Lob­by­ist on a cru­sade to save Hol­ly­wood from ‘com­mu­nist takeover’

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

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.”

Pho­tos: Myo Satt

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