How China Funded the Literal Seats in Which You Sit
Plus: An alternative to China’s Winter Olympics assigned.
Erich Schwartzel’s new book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Battle for Global Supremacy, is a must-read if you want to understand how Chinese economic power is reshaping the film industry.
Yes, there are the (largely successful) efforts to control the films coming out of America and how they depict China; as I noted in the Washington Post this week, these efforts call to mind similar undertakings by German authorities ahead of World War II, culminating in shameful efforts to placate the Nazis by ignoring atrocities against Jews right up to the invasion of Poland.
But the entanglement between Hollywood and China extend well beyond the art of cinema. As Schwartzel notes, Chinese yuan literally paid for the seats you sit in at the multiplex. Dalian Wanda’s purchase of AMC and the subsequent decision to go public with the movie theater company did more to change the actual physical way we watch movies in movie theaters than just about any other factor:
Shares opened at $18 and closed up 5 percent. Chairman Wang Jianlin had put around $800 million into an 80 percent stake in AMC in August 2012 that was worth nearly $2 billion by early 2014. The IPO financing funded a growing trend of replacing stadium seating with cushy recliners in AMC auditoriums. AMC was the first chain to execute the recliner model on a mass scale, and the refurbished auditoriums performed so well that rivals installed their own. It was the biggest trend to hit American moviegoing since the multiplex, and it was made possible by Chinese money.
Meanwhile, theaters were also important to Warner Bros. in China, where the studio partnered with Wanda in 2004 to build a series of multiplexes—most of them in the new malls popping up around the country—that would create the infrastructure needed to turn China into a legitimate box office power. The deal didn’t work out for Warners exactly as hoped: Shockingly, neither the Chinese government nor the Chinese company was interested in letting an American studio profit from Chinese audiences. But it did set the stage for everything in the country’s movie business that followed.
“Was the prospect of billions of dollars in new revenue blinding American executives to the fact that they were getting the raw end of the deal—always having to find ways to benefit Chinese partners, and without any guarantee that they would emerge unscathed?” Schwartzel asks. Those theoretical billions have driven a great deal of the poor decisions made by Hollywood over the years; as WB’s Barry Meyer would say, “China has a lot of potential, and it always will.”
That potential was why studios would willingly take such small cuts of the gross from China, first 13 percent, negotiated up to 25 percent years later with the aid of one Joe Biden. It’s why they’d willingly jettison their commitment to causes like Tibetan freedom at the behest of Chinese officials. It’s why they’d willingly rejigger their whole business model to appeal to Chinese teenagers at the expense of American adults.
That potential is baked into basically every decision the movie studios have made in recent years. And it’s one reason why the theatrical business in the United States is in a great deal of trouble.
(Note: If you want a little more China chatter, make sure to check out my interview with Schwartzel on this week’s episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood. Tons of interesting tidbits, including the weird story of “Disney English.”)
The story of the Italian guy who committed fraud for years and years in order to get early copies of books is absolutely fascinating. He didn’t want to pirate them or sell them or spoil them but … just read them. And maybe taunt the authors and the editors about the fact that he’d gotten the works early. Bizarre stuff.
If you love Jackass as much as I love Jackass, you’ll want to read “The Tao of Wee Man.”
Speaking of: I reviewed Jackass Forever, the latest installment of a series that has been making me giggle uncontrollably ever since it debuted on MTV more than 20 years ago.
On Across the Movie Aisle this week, we dove into the fight between Neil Young and Joe Rogan and reviewed A Hero. On the bonus episode, we asked why Peter Dinklage is so mad about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Glenn Kenny’s appreciation of Monica Vitti, who died this week at the age of 90, is self-recommending.
Assigned Viewing: Kundun (Blu-ray)
I always try to assign things that are available via streaming. But Kundun—Martin Scorsese’s look at the early life of the Dalai Lama before he was forced to flee Tibet in the face of Chinese repression—is not available to legally stream anywhere, as best as I can tell. Fortunately, the special edition Blu-ray from Kino Lorber is still available.
The fact that Michael Eisner groveled to the Chinese and apologized for releasing this film is an absolute moral disgrace, one of the first examples of Hollywood debasing itself in the face of Chinese “potential.” Scorsese’s arthouse epic was never likely to find a huge audience; it’s not an action-packed tale of Tibetan guerrilla warfare and Chinese massacres but a personal glimpse into the life of a leader forced to flee his homeland. However, the Disney head’s transparent glee at strangling the film in the crib is sickening in retrospect.
And something to keep in mind when the folks at NBC repeat Chinese propaganda about a Uighur’s attendance at the opening ceremony for their Winter Olympics.
It's not just the movies allowed into China. It's the piracy by China that Hollywood allowed by not going after it. Several of the movies I did (obviously not huge "tent poles") were stolen in China, most notably at the time by the son of the Gauleiter, er, I mean Commissar of Shanghai (who was also a member of the Politburo). I found out about that because I have an international presence through a hobby, from a guy in Hong Kong. When I told the producer of the movie, pointing out how much money he was losing, I was told he considered it an "investment in the future" not to complain, so he could get other movies into the country (which didn't happen, as it turned out).
A few years ago, my history of the Chosin Reservoir campaign got optioned by a producer here (my book is far more accurate history than that Chinese Commie propaganda movie they released last year that was their top-grossing movie). He got told by a studio executive who read and liked the book that good as it was, there was no way they could do it, since the Chinese would never forgive them for doing so, and they'd never be able to get their "important" movies allowed into the country. "We'd lose too much money."
Further proof that the average Hollywood studio executive has the moral backbone of a single strand of overcooked Angel Hair pasta.
I have to say, the skiing/snowboard venue is the worst mountain I've ever seen during the Olympics. It's just man-made snow, surrounded by a bunch of dirt and dead trees. Kim Jong Un could have offered a better venue, how sad.