China Strengthens Its Grip on Hollywood
Congress must stop foreign ownership of American production and filmmaking
A congressman is taking issue with China’s growing financial influence in Hollywood.
Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) is leading the charge to have the Department of Justice look into and update the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in light of recent major investments by Chinese companies in Tinseltown.
It is not far-fetched to assume China would seek to spread pro-regime propaganda via ownership of U.S. entertainment media.
On Monday night at a gala at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin announced $750 million in incentives over five years for Hollywood films to shoot at a $5 billion studio in Qingdao, China. Unveiling plans for a 40-percent product rebate for filmmakers, the offering was done to lure major film productions to his home county, offering an “opportunity,” he said, to Hollywood, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The flashy festivities included speeches by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, both of whom heralded the idea of more collaboration between Hollywood and China.
Director Steven Spielberg also recently took part in a highly public signing ceremony when China’s Alibaba Group, owned by Jack Ma — China’s second richest man — took a minority stake in Spielberg’s company, Amblin Partners. Alibaba Pictures has already made a name for itself investing in big Hollywood releases, including “Star Trek Beyond” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.”
The move is one of many that Culberson addressed in his letter to Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin on the issue.
“The original FARA statute was adopted in 1938 in response to concerns about Soviet and Nazi propaganda in the United States. Unfortunately, the law has been severely weakened over the last 80 years with carve-outs and exemptions for a range of activities that may be controlled by foreign governments, including lobbying, propaganda and control of media and cultural institutions that seek to shape public opinion,” Culberson wrote.
The letter mentions big moves by Chinese businesses and investors to move in on both the production and distribution of American filmmaking. Specifically, it notes conglomerate Dalian Wanda's acquisition investment in AMC Cinemas, purchase of Legendary Entertainment (behind productions like "Jurassic World" and "Warcraft"), and the company's bid for Carmike Cinemas.
As the film market in China grows, Chinese ticket sales are more important to studios. However, because of the Communist country's strict regulations and control of art exposure, many films have been re-edited just to be released in the country.
Films such as "Iron Man 3" have had completely different edits shown in China than America. The edits included more Asian-friendly actors.
The effect could be seen all the way back in 2012. The remake of "Red Dawn" was sick with post-production blues when they decided to change their fictional invading army from Chinese to North Korean. Images were digitally altered so the film could guarantee itself a place on China's theatrical roster.
The China market has immensely grown since then and now America's own Hollywood is working on a full-fledged partnership, which has many worried.
Culberson says in his letter that without updating the FARA (which allows for more thorough oversight of foreign investors, as well as detailed disclosures), the growing relationship between the two countries could "allow Chinese state-controlled companies a significant degree of control over the financing and content of American media that raises serious concerns about how this may be used for propaganda purposes."
The letter references an audit of FARA by the inspector general, conducted in September, which gave 14 recommendations for updates to the program.
Culberson also criticized many individuals making large investments in American movies and studios and their relationship to the Chinese government — specifically men like Wanda CEO Wang Jianlin.
Culberson is not the only one concerned with Chinese interests in Hollywood. The Washington Post's editorial board published a recent piece questioning Wanda's interest in a billion-dollar acquisition of Dick Clark Productions, a U.S. company that produces awards shows like the Golden Globes.
"It is not far-fetched to assume China would seek to spread pro-regime propaganda via ownership of U.S. entertainment media," noted The Post.
Culberson says he is concerned that the FARA has not been updated to address "new threats" since 1990. His main concern, as well as the concern of the September report, is with existing exemptions that don't take into consideration the new and specific Chinese investments.
Culberson and others' concerns are only set to grow as billions from China pour into Hollywood.
For now, the FARA remains unchanged and many in Hollywood actually see the benefit in Chinese financing. "China financing emboldens U.S. studios to take a risk, because they're only in for half the budget. Of course, there has to be one-two Asian actors in the cast, and — even better — an Asian director," screenwriter John Sullivan told LifeZette.
His upcoming movie, "Security," was financed mostly with money from China. He says the investment allowed the film to have a much bigger budget and no story was sacrificed or changed. The caveat was casting two Asian stars in the film.
Some insiders are more cautiously optimistic. Screenwriter Jack Reher, whose movie "Ride" is currently filming, said, "I think any infusion of capital into the entertainment industry is a good thing but there's always risk of an agenda. Think of it like campaign contributions — there's always a personal/corporate gain at stake. Time will tell if there's censorship. I'm hopeful that our industry keeps pushing the envelope and simply makes great entertainment."