Los Angeles Politics

Disney meeting didn’t change this rep’s mind on China

The threat of Hollywood studios censoring movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party has long been a bipartisan talking point for U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.).

Last week, Gallagher, chairman of the House Select Committee on China, took a tour of California, where he met with business leaders including Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger and Apple‘s Tim Cook to discuss their business with China.

Those meetings — which also included talks with movie producers and filmmakers who’ve worked in or with China — did little to assuage Gallagher’s worries, he told The Times in a Monday interview.

“My concern about censorship remains as strong, if not stronger than ever,” Gallagher said. “It’s unquestionably happening. Everyone was completely candid about that. It’s a major problem.”

Gallagher is pushing studios to be more transparent about their experiences with Beijing and censorship. Studios have long tweaked their movies in order to gain access to the world’s second-largest box office market, where the government keeps tight controls on what people there can see.

He was among the members of Congress who signed Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2020 letter to Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek criticizing the Burbank company for cooperating with China to shoot part of the live-action “Mulan” despite the country’s persecution of Uyghurs.

The congressman’s California tour occurred amid a push by Republicans and Democrats to either ban or force a sale of Chinese-owned video app TikTok, in order to ease worries that parent company ByteDance will have to share user data with the authoritarian regime.

Gallagher said his meetings with the entertainment and tech companies did not generate any specific policy proposals or recommendations to address concerns of censorship. However, he said he hopes the meetings would create more dialogue around the issue and provide insight into what he believes is an ideological competition with China.

Hollywood studios have faced criticism for altering movies for China over the years.

“Top Gun: Maverick” caught flak for a trailer that removed the Taiwanese and Japanese flags from Tom Cruise’s jacket. (The flags were later restored in the final cut.) In 2019, Universal-Dreamworks’ “Abominable” was pulled out of Vietnamese theaters because it portrayed a map that showed China having ownership over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

Studios have defended these practices in the past, arguing that such changes to movies are simply meant to expand their global reach. But censoring movies in China affects what stories are told because of the nation’s global power, Gallagher said.

“It can promote anti-American messages,” he said. “What we don’t want, but what the CCP ultimately wants, is for the CCP-approved version of the movie to become the only version and that’s a bright red line that we should work to enforce.”

Actors have also faced backlash when weighing in on China. In 2021, John Cena pledged his respect for China and apologized for calling Taiwan a country while promoting his film, “F9.”

In 2019, the star of Disney’s “Mulan” remake expressed support for Hong Kong police who were cracking down on pro-democracy protests, which led to some consumers boycotting the film.

Controversy was fueled further when it was revealed that Disney filmed part of the movie in Xinjiang, where it’s estimated that more than 1 million Muslims have been forced into indoctrination camps.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some studio executives in recent years have started to rethink their self-censorship for China as U.S. movies struggle to reach the box office heights that they once did in the market. China’s box office is increasingly dominated by productions from Chinese studios, with the support of the government.

Hollywood movies in China have recently represented a small portion of the box office in China. In 2021, U.S. movies and imports from other countries represented 15.5% of China’s ticket sales, compared with 36% in 2019, according to advisory firm Artisan Gateway.

Even Disney has struggled to secure China release dates for its popular Marvel Studios movies. The “Black Panther” sequel, “Wakanda Forever,” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” were the first Marvel Studios superhero movies to be released in China since 2019.

Still, Gallagher said he’s concerned about changes studios are making at the early stages even before the content raises an issue with the CCP.

“You’re obviously going to censor on the front end so you can get access to the market, and we heard story after story about how the CCP dangles market access in front of Hollywood moviemakers so that they self censor what movies already been made in the first place,” Gallagher said. “There’s virtually no CCP villains in any major American movie .”

Gallagher said some Hollywood and Silicon Valley executives still hold onto the idea that more American engagement with China, with more Disney-branded theme parks and American movies, will encourage China to be less aggressive.

“To me this idea that just somehow we engage harder, that somehow the relationship is going to improve, I think that’s already been proven false,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher did not provide policy proposals of his own to address the Hollywood-China relationship.

He said Congress doesn’t want to dictate what types of movies the companies can or can’t make. In the past, the Armed Services Committee has considered denying studios access to Department of Defense resources in movies that agree to Chinese censorship, which Gallagher said “seems fair” to him.

In Silicon Valley, Gallagher said one area for potential legislation is to control American capital or investment in Chinese artificial intelligence, quantum and biotech companies. “We don’t want to be funding our own destruction,” Gallagher said.

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