Is China buy­ing out Hol­ly­wood?

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

WANG Jian­lin, China’s rich­est man, has been on a Hol­ly­wood shop­ping spree. As chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Wanda Group, he’s ac­quired Leg­endary En­ter­tain­ment, pro­ducer of “Juras­sic Park,” and is in talks to pay US$1 bil­lion for Dick Clark Pro­duc­tions, pro­ducer of the Golden Globes and other live tele­vi­sion events. An ear­lier pur­chase, AMC En­ter­tain­ment, re­cently an­nounced plans to buy Carmike Cin­ema, which would cre­ate the world’s big­gest theatre chain.

When Wang ar­rives in Hol­ly­wood for a highly an­tic­i­pated visit later this month, he’ll have even big­ger game in sight: one of the Big Six Hol­ly­wood stu­dios that con­trol as much as 85 per­cent of US and Cana­dian box of­fice rev­enue. If suc­cess­ful, he’ll be the first Chi­nese na­tional to own one.

That’s aroused wor­ries that Wang and other as­pir­ing Chi­nese movie moguls may re­strict cre­ative free­doms and spread Chi­nese pro­pa­ganda in the US and be­yond. Last month, 16 mem­bers of the US Congress wrote to the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice ask­ing it to re­con­sider how for­eign in­vest­ments in the US are re­viewed. Since then, the chair of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee has added his sig­na­ture to the let­ter. Wanda’s en­ter­tain­ment ac­qui­si­tions were on the list of wor­ries: “Should the def­i­ni­tion of na­tional se­cu­rity be broad­ened to ad­dress con­cerns about pro­pa­ganda and con­trol of the me­dia and ‘soft power’ in­sti­tu­tions?” the group asked.

At home, it’s true, China op­er­ates one of the world’s most for­mi­da­ble pro­pa­ganda and cen­sor­ship pro­grams, and ty­coons like Wang have suc­ceeded in part be­cause of their will­ing­ness to play by its rules. China’s Com­mu­nist Party has long em­braced the idea that the role of art is to ad­vance its in­ter­ests. In Oc­to­ber 2014, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping made that com­mit­ment ex­plicit in a speech in which he called on Chi­nese painters, writ­ers and film­mak­ers to “fully im­ple­ment the Party’s art pol­icy”.

Ev­ery Chi­nese artist knows what red lines shouldn’t be crossed: The idea of Ti­betan or Tai­wanese in­de­pen­dence is off-lim­its, for in­stance, as are top­ics that call into ques­tion the canon­i­cal his­tory of the Com­mu­nist Party. More re­cently, the gov­ern­ment has added a few spe­cific bans, in­clud­ing one bar­ring tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming that pro­motes “Western life­styles”.

The idea that Wang might be able to ex­port Com­mu­nist dogma to Hol­ly­wood, how­ever, seems fan­ci­ful. The most suc­cess­ful Chi­nese movies tend to be harm­less melo­dra­mas and mar­tial arts films. So far, this year’s big­gest box of­fice suc­cess is a com­edy about a mer­maid as­sas­sin who falls in love with the greedy real es­tate de­vel­oper she was sent to kill. On those rare oc­ca­sions when Chi­nese film­mak­ers dab­ble in pro­pa­ganda, the films have in­vari­ably failed (un­less propped up by box of­fice fraud).

In­deed, even on their home turf, Chi­nese films are no com­pe­ti­tion for Hol­ly­wood, which ac­counted for nearly 40pc of China’s box of­fice re­ceipts in 2015 de­spite ram­pant piracy and strict lim­its on the num­ber of for­eign films. Wang has openly ac­knowl­edged that part of his goal is to ob­tain US tech­nol­ogy and know-how in or­der to im­prove Chi­nese film­mak­ing. He has lit­tle in­cen­tive to trans­form a US stu­dio into a fac­sim­ile of its Chi­nese peers.

A big­ger con­cern is self­cen­sor­ship. In re­cent years, Hol­ly­wood stu­dios have be­come adept at mak­ing – or at least, edit­ing – films that can get past China’s cen­sors. Some have gone fur­ther and rewrit­ten sto­ry­lines that might raise hack­les in Bei­jing, as when MGM de­cided to change Chi­nese vil­lains into North Korean ones in a clumsy 2011 re­make of Red Dawn. A Chi­ne­se­owned stu­dio would no doubt be at least as con­sci­en­tious about the Party’s sen­si­tiv­i­ties, if not more so.

For­tu­nately, the im­pact would prob­a­bly be lim­ited. Since the 1940s, Hol­ly­wood’s stu­dio sys­tem has given way to a blos­som­ing of in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels and ex­hi­bi­tion for­mats that give an in­de­pen­dent-minded film­maker many op­tions. A Wan­gowned stu­dio could still pass on con­tro­ver­sial projects, of course. But share­hold­ers and au­di­ences would look askance if man­age­ment re­peat­edly missed out on suc­cess­ful films, and at least some film­mak­ers and tal­ents would look else­where if Wanda de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for as­sert­ing a po­lit­i­cal agenda. Mean­while, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of pro­duc­tion houses – not just indies, but ma­jor com­pa­nies such as Ama­zon and Net­flix – means that US view­ers aren’t likely to be starved for choice.

In the­ory, Wanda could use its power as the owner of AMC to en­sure that large num­bers of US cin­e­mas are stocked only with po­lit­i­cally ac­cept­able films. But the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s an­titrust lawyers have re­quired AMC to sell off the­aters for com­pe­ti­tion rea­sons in the past, and the pro­posed Carmike ac­qui­si­tion – cur­rently un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion – may in­spire them to do so again.

Mean­while, un­der a land­mark Supreme Court an­titrust rul­ing in 1948, Hol­ly­wood stu­dios were re­quired to di­vest them­selves of their theatre-chain hold­ings and stop forc­ing in­de­pen­dent the­atres to book their films. Even if Wanda ac­quires a ma­jor stu­dio, that de­ci­sion – and a zeal­ous Jus­tice Depart­ment – en­sures that it won’t be able to force pro­pa­ganda down the throats of Amer­i­can au­di­ences that are prob­a­bly home watch­ing Amer­i­can-owned Net­flix, any­way.

Amer­i­cans have plenty of rea­sons to be wary of China’s ex­pand­ing in­flu­ence. But at a time of ex­pand­ing en­ter­tain­ment op­tions, fear that China might be tak­ing over the lo­cal mul­ti­plex is over­heated and out­dated. Taste, tech­nol­ogy and am­bi­tion will en­sure that there is al­ways some­thing else to watch. – The Wash­ing­ton Post

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