Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger and other industry executives are meeting privately this week with members of Congress to discuss how to respond to China’s strong-arm tactics to stifle and censor filmmakers.
Several members of the House Select Committee On the Chinese Communist Party attended two meetings with filmmaker groups Wednesday, and plan to meet Friday with Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook.
Recently lawmakers placed a provision in a new defense bill that restricts cooperation between the U.S. government and any American film studio that allows the Chinese government to demand edits on a project.
The concern about China is not just a matter of big-money international business, but goes right to the core of freedom of expression in the world, Hollywood producer and committee adviser Chris Fenton told TheWrap. He said Hollywood and congress need to be united in dealing with the communist Chinese government and its efforts to control the industry.
“We need to rebalance the playing field, and show a unified front to China,” Fenton told TheWrap. “The only leverage we have is to present ourselves as a unified industry, if we want to get China to compromise on a few issues, which will not be easy.”
Fenton said Wednesday’s meetings were private to allow relaxed and honest discussion in the groups, which included committee members, filmmakers, industry executives and college professors knowledgeable about U.S.-China relations.
“It was a good start. We didn’t solve the problem, but we certainly set a path forward to take it to the next level, to have a strategy to address China with unified leverage,” Fenton said.
Select Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., made the California trip with nine other committee members. They met with Iger and other Disney executives, since Disney does so much business in China, including its Disneyland park in Shanghai. Disney came under fire from human rights groups for the 2020 movie “Mulan,” which was filmed in a province where the Chinese government reportedly brutally oppressed millions of Muslims.
Fenton, author of “Feeding the Dragon,” about doing business with China, and a trustee of the U.S.-Asia Institute, organized another private meeting in Los Angeles with filmmakers and committee members. He said Gallagher and the committee are gathering knowledge on industry dealings with China, and invited him to advise the committee.
One of Fenton’s concerns is that China uses the leverage of its massive market and deep pockets to pressure filmmakers to produce movies that only “portray China in a positive light.”
That goes beyond forced edits, he said, and has a preemptive chilling effect of inhibiting filmmakers from using any storyline that might offend Chinese officials.
“They might not even pursue an idea, if they think it will make the Chinese government mad. Because that can get everyone involved with the film banned in China,” Fenton said. “That gets us to a point where filmmakers might pretend that Taiwan does not exist, and there can never ever be a Chinese villain in a movie. We need to get rid of that kind of premeditated censorship by Hollywood itself.”
So can the problem be solved? Fenton says yes, if Hollywood studios can get on the same page, work with the US government and use that leverage to exact more artistic freedom when dealing with China.
“We are still one of the few industries that China needs, and that they do open their market for,” Fenton said. “We need to use that leverage and be united, so that one studio knows that if it does the right thing, another studio will as well. We are one of the bastions of creative freedom, and we need to remember that.”