U.S.-China tensions have escalated into the realm of movie politics, despite the ongoing global pandemic that has already sent Hollywood reeling.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has doubled down on threats to make American studios decide between federal funding and the Chinese box office through what he calls the Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity and Protecting Talkies Act. Late last month, Cruz issued a version of the bill that prohibited studios from using Department of Defense funds for film production if they alter content to suit Chinese censors. On May 21, he went a step further, expanding the bill’s scope to include funding from the whole of the U.S. government.
All foreign films must receive approval from China’s censors before they can be released in mainland theaters, a process that leads to edits, obfuscated translation and even title changes. It’s no secret that Hollywood studios have complied in exchange for access to the world’s second-largest film market. In the upcoming “Top Gun 2,” co-financed by China’s Tencent Pictures, for instance, the flags of Taiwan and Japan have been digitally removed from the back of Tom Cruise’s flight jacket to appease Beijing.
The irony that the sequel to one of the greatest American military recruitment films of all time is toeing China’s line is not lost on Cruz. “What message does it send that Maverick, an American icon, is apparently afraid of the Chinese Communists?” he asked the Senate.
The Script Act asks American companies to give Congress a list of all titles submitted to Chinese authorities for approval in the past decade for review — “Good luck with that,” laughs one top film executive with deep ties to China — but more troubling is its prohibiting studios engaged in co-productions with Chinese companies from accessing government assets.
Chinese regulations require that there is only one version of a finished Chinese film, meaning that the version of a co-produced movie released in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere should be the same as the one censored for Chinese audiences — restrictions that will swiftly take U.S. government support off the table.
The Script Act is the latest in a series of bills from Cruz that seek to decouple the U.S. from Chinese economic interests, and was introduced on the same day the White House issued its own 16-page report outlining a new, more hardline China strategy.
This is not the first time governmental concern over Chinese influence in the film industry has bubbled to the fore. In 2016, when Chinese conglomerate Wanda was snapping up major American entities like Legendary and AMC, 16 bipartisan members of Congress issued a letter asking the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to review the influx of Chinese funding pouring into the entertainment sector — to no avail.
Analysts say Cruz’s bill may have been proposed due to CFIUS’ inaction. If passed, it would mean annual hearings on Hollywood censorship. “If they get wind of a studio performing a redaction or changing something obvious, then [the government] gets the chance to hold their feet to the fire,” says senior RAND Corp. policy analyst Sale Lilly.
Industry players on both sides of the Pacific have so far dismissed Cruz’s proposal as unactionable political posturing amid deteriorating U.S.-China relations.
It will be difficult to enforce, as it targets film distribution rather than development. Chinese firms are deeply involved in films they invest in, giving creative notes to ensure content will suit local tastes and regulations from the early script phase on — a closed-door process impossible to regulate.
“What are they going to do, demand copies of each draft of each movie script? Gimme a break!” laughs one veteran exec.
Also, the carrot of government funding is just too remote to entice many takers, most say.
Losing U.S. government support would likely only be a deal breaker for select military-focused titles — like “Top Gun 2” or 2013’s “Lone Survivor” — that bank on the military connections and access to assets like fighter planes for credibility with their target audience.
“If you force Hollywood studios to choose between U.S. government support and Chinese money, of course they will choose the latter. And that means in the future, there will be more movies made with Chinese money and without U.S. government involvement,” notes Philip Fang, a sociologist at Northwestern focused on U.S.-China film cooperation.
Instead, pushing China to abolish its film import quotas — an option already on the table in the ongoing trade-war negotiations — would achieve many of the same aims as Cruz’s legislation without harming U.S. companies.
A 2015 Economic and Security Review Commission report on Hollywood’s censorship for China concluded that lifting the quotas would “hinder Chinese censors’ ability to apply China’s standards to American cinema and manipulate the way American movies are written, shot and marketed.”
“At the end of the day,” says entertainment lawyer Bryan Sullivan, “I think this is a meaningless gesture by Ted Cruz to give himself some sort of platform to criticize China.”
Patrick Frater and Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.