Disney and #BoycottMulan Campaign: How Studios Must Adapt to Social Media Firestorms

“It’s unrealistic for studios to expect their employees — their stars — to simply fall in line and not speak out or voice their opinions on issues,”  crisis management expert Evan Nierman says

The #BoycottMulan movement began last month, after Chinese-born actress and star of Disney’s upcoming live-action “Mulan” Liu Yifei, also known as Crystal Liu, pledged support for Hong Kong police amid unrest in the region.

Liu’s comments on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and the conversation that has ensued in its wake is the most recent example of a studio needing to navigate tricky waters because of its blockbuster star.

Crisis management expert Susan Tellem, a senior partner at Tellem Grody Public Relations, said that as studios rely more on capturing the international marketplace — as with Mulan — the likelihood of stumbling into social and political dust ups increases with the cultural differences.

“I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong,” Liu posted on August 14.

The boycott from Hong Kong protestors and supporters erupted almost immediately. Twitter user @sdnorton said Liu, “pisses on people fighting for democracy.”

Protests in Hong Kong began in April as more or less peaceful demonstrations against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed for criminal extraditions to mainland China, with the fear being that the bill could give Beijing the ability to punish dissidents with more ease and force.

Disney did not respond to the TheWrap’s request for comment, nor did representatives for Liu.

The media and entertainment company has stayed mum on the boycott and opted to not have Liu present when it showed new footage of the movie during its biennial D23 Expo. Many saw Liu’s absence as Disney attempting to skirt the issue altogether.

“If they were my client, I would say that what they’re doing is absolutely the right thing,” Tellem said. “There’s a term: watchful waiting. I think that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

It’s hard to shackle actors and filmmakers, who are expected to engage with audiences and fans on social media.

“It’s unrealistic for studios to expect their employees their stars — to simply fall in line and not speak out or voice their opinions on issues,”  Evan Nierman, founder of PR and crisis management firm Red Banyan said. “She’s a Chinese national, she probably has a better idea of what’s going on in Hong Kong that more Americans.

“In this day and age, social media gives everyone a platform, for better or worse — from your mom and dad to this actress to voice their opinions,” Nierman continued. “In that way, Twitter is a great equalizer… This actress, just like everyone, is entitled to their opinion.”

Nierman and Tellem argue that most Americans don’t know enough about what’s going on in Hong Kong, therefore don’t expect Liu’s comments to affect the movie’s release. Not to mention, “Mulan” won’t be in theaters until March 2020.

Liu is not the first, and likely will not be the last, celebrity to wade into controversial political waters or come under fire for sharing on social media. Last year, Disney fired director James Gunn after unwanted publicity surrounding old tweets in which he joked about rape and pedophilia. The studio rehired him in March following backlash to the firing.

Hollywood tends to be more antsy about matters of racially or sexually offensive and sensitive remarks than Politics, which seem to be more nuanced. Bill Maher is constantly in hot water for things said on his HBO show.

Just three years ago, the internet was ready to cancel Kanye West after he came out in strong support of President Donald Trump. That also blew over: Last year, his album “Ye” sold the equivalent of 208,000 albums in its first week and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, making it his eighth in a row to reach the top, which tied a record held only by Eminem and the Beatles.

“Americans are very forgiving,” Tellem said.

“People don’t necessarily choose their entertainment based on political conversation,” she said. “They just have a certain affinity for particular celebrities.”

It makes sense that Liu, a Chinese-American citizen, would support the Chinese government and feel the desire to voice her opinion on the protests, Tellem said.

Add to that the democratization of social media, and it makes it harder for studios to prevent actors and filmmakers from voicing opinions that may not jibe with the studio trying to not offend the widest swath of people possible, Tellem said.

“It’s important for studios to look at these things on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes action is required, but in this case what Disney is doing is smart,” Nierman said. “People have very short attention spans, and even shorter memories.”

Trey Williams

Trey Williams

Film Reporter covering the biz • trey.williams@thewrap.com • Twitter: @trey3williams



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