Chinese government influence over Hollywood movie content

For the first time, the world's largest film market is not the United States, but China. The pandemic sped up a trend that was already years in the making. It has also brought out the Chinese government's growing influence over these films' content, which has Congress members worried. Brook Silva-Braga reports.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

(SINGING) I don't think you even recognize--

- Welcome back to CBS "This Morning, Saturday." For the first time, the largest film market in the world is not the United States, but China. The pandemic sped up a trend that was already years in the making, and it's brought about another change-- the Chinese government's growing influence over the content of these films. That has people worried, including members of Congress, as they point to a growing list of examples of Hollywood seemingly bending to China's will. Brook Silva-Braga has the story.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: If you can, remember back to "Top Gun," that 1986 burst of American swagger. Tom Cruise in his aviator glasses and leather jacket. Well, when a trailer came out for the upcoming sequel, the jacket was different. The Japanese and Taiwanese flags over there on the right had been replaced with nondescript rectangles, more pleasing to a certain government.

STANLEY ROSEN: For the big blockbuster films, we really do need the China market.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: USC Film Professor Stanley Rosen points out that just 34 foreign films are allowed into China each year, giving Hollywood good reason to self censor what Beijing doesn't like. American studios, American distributors, your sense is they're making that deal with China or they're standing up to them?

STANLEY ROSEN: No, nobody's standing up to China. If you want to have any access to the China market, you don't stand up to China.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: In 2014, hacked Sony emails revealed the script for Pixels called for the Great Wall of China to be blown up.

- That the next attack should happen somewhere in northern India tonight.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Until executives switched the target to India's Taj Mahal, hoping it would help them gain access to Chinese theaters. And in the novel "World War Z," China is the source of a deadly virus.

- If we knew where this thing started, then we'd have a chance of developing a vaccine to stop it.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: But the 2013 film adaptation points elsewhere.

- Has been tracking the recent outbreak of rabies that began in Taiwan.

CHRIS FENTON: You can't even get to the consumers unless you get through the government first.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Chris Fenton knows, because he spent a decade finding ways to get American films into Chinese theaters, including the Marvel blockbuster "Iron Man 3" and the time travel thriller "Looper."

CHRIS FENTON: Before we were involved with that script, that script took place in France.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: In the final film, Joseph Gordon Levitt's character still dreams of moving to France.

- Bonjour, Joe.

- Bonjour, Beatrix.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: But the promise of Chinese financing and access to Chinese theaters inspired a creative rewrite.

- You should go to China.

- I'm going to France.

- I'm from the future. You should go to China.

- I'm going to France.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Needless to say, he time travels to a gleaming, futuristic China.

CHRIS FENTON: We actually designed the city skyline of Shanghai with Shanghai municipal government and also the CCP central government.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: You showed them mockups, and then the government officials got to choose what the skyline would look like?

CHRIS FENTON: Correct.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Did you feel awkward about that at all?

CHRIS FENTON: That's a great question. Um, no.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Fenton says at the time, he thought the cultural and commercial exchange would be good for America. He's had a change of heart and written an insider's book, "Beating the Dragon." He says Chinese pressure isn't just tweaking superhero movies or improving Asian representation in Hollywood, but scaring the industry away from telling stories, even just to a US audience, that the Chinese government doesn't like.

- Religion is poison.

CHRIS FENTON: They don't want anybody talking about Taiwan. They don't want anybody talking about Hong Kong now. They definitely don't want anybody talking about human rights or Xinjiang Province issues, and now the studios are aware of this, and they won't even embark on the development of projects that touch that stuff.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Streaming services, most of them owned by companies with business in China, seem to be following a similar script. According to the New York Times, Apple TV Plus told producers quote, "The two things we will never do are hardcore nudity and China."

AI WEIWEI: China has been doing this for decades.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Ai Weiwei is one of the world's most famous living artists, but he's also China's best known dissident. Last year, he made two documentaries, Cockroach about the protests in Hong Kong, and Coronation on the COVID outbreak in Wuhan. No major streaming service or film festival would take them. Did you make these latest films with the hope or the expectation that you'd be able to find a large audience with them?

AI WEIWEI: I'm totally surprised, and I should say disappointed. The film like this about China cannot be presented. Why I have to come to the west, I don't have a better treatment than in China.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Two of the festivals that rejected AI, the Venice and New York Film festivals, didn't respond to requests for comment. The Toronto Film Festival told us it doesn't share information on its selection process, but a former programmer at one of the most prominent festivals in the US told CBS News festivals absolutely get pressured, sometimes by their American funders. If there's a company that's influential, they could threaten to pull sponsorship.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Beijing has so many pressure points. Oh, you have a $5 and 1/2 billion theme park, and we're going to make this difficult. It'll be this tax problem, that tax problem, and people get the point.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: Isaac Stone Fish has been writing a book on Chinese influence in America, and he argues Hollywood has actually overlearned the lesson of Seven Years in Tibet, the 1997 film that got the studio and the star banned from China for years. Hollywood, he says, has more leeway than they think.

ISAAC STONE FISH: I think what would happen if a Hollywood studio distributed a documentary about Xinjiang region in Northwest China where there are upwards of million Muslims in concentration camps, Beijing would react stirringly. If Disney didn't yield, if Warner Brothers didn't yield, if Sony didn't yield, Beijing would likely eventually yield.

BROOK SILVA-BRAGA: The theory will soon be tested. HBO, a division of AT&T, announced it's distributing In the Same Breath, a documentary highly critical of both China and America's response to the coronavirus, but how widely it will be seen is uncertain. HBO hasn't announced how or when the film will be available to watch. For CBS This Morning: Saturday, Brooke Silva-Braga, New York.

- We did reach out to the five major film studios and their trade group, the Motion Picture Association, but none would comment for the story.

- I know. Great story. Unbelievable. I had no idea.

- Good job, Brook.