Let it never be said that Hollywood is cowardly. When there is a cause to go to the wall for, when there are monstrous dragons to be slain, when the ethical balance of our times tiptoes along the edge of calamity, is it not Hollywood – that steadfast, sensible battery of dream-makers – that rises to the challenge, earning the sighing respect and tearful admiration of us all?
Weren’t we all thrilled, shocked and relieved in January when Robert De Niro – riskily breaking with precedent and the hidebound convention that A-listers should never opine about current events – said: ‘Trump is a real racist.’ Finally someone had the courage to say it!
Didn’t we cheer, until our voices were hoarse and ragged, when we saw that the Hollywood ‘elite’ (led by somebody called Alyssa Milano) vowed to boycott the state of Georgia’s thriving film industry due to anger over new abortion laws?
And didn’t we all rush to cancel our bookings at London’s plush 10-star Dorchester Hotel, once George Clooney (the cerebral star of 1997’s terrific Batman & Robin) exposed its links to the nefarious gay-bashing Sultan of Brunei?
I’m told that next week Hollywood will be parachuting Val Kilmer to the remote town of Obo in the mysterious southeastern region of the Central African Republic, where he will personally apprehend Joseph Kony.
Before the end of the year it’s said that Susan Sarandon will lead a convoy of drag queens directly into the black heart of the Vatican in order to re-educate sundry reactionary gray-haired cardinals.
And if you look directly outside your front window right now you will see Will Smith clambering manfully up a tree to rescue a rather frightened neighborhood cat.
The salient facts are as follows. China will soon be home to the world’s largest film market. The number of cinema screens there increased almost 20-fold between 2007 and 2014. Astonishingly, around 25 cinema screens are built every day in China.
Even better for Hollywood bosses, the freshly wealthy Chinese middle-class is quite happy to watch dross that American audiences ignore. In China total flops like xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017) and Warcraft (2016) can become enormous hits.
The only potential barrier for American film studios is the Chinese Communist party. CCP guidelines mean that only 34 major foreign films are allowed into mainland China each year, though it is possible to vault over this quota system by co-producing pictures with Chinese firms.
There are, of course, some conditions. The movie must feature a certain number of Chinese actors, a certain number of Chinese locations and cannot portray China as a villain. ‘We have a huge market and we want to share it with you,’ said Zhang Xun, President of China Film Co-Production Company at the 2013 US / China film summit.
Under this system audiences have endured Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), Venom (2018), The Meg (2018), Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), Wonder Woman (2017), Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) and Looper (2012), which features one character, a time-traveler, telling another: ‘You should go to China.’ The message is clear: China is the future. (I for one excitedly look forward to a forthcoming version of Les Miserables where Jean Valjean is condemned for stealing a load of bao rather than a loaf of bread.)
For almost a decade Hollywood has rolled over and had its fluffy belly tickled by grim-faced CCP censors. There was money – and incomprehensible movies about giant talking space robots – to be made.
The ironies of the Hollywood China love-in were noted last year in a speech by Vice President Mike Pence. But it was only in the last week or so that they’ve come to broader popular attention, when Twitter users pointed out that the forthcoming sequel to Top Gun – partly produced by China’s Tencent Pictures – featured this:
There’s a new Top Gun movie coming out. And Maverick is wearing the same leather jacket – only this time it’s Communist Party of China-approved, so the Japanese and Taiwanese flag patches are gone (screenshot on right is from the new trailer)… pic.twitter.com/gUxFNFNUKX
— Mark MacKinnon (@markmackinnon) July 19, 2019
The original Top Gun (1986) remains a key relic of the rah-rah, go-go 1980s. Here to view is America’s hi-tech badassery, symbolized by thrusting F-14A Tomcat jets, which supposedly hurried along the disintegration of the USSR. For its sequel to be engaged in censorship, however minor, on behalf of a communist party, is not exactly as cool or as confident as tear down this wall Mr Gorbachev.
In speeches President Xi Jinping and other party officials have repeatedly emphasized the need to ‘tell China’s story well.’ This responsibility largely resides with the party’s own propaganda agencies, but a Hollywood which knows nothing more profound than the bottom line is clearly happy to help them.