Lobbyist on a crusade to save Hollywood from ‘communist takeover’
THE billboard towers over Sunset Boulevard, a puppeteer’s hand, as in The Godfather posters of decades ago, pulling the strings in Hollywood. It poses an unsettling question: “China’s Red Puppet?”
The sign is the work of Rick Berman, a lobbyist on a mission against – as he has framed it – “the communist takeover of our movies”. The target, in this instance, is Dalian Wanda Group, owner of the second-biggest U.S. cinema chain and Legendary Entertainment, co-producer of “The Hangover.” Its founder, billionaire Wang Jianlin, was in Los Angeles Monday to host an event in a city whose best-known industry has embraced him.
The entertainment business may welcome the invasion of money from Wanda and other Chinese companies, but Berman sees danger. These investors are gaining power that, in his view, will be wielded to influence public opinion and tailor films to the liking of the rulers of the world’s most populous nation.
“If everything continues on the current trajectory, you will never see a Chinese villain in the movies,” he said by phone from his public affairs firm Berman & Co in Washington. He’s known there for his hardball tactics on behalf of the food, alcohol, tobacco and energy industries, and earned the nickname Dr. Evil for his lobbying work against labour unions.
Berman’s campaign to heighten government scrutiny of the security risks of Chinese stakes in the entertainment business has captured the attention of some in Congress. It’s creating buzz and a bit of alarm in an industry that is keen for access to China’s massive box-office market and increasingly reliant on backing from its companies.
“China is the biggest external investor, probably with the exception of Wall Street, that Hollywood has ever seen,” said Robert Cain, a consultant and partner at Pacific Bridge Pictures.
A rarity in the business, Cain said there is something to worry about in China’s grab for the so-called soft power of cultural and economic influence.
“I’ve been a beneficiary of Chinese investment myself and have been very happy with the investors I’ve worked with.” But as for those who believe the Chinese are just interested in making money, he said, “that is a very naive and even a dangerous attitude.”
Others dismiss Berman as a fearmongerer. Janet Yang, a producer whose credits include The People vs Larry Flynt, said it seemed less than coincidental that the issue was being raised in an election year in which Donald Trump has attacked China in particular and globalisation in general.
The Chinese have been spreading big money around the industry since 2012, when Wanda bought cinema operator AMC Entertainment Holdings. Several recent blockbusters – including Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Terminator Genisys – were partly financed by Chinese companies.
One of the newest studios, twoyear-old STX Entertainment, got its start with help from the Chinese private-equity firm Hony Capital and has raised millions in deals with Huayi Brothers Media Corp and Tencent Holdings Ltd Last week, Alibaba Pictures Group Ltd. said it was buying a stake in Amblin Partners, the production outfit backed by Steven Spielberg.
Wanda has been the busiest. Founded by Wang – a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army – the conglomerate bought Legendary in January and has a deal to make movies with Sony Corp’s film unit. And Wang has said he’d like to control one of Hollywood’s six major studios.
US studios frankly need Chinese access as much as they do Chinese money, and rely on partnerships to distribute in that country, where regulations put sharp restrictions on foreign films. Because the market in China has such potential, Hollywood self-censors, no prodding needed, said Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California professor.
“When they make a film, they will make sure it has friendly China elements, and certainly no unfriendly elements,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who owns the company.”
It may be just a matter of time, and money, said Nova Daly, a senior policy adviser at Wiley Rein in Washington. “There could in theory be a point where enough investment by companies from only one country like China in the industry starts to raise eyebrows.”