PEN America Study Says Hollywood Increasingly Normalizing Self-Censorship to Appease China
The left-wing PEN America has repeatedly attacked President Donald Trump as a menace to free speech. Now the elite cultural organization finds itself in the awkward position of agreeing with the Trump administration on the issue of Hollywood’s cozy relationship with China’s Communist regime, which is suppressing the freedom of expression around the world.
PEN America published a scathing report Wednesday in which it said that Beijing is “creating a climate of self-censorship” in Hollywood, with studios routinely making compromises on free expression by changing the content of their movies that are intended for both American and foreign audiences.
“These concessions to the power of the Chinese market have happened mostly quietly, with little attention and, often, little debate. Steadily, a new set of mores has taken hold in Hollywood, one in which appeasing Chinese government investors and gatekeepers has simply become a way of doing business,” the study says. “We have developed this report on Beijing’s influence over Hollywood because we believe this influence cannot be ethically decoupled from the Chinese government’s practices of suppressing freedom of expression at home.”
Chinese government censorship is exerting influence on #Hollywood & the global filmmaking industry, posing a threat to #freespeech & artistic expression. In our latest report, we look at ways in which Beijing’s censors have shaped the stories we see: https://t.co/bjzv3poe91. pic.twitter.com/tJiKosCttg
— PEN America (@PENamerica) August 5, 2020
The Trump administration has recently hammered Hollywood for its regular deference to China’s censors. Both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Barr have spoken publicly about how the major Hollywood studios are sacrificing freedom of artistic expression in order to gain access to the Chinese market.
“Every year at the Academy Awards, Americans are lectured about how this country falls short of Hollywood’s ideals of social justice. But Hollywood now regularly censors its own movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party, the world’s most powerful violator of human rights,” Barr said during a speech last month at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Michigan.
U.S. Department of State / YouTube
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has proposed a law that would strip any Hollywood movie of federal assistance if it engages in censorship to please China.
As Breitbart News has reported, Hollywood movies have repeatedly sought to placate China by idealizing the country or by removing story elements that Beijing could find offensive:
The big, disaster epic 2012 portrayed the Chinese government as humanity’s literal saviors.
Alfonso Cuaron laid some love on the Chinese in Gravity by inventing a space station they do not have.
While the book World War Z depicted the zombie plague as having begun at the hands of an incompetent and corrupt Chinese government, the movie moved the origin story to North Korea.
Transformers 2 set much of its actions in the gleaming, modern, and pristine city of Shanghai — no squalor there!
The upcoming Top Gun: Maverick is so concerned with offending its Chinese masters, Tom Cruise’s iconic flight jacket was stripped of its Japanese and Taiwanese flags.
PEN America also pointed out Hollywood’s hypocrisy in frequently criticizing Washington but failing to do the same for Beijing.
Actors from left, Chen Zhen, Joe Russo, Tom Holland, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Russo, pose for the media during a promotional event for the latest Avengers: Infinity War movie outside the Walt Disney Grand Theater at the Shanghai Disney Resort on Thursday, April 19, 2018. (AP Photo)
Disney CEO Bob Iger briefs journalists on the eve of the opening of the Disney Resort in Shanghai Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Disney will open its first resort in mainland China on Thursday. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
“Today, Hollywood enjoys a reputation as a place uncowed by Washington, and one that is often gleefully willing to speak truth to American political power. This reputation contrasts strangely but silently with Hollywood’s increasing acceptance of the need to conform to Beijing’s film dictates,” the report says.
Hollywood’s addiction to China’s box office dollars comes as studios increasingly focus on tentpole releases — essentially, blockbuster superhero movies and other big-budget action titles. The price tags for these movies are so high that studios often can’t turn a profit unless the movie is released in China, the world’s second largest movie market.
The report adds that this increasing need for access to Chinese moviegoers coincides with Hollywood filmmakers’ increasingly “normalized” self-censorship:
As the Chinese box office market continues to outpace America’s, and as the relationship between Hollywood and Beijing becomes even more lopsided, the pressures on Hollywood studios to accede to CCP censorship will only increase. The phenomenon of self-censorship will presumably only worsen. That is why it is so important to have this conversation now, before acquiescence to Beijing’s censorship becomes even further normalized for Hollywood filmmakers.
But in order to get a Chinese release, a movie must pass muster with Chinese censors, who limit the number of foreign titles that play in local cinemas each year.
PEN America noted that the last time Hollywood made movies that were critical of China was in 1997, which saw Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, released by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, as well as the movies Seven Years in Tibet and Red Corner.
The Walt Disney Co. faced pressure from China over Kundun’s depiction of the Dalai Lama and China’s invasion of Tibet. The pressure worked, prompting Disney to apologize.
“The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it,” then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner told Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji. “Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”
China’s power over Hollywood is so great that the studio executives and producers who spoke to PEN American for the study did so under the cover of anonymity.
PEN America wants Hollywood studios to pledge that the censored, Chinese-versions of their movies not become the default version of the films offered to global audiences. If that’s not possible, studios must “commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by government regulators for their films.”