- - Monday, June 6, 2016


Query: Can “Captain China” compete with Captain America?

Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of “Captain America: Civil War,” which over Memorial Day weekend surpassed $1.1 billion in global revenue, are betting that he can. Following the film’s $100 million opening weekend in China last month, they announced they will produce a similar Chinese franchise, which the media has dubbed “Captain China.”

China’s box office grew at an astounding 49 percent last year. The country is building 15 new movie theaters a day. It is expected to surpass North America as the biggest global movie market by the end of 2017 and has increasingly become an arbiter of a film’s success.

Just don’t expect a Captain China to share the same anti-government, individualistic, and — in Joe Russo’s word — “subversive” traits of his American counterpart. Such values in a Chinese context would never get past the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda agency, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, whose approval is required before any movie can be distributed in the country.

The Chinese government’s movie censorship bureau raises soft power concerns that have been largely overlooked as the yuan keeps rolling in. (Last year, the Chinese box office generated $2.6 billion for Hollywood films.) Giving up some creative control from time to time to placate Chinese censors in order to secure distribution is the price for what can amount to tens of millions of dollars of increased revenue.

The 2014 hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment exposed the Faustian bargain Hollywood producers make with Chinese censors. In one leaked email, a Sony executive complained about censors’ issue with “the best and most vital” “Robocop” scene, but acquiesced: “Don’t think we can make a stand on it either way, too much money on the line, cross fingers we don’t have to cut the scene out.”

Executives that offend Chinese censors learn their financial lessons the hard way. “Captain Phillips” fell $9 million short of its revenue goals after China’s censors forbade distribution because of the film’s positive portrayal of the U.S. military. The 3-D remake of “Top Gun” was rejected by China for the same reason. On other hand, “Red Dawn” was able to clear the bar by changing the invading army from Chinese to North Korean in postproduction.

Censors required “Mission: Impossible 3” and “Skyfall” to cut scenes of laundry drying on Shanghai clotheslines and James Bond killing a Chinese security guard, respectively, because they thought these made China look bad. World War Z was forced to eliminate China as the source of a global pandemic. And “Men in Black 3” was forced to eliminate a scene where civilians’ memories are erased, an allusion — says a Chinese newspaper — to China’s Internet censorship policies.

To preemptively appeal to China, American films are self-censoring. Big producers “are not going to go and make something that the Chinese would reject for social or political reasons,” says independent producer Peter Shiao. “That is already a truism.”

Consolidating its control over what you may see at the theater, state-backed Chinese firms are purchasing U.S. creative and distribution companies. Dalian Wanda, which has significant ties to the Communist Party, bought production company Legendary Entertainment in January. This followed its 2012 acquisition of AMC Theatres, which is making a play for Carmike Cinemas, a move that would make it the biggest cinema chain in the United States. This control suggests you won’t see any films critical of China’s military expansion on manufactured islands in the South China Sea.

Dalian Wanda — run by Wang Jianlin, a former Communist Party deputy — is also venturing into the theme park business and taking an aggressive stance against Disney, which is set to open its first mainland theme park in Shanghai. Mr. Wang’s response: “One tiger is no match for a pack of wolves. Shanghai has one Disney, while Wanda, across the nation, will open 15 to 20.” He claims that Disney shouldn’t have entered the China market. Might that signal pressure on Disney when their movies vie for screen time on Wanda-owned theaters in the United States?

Ownership of American assets by private Chinese citizens is fine. Ownership of American assets by business groups backed by the Chinese Communist Party is not. For all its many flaws, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes the power that the arts — film, books, TV and radio — have in shaping public opinion. Our domestic public opinion formation is upstream from government public policy. In this sense, China’s formalized soft power offensive to manage public opinion — known in Mandarin as Zheng Zhi Dou Zheng — poses a national security threat. Captain American should take note.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.



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