WASHINGTON — Catching a movie probably won’t be high on the agenda when Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrives Sunday in Washington to meet with President Clinton.
That’s probably just as well, with three current or soon-to-be released pics — Sony’s “Seven Years in Tibet,” MGM’s “Red Corner” (Oct. 31) and Disney’s “Kundun” (Dec. 25) — all portraying Beijing’s iron political grip in less-than-flattering terms.
In addition, pro-Tibetan political activists have mobilized a handful of Hollywood’s heavyweight thesps, including “Red Corner” star Richard Gere, who hope to use Zemin’s U.S. visit to highlight China’s occupation of Tibet and the plight of the Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile more than 30 years. Gere reportedly lobbied successfully to get the film to premiere almost simultaneously with Zemin’s visit, the first by a Chinese political leader in more than a decade.
In addition to Tuesday’s New York premiere of “Red Corner,” MGM is holding a Washington premiere tonight for the pic. In an unusual move, MGM will, sources say, substitute a 60-second “public service announcement” for one of the five trailers it normally sends to exhibitors. The clip will feature Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, Goldie Hawn, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts and Gere reading from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While he is in Washington, Gere also will participate in a “state-less dinner,” which will be held at the same time that Zemin will be attending an official state dinner at the White House next week. On Oct. 29, Gere is scheduled to speak at a Lafayette Park rally across from the White House in support of human-rights reforms in China and Tibet.
Meanwhile, the Intl. Campaign for Tibet has hired a public relations firm to target audiences exiting from “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun.” “It is a very fortuitous time for these movies to highlight the situation in Tibet,” campaign director John Ackerly said.
The effort already has produced a dramatic increase in donations and hits at the organization’s Website: from 500 a week to 32,000 in the past month, according to Ackerly.
The group has been distributing kits to exiting “Seven Years in Tibet” auds in more than 40 states. Just in the past year, the organization’s membership has tripled, from fewer than 3,000 to almost 10,000 members, Ackerly said.
Still, how all this plays at the B.O. remains to be seen. Last week, in its second week in release, Brad Pitt starrer “Seven Years” was the No. 4 box office draw in the country, racking up $6.4 million. That represents a 36% fall-off from its $13.3 million bow at No. 2 the previous week.
“Kundun” could face a tougher time at the box office. Although it was directed by Martin Scorsese, the film, which depicts the early years of the Dalai Lama’s life in Tibet, has no major Western star.
Longtime supporters of the Dalai Lama and human rights in Tibet say Hollywood’s sudden interest in their cause is a godsend.
“I’ve seen “Seven Years in Tibet” three times,” said Grace Spring, founder of Washington’s Tibetan Center. “Each time I leave with great sadness. I want his holiness to return to his homeland.”
For the past 10 years, Spring has spent three hours each Friday morning quietly protesting in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington. She has also met the Dalai Lama several times and studied the Lama’s teachings with Gere.
Spring says Hollywood “has a wonderful opportunity to bring attention to the (Tibetan) cause.” Of Gere, Spring said, “Hollywood is one of his natures, but he is very much a Buddhist.”