The Iron (Movie) Curtain
Self-censorship & Hollywood
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘espionage’?
A dashing secret agent?
A mole buried deep on the inside?
Yeah, sure. But let’s be honest — that stuff’s a lot of work.
If you want to manipulate Americans, there’s a much easier way. If you pay us enough...we’ll totally just sabotage ourselves.
When it comes to foreign powers that make us nervous, one nation in particular stands out. In a recent poll about which country represents the biggest threat to our national security, Americans picked China by overwhelming margins.i
And at the highest levels of government, they’ve come to the same conclusion. In the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment, the U.S. intelligence community listed “China’s Push for Global Power” as the country’s foremost national security problem.ii
And the Chinese government has given us plenty of reasons to worry.
In 2020, the director of the FBI said that the bureau was “opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours.” iii
A former head of the NSA said that China’s theft of intellectual property — which is estimated to cost the U.S. as much as $600 billion a yeariv — represents “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”v
Though, in fairness, he said that before Jeff Bezos decided to get divorced.
But beyond the world of sabotage and spycraft there’s also a much subtler tool China uses in its quest to exploit America: money. The Chinese have it. American businesses want it. And China’s communist rulers use it to manipulate American culture.
They’ve spent $250,000 a pop to place propaganda in American newspapers masquerading as real journalism.vi
After one NBA executive tweeted his support for Hong Kong, they imposed a national blackout that cost the league somewhere around $400 million. vii
But the place where this influence may be the most pronounced is the one where you’re least likely to notice it: at your local movie theater.
Here’s the issue: In 2020, China became the largest film market in the world, which means it can be a goldmine for American movies if they show up on Chinese screens. How much of a goldmine? Getting Avengers: Endgame released in China...made it an extra $629 million. viii
Here’s the catch: Only about 35 foreign films are allowed into China every year — and the communist government decides which ones.ix
And that gives them exactly the leverage they need both to control what their own citizens see and to control how China is depicted to us, to American audiences. Lest that sound paranoid, consider the following...
In 2012, Hollywood released a remake of Red Dawn, the Cold War action film about an invasion of the U.S. The invading force in this version? China...at least until studio executives got nervous and digitally altered the entire film — which had already been shot! — to make North Korea the bad guys.x Which is a little less risky since the North Korean film market is literally just Kim Jong Un’s PlayStation 2.
China refuses to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, so when the trailer for the Top Gun sequel dropped...Tom Cruise’s leather jacket was back...but the patch containing the Taiwanese flag wasn’t.xi
When Marvel was putting together Dr. Strange, they had a bit of a problem. In the comics, the title character’s mentor, The Ancient One, was Tibetan. But since China claims Tibet and refuses to recognize it as an independent nation, the movie version of this legendary master of Eastern mysticism became...Celtic?xii
And it’s not just that Hollywood is making these concessions. They’re also trying to hide it from Americans.
E-mails released in the Sony hack showed that executives decided to remove a scene in the comedy Pixels in which aliens blew up the Great Wall of China.xiii And they decided to remove it from all versions of the film, not just the Chinese one, so that no one would “realize we changed the China setting just to pacify that market.xiv”
And it’s worth remembering that the censorship in American theaters is nothing compared to what’s happening in Chinese ones.
Thanks to his advocacy for Tibet, Richard Gere — and his movies — have been banned for life from China. xv Beijing prohibited the film Christopher Robin because Chinese President Xi Jinping’s opponents mock him by claiming that he looks like Winnie-the-Pooh.xvi The film Bohemian Rhapsody premiered in China...stripped of all its references to homosexuality.xvii
Just to be clear, they took all the gay parts out...of a movie...about the band...Queen.
Because if it’s something the Chinese government disapproves of, it all too often just comes out of the picture. Like it never existed.
So, is there anything that can be done about this?
Well, for one, the talent could start speaking up. That’s what Quentin Tarantino did when he refused to recut Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for China because of its portrayal of Bruce Lee.xviii And some critics have even suggested that movies that have had their content influenced by Chinese censors should have to publicly disclose that fact.xix
The arts, after all, are supposed to be about freedom. Freedom to express yourself. Freedom to challenge authority. And even...ok, not the freedom to make the Ancient One Celtic. I’m sorry, did they not know where Ireland is?
- "Americans See China as the Biggest Threat to the United States, Not Russia" — YouGov
- 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community — Office of the Director of National Intelligence
- "The Threat Posed by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party to the Economic and National Security of the United States" — Federal Bureau of Investigation
- The Elements of the China Challenge — U.S. Department of State
- NSA Chief: Cybercrime Constitutes the “Greatest Transfer of Wealth in History” — Foreign Policy
- "China's Influence & American Interests: Media" — Hoover Institution
- "NBA Will Lose Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Due to Rift With China, Commissioner Says" — CNBC
- Avengers: End Game (2019) — The Numbers
- "How Hollywood Sold Out to China" (Shirley Li) — The Atlantic
- "Reel China: Hollywood Tries To Stay On China’s Good Side" (Ben Fritz, John Horn) — Los Angeles Times
- "‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Trailer Sparks Controversy as Fans Notice Taiwanese Flag Missing From Tom Cruise’s Jacket" (Patrick Brzeski) — The Hollywood Reporter
- "‘Doctor Strange’ Writer Explains Casting of Tilda Swinton as Tibetan" (Edward Wong) — New York Times
- "Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing" — PEN America
- ”How Sony Sanitized the New Adam Sandler Movie To Please Chinese Censors” — Reuters
- "Richard Gere’s Studio Exile: Why His Hollywood Career Took an Indie Turn" (Tatiana Siegel) — The Hollywood Reporter
- "Disney’s ‘Christopher Robin’ Won’t Get China Release Amid Pooh Crackdown (Exclusive)" (Tatiana Siegel) — The Hollywood Reporter
- "Bohemian Rhapsody Opens in China, Minus All the Gay Bits" (Chris Bell, Kerry Allen) — BBC
- "Quentin Tarantino Holds Firm, Won’t Recut ‘Once Upon a Time’ for China" (Brent Lang) — Variety
- "Opinion: China Is Turning American Movies Into Propaganda. Enough Is Enough." (Sonny Bunch) — Washington Post
SOUND | Artlist: "Dr. Molotov's Cocktail (Shaken and Stirred)" (Colonel Mustard), Showtime ( T. Bless & the Professionals) // Premium Beat: Swaziland (Bahati Kiro), Boo Beat (Cosmo), Maggie in the Woods (Dynamite Music), Jokers Are Wild (Flash Fluharty)
FOOTAGE | Big Hit Entertainment // Australian Broadcast Commission // ABC News // Adobe Stock: Success Media, Gstudio, rawpixel.com // Agencia de Noticias ANDES: VISITA DE ESTADO / XI JINPING // Walt Disney Studios // C-SPAN // Encyclopedia Britannica // Fandom Wiki: Marvel Characters, Inc. // Flickr: pizzodisevo, mrwynd, Palácio do Planalto // Free Sound: plasterbrain // Getty Images: gogoloji, ISAAC LAWRENCE / Contributor, Atstock, Productions, Kevin Frayer / Stringer, Mark Wilson / Staff, Joe Raedle / Staff, Marcus Ingram / Stringerm, John Eder, Pool / Pool, MyFortis, Fei Yang, Sangkhom Simma, DianaHirsch, Christopher Polk / Staff, Mario Tama / Staff, Mario Tama / Staff, Chip Somodevilla / Staff, Anthony Kwan / Stringer, Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Gary Merrin / Stringer, Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Colin Davey / Stringer, Keystone / Stringer, Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Atlantide Phototravel, SEAN GLADWELL, dimdimich, Burazin, Naddiya // Library of Congress: Geography and Map Division // NapperTime // National People’s Congress of PRC // Paramount Pictures // Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India // Office of the Director of National Intelligence: 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community // Office of the Secretary of State: The Elements of the China Challenge // Penske Media Corporation // Pexels: cottonbro, Tima Miroshnichenko // Pixabay: TheDigitalArtist, Free-Photos // Pond5: MountAiryFilms // Keithready //Survey of India // Justus Perthes (1749–1816) // Harbin // Reddit: u/NineteenEighty9 // Storyblocks: kk5hy, stockbusters, blank, vivekfx, EveMax, vivekfx, Tai11, Wilson Hansen // Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer // The Pentagon: David B. Gleason // The Washington Post // Twitter: D. Hunter Schwarz // U.S. Government: National Security Agency // Unsplash: Krists Luhaers, Ralf Leineweber, Alvan Nee, Michael, Alex Litvin // Vecteezy: Shotina, pictulandra // Aude // GT1976 // Michael Rivera // China News Service // Thorkild Tylleskar // YouTube: Hudson Institute, Cottonwood Pictures, Warner Bros, Dreamworks Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, United Artists, Summit Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Studios, Columbia Pictures, HAMILTON THE MUSICAL, TV10/TenAsia, Republic Pictures, Gramercy Pictures // Buena Vista Pictures, Universal Pictures // Miramax Films // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
"Americans See China as the Biggest Threat to the United States, Not Russia"
- Office of the Director of National Intelligence
2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
"The Threat Posed by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party to the Economic and National Security of the United States"
- U.S. Department of State
The Elements of the China Challenge
- Foreign Policy
NSA Chief: Cybercrime Constitutes the “Greatest Transfer of Wealth in History”
- Hoover Institution
"China's Influence & American Interests: Media"
"NBA Will Lose Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Due to Rift With China, Commissioner Says"
- The Numbers
Avengers: End Game (2019)
- The Atlantic
"How Hollywood Sold Out to China" (Shirley Li)
- Los Angeles Times
"Reel China: Hollywood Tries To Stay On China’s Good Side" (Ben Fritz, John Horn)
- The Hollywood Reporter
"‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Trailer Sparks Controversy as Fans Notice Taiwanese Flag Missing From Tom Cruise’s Jacket" (Patrick Brzeski)
- New York Times
"‘Doctor Strange’ Writer Explains Casting of Tilda Swinton as Tibetan" (Edward Wong)
- PEN America
"Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing"
"How Sony Sanitized the New Adam Sandler Movie To Please Chinese Censors”
- The Hollywood Reporter
"Richard Gere’s Studio Exile: Why His Hollywood Career Took an Indie Turn" (Tatiana Siegel)
- The Hollywood Reporter
"Disney’s ‘Christopher Robin’ Won’t Get China Release Amid Pooh Crackdown (Exclusive)" (Tatiana Siegel)
"Bohemian Rhapsody Opens in China, Minus All the Gay Bits" (Chris Bell, Kerry Allen)
"Quentin Tarantino Holds Firm, Won’t Recut ‘Once Upon a Time’ for China" (Brent Lang)
- Washington Post
"Opinion: China Is Turning American Movies Into Propaganda. Enough Is Enough." (Sonny Bunch)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “How Hollywood Sold Out to China” (The Atlantic)
- “China is Turning American Movies Into Propaganda” (Washington Post)
- “Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing” (PEN America)
- “China is Spending Billions to Make the World Love It” (The Economist)
- “Beijing’s American Hustle” (Foreign Affairs)
- ”The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies” (Bloomberg)
- The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, by Rush Doshi
- Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA & American Business, by Chris Fenton
- China’s Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance, edited by Larry Diamond & Orville Schell