The Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy – Erich Schwartzel
The Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy – Erich Schwartzel
The fierce competition between the U.S. and China has reached an unexpected arena: the movies. And as the largest film market in the world, China wields tremendous power over Hollywood’s profits. Charles sits down with Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel to find out how China’s Communist Party compels Hollywood to censor American values.
- An Introduction to Erich Schwartzel (00:00:00)
- A Global Industry (00:04:31)
- Eastern Influence (00:12:37)
- Profit and Loss (00:22:57)
- Limits and Censorship (00:38:14)
- Economic Consequences (00:47:13)
Erich Schwartzel is a Wall Street Journal reporter and author. He covers the film industry at The Journal’s L.A. bureau, writing stories on life and business in Hollywood. Schwartzel recently released his first book (below), which details China’s growing influence over the American entertainment industry. The book has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and was featured on NPR and CNN.
Before You Leave:
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I was struck by the real power that China has amassed, making sure that any movie that Hollywood puts out is in some ways tacitly approved by Chinese censors. It’s really co-opted the incredible power of the American film.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Erich Schwartzel. Erich covers the film industry in the Wall Street Journal’s Los Angeles bureau. His latest book is Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. His book details the surprising role of the movie business in the high stakes contest between the U.S. and China. I recently sat down with Erich and we talked about how the movie industry is the latest battleground in the tense and complex rivalry between these two world superpowers.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right, Erich, thanks so much for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it. And folks, the name of the book is Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. Erich, you wrote a fantastic book. I really, really enjoyed it.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Thank you. I appreciate it. It was very fun to write, I have to say.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: This is your first book, right?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It is, yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Really good stuff. And you did a lot of research on this man. You were flying all over the world based on what I’m reading in the book.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I did. From the start, I wanted to get out of Los Angeles as much as possible. I thought the way for this book to be as interesting as possible was to travel. And I thought it served as an opportunity to introduce a lot of readers to what life is like in China, what it’s like to travel there, what it’s like to report there. And then, I knew from the start that I also wanted to include a significant section on Africa. So, there’s a final chapter in the book that takes place entirely in Kenya. And it’s always been my approach to reporting, too. I’ve always been someone who, if I can get on a plane and go somewhere in person, I try to. I mean, you can read as many books as you want and you can do as many interviews over the phone. But one hour on the ground can be as enlightening as any of that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: 100%. All right, I’ll tell you what I liked about your book. There was a lot of stuff I had no idea about. And it really is chilling. We’ll get into it, but it really some scary stuff you bring up. So, I want to start because you have so many different areas in this book that … First of all, why don’t you share with us why you wrote this book? Why did you feel compelled to write this book as your first one?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yeah. I have been covering the film industry for the Wall Street Journal since 2013, and I moved to Los Angeles to take that job. I covered gas drilling and fracking in Pennsylvania before that, actually. And so, I moved to Los Angeles. I was hired by the Journal to be something of a set of fresh eyes on the job. I don’t know how you cannot have fresh eyes covering fracking and then going to Hollywood. You know, fresh eyes is one way to put it. I’d say, a lot of naivete is another.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: But I started to see China everywhere I looked. I mean, you started to see it in casting decisions, in financing arrangements. Everyone knew that China was going to be the next round of what they called “dumb money” — the money that flows into Hollywood so that financiers have a chance to go to premieres and feel like they have a little bit of stardust in their life. But I also always suspected that there was something else going on there, that it was more than just a financial arrangement, that there was an inherently political story here, too.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: And it only took a couple of years — in 2016 and 2017, when that global contrast really formed between China and the West — that I thought we could really use the movies as something of a … frankly, like a proxy for the China-U.S. relationship writ large. And so, very quickly, I thought there’s certainly enough here for a book. To your to your point about how chilling it can be, I also thought it was a story not just about the economics of Hollywood and the geopolitics of the situation, but it was also a question of values and America’s place in the world. And what has happened to America’s presence around the world just in the last 20 or 30 years?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, you know what? I was thinking of so many ways I wanted to start our conversation about your book. I want to start — forget what I said earlier. I want to start with Nazi Germany, 1930s — one of the biggest markets for the movie industry at the time. Hollywood was Germany, right? I mean, they consumed movies. In fact, Goebbels was the Nazi propaganda minister. He loved movies. Movie director, really immersed in movies. Share with us what happened at the time. And it’s interesting because in Hollywood, most of the major studios were run by Jews, and they knew what the Nazis were doing. Yet still, the market was too big a market to disregard or overlook. Could you just walk us through what happened in terms of how the influence of Nazi Germany impacted the movie industry? And then we’ll fast forward to today with China.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yeah, this was a parallel that I draw in the book. And I draw it carefully, but I think that there are some undeniable similarities in the dynamic here. So, before the U.S. entered World War II, in the 1930s, Germany was a massive foreign market. This was something, Charles, that actually surprised me, as I had thought that Hollywood’s global footprint was a relatively new phenomenon. But it turns out that Hollywood has been a global industry since its start really. I mean, it was shipping movies overseas almost as soon as they were being produced in Los Angeles. And Germany was a massive market.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: And when Hitler came to power, he instituted a system that has some remarkable similarities to how China operates today. So, for instance, movies had to be approved for release before they could be shown in German theaters. So, any movie that disparaged the Germans or portrayed their presence in what was then known as the “Great War” in a way that they disagreed with, or had values or a perspective that they thought was wrong. I mean, it even went so far as to banning Tarzan movies because it looked like too much racial co-mingling for the Nazi eugenicists. So, it went from the political to the cosmetic in terms of what the German authorities might reject.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Now, if you’re running a Hollywood studio, you want to get into those markets. And so, you might change the movies, you might agree to edits, you might agree not to make certain movies in order to keep in the good graces of the Nazi Party. And this did happen throughout the 1930s. And it’s interesting because the system that the Nazis had in place, it’s very similar to the one in China today. For instance, there is an approval process that the studios have to go through. There are certain themes, images, issues that they know they cannot touch for fear of angering the authorities.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: And we’ve also seen, as the Nazis did, punitive measures taken against studios that don’t follow the rules. And so, in Nazi Germany, for instance, if a studio made or released a film that the Nazis didn’t like, they might not let any of the studio’s other movies into theaters. China has done the same thing.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Similarly — and this is another critical difference — oftentimes when studios censor films, they’re censoring films for that market. So, Saudi Arabia censors a lot of movies, but they’re only censoring things for Saudi audiences. That’s what they’re concerned about. China today and Germany in the thirties wanted to make sure that audiences everywhere watched their approved version of a film. They understood the incredible commercial power of the Hollywood movie. And this is why China is not just concerned about movies that it disapproves of showing in China. It’s concerned about movies it disapproves of showing anywhere, because it doesn’t want audiences anywhere to ingest an image or a theme that it doesn’t agree with. And the Nazis did the same thing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. And even to the extent that, when I was reading your book, that the major studios even preempted what the Nazi approval process was, where they were self-censoring.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Right. This happens quite quickly, right? It doesn’t take long to know, hey, this is something that the authorities are going to disagree with. So, we’re going to just take it out of the movie altogether. In the case of Germany in the thirties, some studios would even go so far as to remove the names of Jews involved in the film from the credits preemptively. And in Hollywood today, it’s gotten to the point, Charles, where I think most problematic issues with a film are removed at the script stage, because any executive working here for more than a couple of years has ingested what the CCP is going to take issue with.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, what was — or is — this magic, this Hollywood magic that the Nazis were fearful of? And now today, China is. What are they so scared of? We go to movies today, watch them on TV. We don’t, you know, we’re Americans — we’re skeptical. We don’t take everything verbatim and we don’t take everything as gospel. And we’re skeptics. But it’s a totally different set of eyes that the Nazis and now the Chinese are viewing movies. Could you just share with us what are they seeing that we’re just not getting?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: First of all, I think the movies are indisputably the most popular form of soft power that America has had over the last 100 years.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When you say soft power, explain.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Soft power is the political science concept that a country that is trying to win friends and influence people abroad can do more than just will them into alliances, through military might or through economic coercion, but through what is known as the softer power. The idea of having something of a gravitational pull toward a culture by celebrating its culture, celebrating its history, celebrating its heroes.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: One of my favorite quotes describes America in the 20th century as becoming “an empire by invitation.” This idea that America, especially after World War II, was able to use the movies, use the education system, use all sorts of elements of the American firmament to draw people toward this country — whether it was by looking cooler than everyone else, whether it was by extolling the virtues of democracy or capitalism. And the movies did that better than just about anything.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: And one of the other interesting parallels between — you mentioned Goebbels in Germany and some of the authorities in China today — they’ve always tried to crack the code of how do you make propaganda films that don’t feel like propaganda. So, for instance, in the 1940s, Joseph Goebbels would watch the movie Mrs. Miniver, which was a movie that inherently rallied support for the Western Alliance in World War II. And he’d say: “It’s so odd we’re watching this movie, and it never mentions the enemy. It never even mentions the war. And yet somehow, it is conveying this emotion.” It’s winning hearts and minds.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: And there’s a story in the book that I love that you remember the Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot, about the Revolutionary War. Authorities in China requested a copy so they could watch it and figure out how to make, quote, a good propaganda film. Because so much so many of their movies that are about the virtues of China, they can just really feel like medicine. You know, it can feel like sitting through a history lesson or a really didactic documentary. In some cases, you know, Hollywood seems to have somehow cracked the code to do America’s bidding in a way that it rarely feels like it’s doing America’s bidding.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: If you’re watching a Rocky movie, for example, in Rocky Ford Drago in Rocky four against the Russians, I remember when I watched that movie, when I was watching in a theater in Brooklyn, everyone was standing up and cheering. And when they mentioned Drago, the Russian national anthem played, there were booing and throwing things at the screen. And you felt great when you walked out, you know, with the American flag, you know. So now that brings us also fast forward now to top gun rights. A Top Gun came out first, I believe, 86. Yes. Okay. 86 was a different world, especially in China. So, at the time, one thing that you pointed out was what’s his name? I cannot think of his name. I’m cruise. His jacket. His jacket had a flag, a Taiwanese flag. Now, 30 some odd years later, 36 years later, they’re remaking the movie and there’s Chinese. We got to get to the Chinese market because this market, as you mentioned in the book, is now in the hundreds of millions of dollars they’re factoring this their accounts are factoring in releases in China. So, this is not just an ancillary line item or small. This is a big issue when they come to make a movie. So now here, I think you could see for a nanosecond the jacket with barely the hint of the Taiwanese flag.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: That’s right. That’s right. You can blink and you miss it. But you’re right. The story of the two top guns kind of tells you everything you need to know about Hollywood in China, as you said. I mean, is there a better emblem of 1980s Cold War cinema then than Top Gun? I mean, talk about standing up and cheering. And the original film led to an increase in enlistments. You know, it did everything that we were saying earlier in terms of being an effective, entertaining propaganda film. And then when the new one was being released, as you said, something very big had happened in the intervening 30 years or so, which was that China had gone from an entirely closed off market, a place that Hollywood never gave any thought to, to the second largest box office market in the world, on its way to becoming the first. And so. But in order to access that revenue, in order to access those ticket sales, you have to have the movie approved for release by censors who were operating out of the Ministry of Propaganda. And so, it was, you know. Almost something of a no brainer that the flag that you mentioned on the back of Tom Cruise’s jacket had to go. Now, something that something is interesting. So, I think that’s what’s happened between 1986 and 2019, which is when we noticed that the flag had disappeared. But something else is, and interestingly happened between 2019 and 2022, which is that the U.S. China relationship has grown more fraught by the day. And American consumers and American politicians are increasingly calling out Western businesses who are acquiescing to Chinese authorities. And so, it seems as though in the intervening years, the studio behind Top Gun Paramount decided, you know, we really risk alienating a lot of Americans if we take this flag out of the movie. Is it worth alienating those Americans to access a Chinese market that is growing more inaccessible by the day? And it appears as though they decided we would rather keep Americans on our side than have a better shot of getting into China. And that is something that is a relatively recent development. Until I’d say Top Gun. And maybe a couple other more recent examples. The studios were always deciding China was worth it. And over the past two years, I think Koven had a lot to do with this. Over the last two years, what was what was once something of a fringe issue, which is Western businesses conceding to Chinese authorities is becoming more and more mainstream.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So now let’s bracket and then we’ll go into the impact that China has had and y. On the American movies and the and the and the studios. Red Dawn. Red Dawn. 1984. I remember that movie that was a real rah-rah movie. The Chinese invade the United States, right?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: No. The Soviets.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Soviets. I’m sorry. Soviets fly in. I remember watching that they divide the country. That coming in from Mexico, the Wolverines, they fight back. Now, that was 1984, real popular movie at the time. And I don’t know how popular was, but I remember watching it, you know, the young kids were fighting against. And then our biggest enemy then was the USSR. Now fast forward to 2012 or so. Yep, a remake of Red Dawn. And who’s the enemy this time?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Well, it was originally supposed to be China. When they greenlit the film, they were going to have it be a Chinese invasion of the US which.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Which, which, you know, is, is, is probably, is probably their superpower. It’s not like if you’re going to have a, I don’t know, Mexico and the United States, that’s not believable. But you have China invade. That sounds, you know, like the Soviet Union did in 1984 when Red Dawn came out. So, they shoot the movie. They have China invade and everything. Movies made finished. Don, what happens next?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Well, China hears about it and articles start appearing in Chinese state media saying that if MGM, which was the studio behind the new Red Dawn, if MGM released the film and portrayed China as the antagonist like that, but there would be problems. And suddenly a dynamic took shape. I’m so glad we started with the example of 1930s Germany because a dynamic took shape that was very similar to the 1930s dynamic because MGM was not making this new Red Dawn movie with China in mind. It was not one of the one of the movies that they were going to send to Chinese theaters.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Emily, your subjects are singing it from your book. This is what I learned. Chinese market wasn’t that big a market. They didn’t let too many films in at the time. There was a limitation to how much money they can make. So, it really wasn’t so much the money. And I don’t think Red Dawn was going to be shown in China. Exactly. It was American movie.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Right? Exactly, Charles. But by but by making it at all, MGM risked seeing all of its other movies, denied access to the Chinese market, which, as I said, is a is a playbook that we also saw in 1930s. Germany sort of punish a company wherever you can. And so, MGM did something pretty drastic. They took the completed film and they sent it to a company here not far from my house, actually, that specialized in what they call hidden effects. And hidden effects are the very unglamorous side of special effects. So, you know, special effects, we usually think of car crashes and superheroes and things. These are the folks who go in and make sure that you can’t see, you know, any pubic hair in the nude scene or, you know, remove the boom mike from floating above the shot. You know, these are this is this is the kind of work they do. But I have to say, it’s pretty critical work. You know, we don’t want to see movies. We go to the movies for a certain kind of fantasy. And these that’s what these people do. But they here they are. They get a completed film about a Chinese invasion of the US and they’re told you need to remove all references to China from this movie. So, every flag, every line of dialog, every metal on a military officer’s uniform that signals China has to be removed. And instead, this new Red Dawn is re-edited into a story about a North Korean invasion.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You had Asians. They might as well stay with Asians, right? So.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I mean, I know I mean, I actually have thought about that. I mean, what are those actors thinking? Right. You know that your cast is one nationality, which is from a switched in editing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Of any.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Character. And obviously when the movie came out, everyone was very quick to point out this doesn’t make any sense.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Even the movie, one of the actors actually says, who was that for? What was his name? Chris.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yeah, one of the Hemsworth brothers. He says, Yeah, there’s this line of dialog. He says, North Korea. It doesn’t make any sense. And I’ve always thought that was the screenwriters trying to sort of signal like, hey, we know this is not this is not the kind that this is not the movie we wrote. And what was so fascinating is that that story of the re-editing, I did not uncover that for the book. It was reported on at the time in 2012. There were stories about this, this sort of drastic measure being taken. But what I was so fascinated when I found what I found quite revealing was the fact that it wasn’t seen as a big deal. It was seen as something, you know, a little bit of a fluke, something you some weird thing you did for China and people kind of moved on. It wasn’t until years later when the US and China were locked in, in the rivalry that I think they’re in today, that you started to see people say, oh, you know what, in retrospect? Those kinds of. Concessions were fueling China’s rise in a way that we weren’t we didn’t appreciate at the time.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When I was reading your book. And by the way, folks, the book is an outstanding book of the year. Your first book. And I can’t wait to read your second. You really you really write well and get to the point where I think every chapter, you know, my whatever comes for dinner or something, I’d stop by to offer get to get back to this book, you know. Some books you like, you know, struggle to get back to. This was like, I’d got to see what happens next. And, you know.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: That’s a wonderful endorsement. Thank you.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And jump around from time points which was really interesting. But something that was really amazing was when I kept reading the book, it really reminded me of the kid story. If you give a mouse a cookie, those who want a glass of milk, the Chinese. They started with small concessions and they kept upping the upping the ante where it got to the point where the studios were being preemptive and being above and beyond the Chinese censors, many things that Chinese didn’t even ask for. They went ahead and did because the Chinese market of was it 15,000 theaters or so.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It’s now about 75,000.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Just look at that number, you know, and then the box office receipts they’re talking about, this is a couple of dollars a ticket, right? A dollar, $52 a ticket. So, when you’re talking the, you know, 500 million, 300 million. Think of how many millions and millions of people are seeing these movies from just not from a financial point, from a propaganda point.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Oh, absolutely. And I also think, you know, one of the things that I was fascinated to learn about were what was happening here in the U.S. that drove these studios into China. You know, one thing that’s happened over the past decade or so is that movies have gotten so much more expensive. All of the studios now are trying to make these giant blockbusters. You know, we had three this weekend at the box office where, you know, we had Jurassic World. We had Doctor Strange. We’ve got Top Gun. There are a bunch of movies coming out this summer that are sort of at a similar scale. These movies are so expensive that sometimes, Charles, accessing that Chinese market is the difference between profit and loss. And so obviously, you’re not going to do anything that will remotely jeopardize not getting into that into that market, because, you know, when you send a movie in to Beijing, when they when they don’t take it, you very rarely get a memo saying why? So, you have to you know, you can see the genius of the system in a way. You have to then intuit and guess and then everyone sort of lowers their bar of risk so that they can have the best shot.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, it became with China and I just want, you know, our listeners to really appreciate this the way China is crafting their message and of what kind of country they are, and more importantly, what they’re suppressing, what they’re not letting or whitewashing. For example, the three T’s, right? You can talk about Tiananmen Square. You can talk about Tibet and you can talk about Taiwan. Right. And so, for example, you bring up in the book of Richard Gere, who is very vocal and friendly with the Dalai Lama and Free Tibet and all that. And the guy can find work.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: That’s right. He’s radioactive. And, you know, obviously, we remember he was a huge star in the nineties and he continued to work through the early 2000. But his last studio film was in 2009, which was a very important year because it was the year that Avatar came out and Avatar made $200 million at the Chinese box office. And that was an amount of money, Charles, that in 2009 was considered almost a mathematical impossibility. You did it because the market was so under screened at the moment and tickets were so cheap relative to U.S. prices, that $200 million really served as something of a wakeup call for the entire industry.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And it really got the 200 in the way you wrote is. People saw three, four or five times.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Right. For some people, it was the first movie they saw in theaters. It was it was certainly for a lot of Chinese moviegoers, the first movie based on 3-D. And so, and also the entertainment market back then, not nearly as saturated with streaming options and things as we see now. So, you can understand how it would prove to be so, so popular. However, I mean, I think it’s critical that that is the year Richard Gere stops getting cast in major studio films because every casting agent in town knows that if he shows up on screen. Chances are Chinese authorities aren’t going to let it into their theaters.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Not only that movie, but every movie the studio has. Everything from Disney for. Except they’re all gone.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: It could be. It could be. It could be that drastic. You’re right. And, you know, when I set out to write this book, I had heard speculation that that was the case. And then I would talk to people and they’d say, no, you know, that’s overstating it, Richard. You know, it’s very hard to find any man of Richard Gere his age, starring in big movies these days and so on. But I talked to an executive at Warner Brothers who said, you know, it wasn’t like there was a blacklist that went around saying don’t hired Richard Gere. But the question is, I mean, think about it. The conversation always went something like, well, do we really need him? Because if you can call someone else and you’re not going to really lose that much, like why adopt the, I think a chance.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why take the chance? And, you know, even with children’s movies, cartoons and with Mulan, you write all about Disney. And I think the Disney story from Michael Eisner. To Bob Iger. And what happened is just absolutely fascinate. You want to just take us from Mulan as it was Mulan. Right. With Michael Eisner, with your report.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Michael Eisner, the big the big story that that Michael Eisner got involved in was in the nineties with Kundun, which was the Martin Scorsese movie.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Which renegotiation shows with Usher. Go ahead.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: In 1987 and this I opened the book with this because it’s such it’s such a case study in in what would happen. Disney is releasing a martin Scorsese movie called Kundan, which is about a young Dalai Lama. It’s actually really, really well-done film. And it’s his 1997. So giant. China hasn’t joined the WTO yet. It’s only been letting in American movies for three years. And at the time, if a movie there made $3 million, it was considered.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The letting in. Like, what was it, 13 movies a year or something that.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Was about between like ten and 12? Ten and 13? Yeah, very small number. I mean, it was not it was not something that any studio chief was spending any time thinking about. Disney, however, I mean, they knew that eventually this middle class was going to take shape, that there was going to be a robust market there, that maybe even eventually there might be a theme park in in mainland China. But that was years away. And then when Kundan is released and it serves as this kind of valorization of this Chinese state enemy, the Chinese authorities make it clear that all of Disney’s aspirations in the market are jeopardized by this film. And Disney is kind of to our point about the top gun jacket. Disney is in a tough spot because they know if they kill the film that Martin Scorsese, Z and all of his friends in Hollywood are going to accuse the company of bowing to the Communist Party and squelching free expression so they decide what they’re going to do while they’re back. Channeling with CCP authorities with the help add of Henry Kissinger, who they had on retainer to navigate Chinese politics. They decided We’re going to release the film so that no one can claim we did it, but we’re going to release it as quietly as possible. And they released it on, I think like two or three screens on its first day and they gradually expand, but it never has a national release and they don’t put a lot of money into marketing it. Nonetheless, Disney is still banned from doing business in the country after its release, and it’s not until a year later that Michael Eisner, the CEO at the time, flies over and meets with a CCP official named Zhu Rongji. And there’s a transcript of this meeting that is just fantastic reading. If you want to if you want to go track it down. And he says to this Communist Party official, he says, the bad news is that we made the film. The good news is that nobody saw it. And he apologizes for making this movie about the Dalai Lama. And it gets Disney back into business. And not only does Disney get back into business in China, but they become pretty in pretty short order. The most influential, powerful and lucrative studio in the market. And today they have Shanghai Disneyland. They, you know, in good times routinely get their biggest movies into the market. They’re selling toys. They’re there. They’re doing everything to seed the Chinese culture with Disney culture.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. Right. And just share with us, why is Tibet why is the Dalai Lama so toxic to the Chinese worldview?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Well, he since has since his exile following Mao’s revolution, the Dalai Lama has operated something of a government in exile that the Chinese authorities view as a challenge to their sovereignty. You know, so many of these issues are about what Beijing sees as its rightful borders and the land that it is, you know, that it can justify having. Take Taiwan has a similar kind of geographic importance. And the Dalai Lama has also, I mean, talk about soft power. I mean, he has over the past 30 years or so, since winning the Nobel Peace Prize, functioned as maybe the most charismatic critic of the of the CCP. And I think all of the adoration in the West that is now certainly tempered because of China’s influence. For example.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Richard Gere, who linked up with the Dalai Lama, who’s really ostracized.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: For example. Yes, absolutely. And many, many musicians as well will not perform in China because they have shown support for the Dalai Lama. So, he’s something of a one-man rebuke to what Beijing sees as its as its sovereign borders. Right. And so.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Identity is the apology that China demands of the insensitivity of even thinking. And I was reading some of the apologies you put in the book, what they say, what others say we apologize for. You know, even if were insulting the Chinese people and the Chinese government and even thinking that Taiwan or it’s 1984 it’s thought police. It’s anywhere close to thinking like that. And they’re coming after you.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Well. And when actors or directors have to go over to China now to do to do press tours, they’re given these binders that run down, you know, here’s what you’re allowed to say if this comes up, this is the way to address it and so on.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I think you even put in with Jackie Chan, you know, he was he was not to be asked any questions. The handlers seem to be very nice. But soon as he got to the point of anything dealing with Taiwan, he was not allowed to answer. I think it was also Hong Kong. He wasn’t allowed to answer also or something to that effect.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Right, right, right, right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, they’re clamping down because they’re looking at saying in cases where you had, for example, a beautiful Chinese actress who at Cons she was there with the.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: American Fan Bingbing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. What happened to her? Share with us that story.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: This is a fascinating story. And I think it’s also another example of just how so much success in China now for Western business is becoming a liability. Fan Bingbing was China’s. Arguably its biggest star. She was something like on the on the par of like an Angelina Jolie or a Jennifer Lawrence Julia Roberts. And she was cast in a universal film that came out last year or maybe earlier this year, now called The 355 with Jessica Chastain and Penelope Cruz. And she was cast in the film. And soon after she was cast in the film, which, you know, was a pretty savvy move on the part of the studio because casting her in a movie is going to really boost your chances of success in China. After she was cast, she was busted for what they call yin yang contracts. And yin yang contracts are essentially tax evasion. It’s the idea that, you know, Charles, you’re getting paid $500 to do this podcast, but you report to the government that you’re getting paid 200, so to.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Speak, to submit contracts, to submit.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Contract. Right. And so, she became this very public example of a government crackdown on a practice that was actually quite rampant in its entertainment industry. And I think, you know, some people read this and they say, well, she was evading her taxes. This is not necessarily something we you know, we should just look, you know, turn the other way on. And but what was unique was just what happened to her. As a result, she disappeared from public view three months and three months.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: She’s gone three months. And you said how they have the nerve to do that because they had a premiere. They had a movie coming out. Right.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: This movie came out. She just never showed up to set it. She just never showed up. No one knew where she was. And, you know, it’s interesting. I think I was one of maybe four people who saw that movie when it finally did come out. And if you watch the film, it is so obvious that they had to greenscreen her into the movie. You can see you can see the visual effects that they had to pull off to make it look like she had just shown up to set as she was supposed to.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Amazing. And they find her, I think was $127 million, which was greater than her net worth. They wanted to destroy her.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Right. And what’s interesting now is her career to try to build her career back up. She’s partaking in what I what I consider something of a of a currency system in China’s entertainment industry, which is she’s now doing a lot of propaganda films, a lot of pro-government films to build up her, as I said, her political currency, since she’s lost so much in this in this scandal.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, if you’re going to make a movie and show that you want to show in China, you can talk about Taiwan, you can talk about Tiananmen Square, you can talk about Tibet, you can make movies about ghosts. Why can’t you make movies and have ghosts?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: So, ghosts and anything that involves really the supernatural is has been a no-go zone. There’s an esthetic, I think, allergy in in training sometimes to do things that are like disturbing or a little gross or, you know, that kind of macabre element. But the other thing is that ghosts are, in essence, a really a spiritual being. And the CCP is overseeing what is, you know, what they define as an atheist country. And so, there’s a little bit too much spirituality in that in that concentration of ghosts.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Also, no time travel. You can have Back to the Future. Why can’t you have time travel?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Well time travel. I mean, think about it. It first of all, it allows for the idea that there is a history different than the one the government taught you. Amazing. And so, it gets it gets a little problematic. What if you know what if you have a movie set in China that goes back in time to the 1950s? I mean, that’s a minefield in terms of what you’re allowed to portray and what you’re not allowed to portray. And so, if there’s going to be a portrayal of history, it has to be the straight and narrow version that the CCP is putting forward. And trust me, they put forward a lot. There is no shortage of movies about Chinese history at the at the Chinese box office right now.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Amazing. There’s no homosexuality, right? That doesn’t exist. There’s no Serpico or some other movie with. It was very clever how you run the book. How the events of. Was Serpico, right. That got in? Yes. Yeah. Share with us what happened there.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yeah, I talked to it. Talked to a producer who wanted to do a China essentially a Chinese version of Serpico. And he called it I think he called it a metaphysical quandary, because on one hand, the authorities would like the story of corruption busting in in an institution. Right. That is something that Xi Jinping himself has said he’s doing quite a bit of. However, you have to then allow for the fact that there was corruption in the Forbidden West.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. Right.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Which is the problem. Right. So. So where can you set it? What can you do? I mean, this is why so often producers have to get creative and maybe set something in the 1980s before the current regime was in power, or maybe set something in Macao where there’s a little less of a of a hold on law and Order. There are all these kinds of storytelling devices that function as these kind of allowances that let you kind of skirt the CCP concerns.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, it’s, you know, I’m reading this and I’m saying, okay, ghost, I couldn’t understand time travel, but then you can have time travel. You know, it’s there it goes to show you the depth of how they’re managing information and writing history according to the way they want it to be and not the way it is, of course. To the umpteenth extent.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I mean, it’s what’s fascinating is how it all moves in such concert. And, you know, we started this conversation talking about American soft power. Chinese authorities really do view entertainment and the images that Chinese people see as something of a spigot. And any time the CCP wants to engender loyalty or boost patriotism, whether it’s because it’s such a big holiday or there’s a party Congress coming up, they will shut off the spigot of Western influence and instead pipe in a lot of Chinese.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: With the Olympics, right?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Exactly. Exactly. And then they’ll then they might loosen it again after the event.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, I want to tell you as troubling as this book is and what’s happening, there’s a certain amount of admiration, a certain amount of respect, a respect that’s even a bad word or what would be the best of how China is managing this and not only managing it, but is extremely successful in achieving their goals in terms of the dissemination of what they want. And also, which I think was just absolutely amazing, the way that Chinese are depicted. I think it was a flower vase. Was that the.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yes. Yes. So, this is so back in, I’d say starting around 2013 or 2014, a lot of studio chiefs, you know, rather smartly thought, well, if we’re go if China is the play, why don’t we do everything we can to boost our chances of success in the Chinese market? Well, why don’t we cast Chinese actors and actresses in these roles? And so, in 2014, 2015, there are all these movies like X-Men and Godzilla and Transformers, or suddenly these Chinese actors and actresses were showing up out of nowhere in these bit roles oftentimes played by actors and actresses who didn’t speak English or didn’t speak English well enough to act in it. But the studios, I think, rather stupidly thought if a Chinese moviegoer sees one of their actors or actresses on the poster, they’re more likely to go see it. Well, Chinese audiences aren’t dumb. They know when they’re being pandered to. And so, they go see these movies, whether it was X-Men or something, and they’d say, okay, that actress actually Fan Bingbing was in one of them. She was in X-Men four one scene, and her character was named Blink, which I think is really just cruel. But they said, you know, we come here, you tell us Fan Bingbing is in the movie. She’s in it for 2 seconds and then she leaves. So, they started calling these actresses flower vases because they were so useless to the plot that they were just sort of decorative. And I think it’s an example of, frankly, the sort of like the Hollywood arrogance that that just the Chinese audiences would be so thrilled to have a Chinese actor or actress in a Hollywood film that they would forgive something like that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And they would also I remember reading that the movie posters would be way out of proportion to the appearance of the of the actor. It’s like you think you go to see a movie all about her. And there was she was the flower of us, you know, exactly. Exactly the look, also the arrogance. And you have some great pictures in your book. Of John Wayne back in the day playing Genghis Khan, you know. Here you have an American, you know, Big John Wayne, six four, six three. Swagger, cowboy, this and that. And then you have him as an as someone from Asia and all the other.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I don’t think I don’t think that would happen today.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Not all the Jackie. Not the Jackie Chan. The Fu Manchu of stereotypes of the Chinese. It has gone the other way, you know, just amazing that to think that they could pull the wool over China’s eyes and how crafty. And I say that a complementary way for China and their propaganda arm of what they’re accepting and how they’re seeing the peace and have and whipping Hollywood into line in such a way that just, you know, you’re rewriting you’re not rewriting history. You’re having history written the way China want you to see it.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And I think what I was struck by was, you know, it’s one thing to have movies be changed before they can be shown in Chinese theaters. I was struck by the real power that China has amassed, making sure that any movie that Hollywood puts out is in some ways tacitly approved by Chinese censors. It’s really co-opted the incredible power of the American film.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s like you and I, let’s say, screenwriters, we come up, Oh, let’s do a movie about the Dalai Lama. Nope. Let’s do Tibet. No. Tiananmen Square? No. Taiwan, no ghost control. What are we doing? We never get to tell history. We never get to tell the story where it’s never going to be that. Of course, we will never get it greenlighted. We’ll never sell the screen the rights, we’ll never make the movie. And even if by chance it does, it’ll never see the light of day.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: And I think what to your point, too, and this is this is really putting Hollywood in an awkward position, because for the first time in decades, studio chiefs run the risk of being at odds with their home government if this this continues to become more and more of a political concern.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, it’ll, you know. How do you see, you know, in the short time that we have left? How do you see this playing out? What do you how do you see this coming to a climax, if it does at all?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Well, I think issues like the top gun Taiwan flag will if they continue to happen, I think they will just get more and more oxygen each time they do, because I think Americans are starting to recognize a pattern. And I also think that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised really interesting questions about the role of all Western businesses to be doing business in countries that are opposed to American interests. And so, if the China America relationship continues to devolve and it doesn’t improve, businesses are going to be caught in the middle sooner rather than later. And if China is seen as being more aggressive than American authorities want it to be. A lot of businesses are going to be called out for their help now. Now, what’s interesting, though, is that an economic exodus out of China is much harder than an economic exodus out of Russia.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: 100%. Yeah.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: You know, it would be it would be devastating to so many of these companies.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, the amount of money that American companies had in Russia is no comparison to the investment and the commitment to their bottom lines as China. First of all, the market as you choose your mongoose. And it’s you know, I just when I was reading your book, I’m trying to think, where’s the happy medium here and there? I don’t think there is one. When you deal with the bully and money on the other side of it, principles or the money, it’s going to be a hard choice. It’s going to be the money for most unless the government, the United States government does something about it. And I don’t know what they can possibly do.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yeah. You know, I have a I have a quote in the in the book from a studio executive who said to me, I do not see myself as the standard bearer of Western democracy. I’m here to make money. Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, yeah. That that’s really a focus. The name of the book is Red Carpet. Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy. I want to tell you, it’s a really, really good book. Eric, you did an outstanding job and you have another book idea coming out or are you thinking one or are you just taking a break on this?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I do. I do. I am working on a second one that is going to be a political, cultural and economic history of Star Wars.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, interesting. Interesting. You know, I saw I was looking at it. So that’s why I love doing this podcast. I mean, such great people like yourself who write really great stuff. And I think it was a couple of weeks ago I was looking at the Saturday edition of the Journal and they were the front page of the review section was an excerpt from your book.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yes. Right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, it was good.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Yeah. The Journal’s been a great, great supporter. And, and yeah. And it’s also it’s funny, you know, when I sold this book in 2018, I thought I was late to the story. And it just gets more, more and more relevant by the week. I mean, you know, this, you know, in recent months it’s been Tom Cruise helping me sell copies.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, what’s the next one going to be? Just amazing.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: Just exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Exactly right. Eric, thanks so much, man. Continued success to you. And when you co-wrote your next book, Open Invitation to the show. Love to have you again.
ERICH SCHWARTZEL: I’d love that. Thank you, Charles.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: All right, man. Thanks. Take care. Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Moran Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome. If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back either way. We’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on the Charles Mizrahi Show Channel on YouTube.
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