS: Do you think we'll be seeing fewer or at least less expensive versions of franchise films?

SCHWARTZEL: At this point, I think the appeal of China is still too great to completely ignore. I mean, the math is easy. You just need to remember one number, 1.4 billion. And I think there's still some hope that the tide could turn and some of these movies could start getting back in, these bigger films. I just saw a report that Warner Bros.' next Batman film has been approved for release in China. That's certainly going to be seen as an encouraging sign. But I think there's something else happening here in Hollywood, which is the rise of streaming, which has reduced an emphasis on the big, theatrical blockbuster overall.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Erich Schwartzel. He covers the movie industry for The Wall Street Journal and is the author of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Erich Schwartzel, author of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy." He covers the movie industry for The Wall Street Journal.

China seems to want to use its Belt and Road Initiative, which is an initiative in part of building infrastructure in developing countries, especially in Africa - to use that program as a way to distribute its movies, and also to distribute, you know, a positive view of Chinese culture and of the Chinese government. Can you describe a little bit about the Belt and Road Initiative and how that's figuring into the Chinese movie industry?

SCHWARTZEL: The Belt and Road Initiative is a collection of hundreds of projects across the world that is essentially trying to reorient global trade maps to put China as the center, as the Silk Road did centuries ago. And so this can mean everything from military bases to airports, to railways, to highways across Africa, Asia, Latin America, parts of Europe. It really has given China an ubiquity in much of the world. And what I was fascinated to learn is that it's also given the country's film industry a natural distribution network. So I spent some time reporting in Kenya, where there's been quite a Chinese presence over the past several years. At one point, I was driving around Nairobi on Beijing Road and passed an apartment complex called the Great Wall. It's not uncommon to see Chinese workers, Chinese restaurants and stay at hotels that will print receipts in Mandarin because there's such a presence there. What was fascinating to learn was that there was an effort also to introduce China to these countries through movies and TV shows. And the primary method is known as the 10,000 Villages Project. And it's an initiative that is distributing low-cost, Chinese satellite dishes to 10,000 African villages that carry Chinese movies and TV shows on them.

GROSS: Could - did you get a sense of the impact that was having?

SCHWARTZEL: It was everywhere. I spent some time in a village called Suswa, which is about two hours' drive outside Nairobi. And it's not hard - when you're driving around, you'll see these homes and these apartment complexes with these bright, orange satellite dishes on top of them. And I would walk into an apartment, and it was not uncommon on a Saturday afternoon to find people watching a Chinese soap opera. And I went back and spent some time with a family one evening who were eating dinner and watching "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

And it was fascinating because it was the cultural complement to something that they had noticed change in their lives in all sorts of ways because in Suswa, there had been a train station that runs a rail from Suswa to the Kenyan coast that had been built over several years by Chinese workers. And whenever they were building the train station, which was exciting and weird and also disruptive, you know, many of the people there had very little understanding of China or its place in the world. And these TV shows and these movies are functioning as something of an introduction to that. I mean, some of the channels carry shows about Chinese history or Chinese tradition or Chinese cooking, and it's been an effort much like the British did in Africa or the Americans did throughout the world to win them over.

GROSS: How much influence does China now have on the content of American movies?

SCHWARTZEL: I think China, over the past 15 years, has effectively introduced a culture of self-censorship to the point where any studio executive looking at a script can read it and know what Chinese censors would not approve of. And I think it functions in ways large and small, not just whether in - you know, removing a line of dialogue but really just taking entire topics or themes off the table.

I mean, I think, you know, no studio in Hollywood today would touch a movie that concerns a storyline involving the Uyghurs or Xinjiang or issues involving Taiwanese independence or demonstrations in Hong Kong. I mean, these are major events that, I think, in another time probably would be mined for movies as the American movie has always done and reflected that history or those events back at us. But because of the economic muzzle that China has on the studios today, those things are just complete nonstarters.

GROSS: Well, this has been fascinating. I will start watching movies in a different way now (laughter). Erich Schwartzel, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much, and thank you for your book.

SCHWARTZEL: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Eric Schwartzel is the author of the new book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, And The Global Battle For Cultural Supremacy."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be writer Julie Otsuka. Her novel "The Buddha In The Attic" is about Japanese picture brides, women in Japan in the early 1900s who emigrated to America the only way they legally could - by marrying a man already in America based on a photograph. Her novel "When The Emperor Was Divine," based on her family history, is about Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. Her new novel is about the relationship between a woman with dementia and her daughter. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.

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