That’s unfortunate for the producers, who worked so hard to please Beijing, only to watch the film come in sixth place in opening-day ticket sales in China.
Though viewership has picked up in recent days, its lackluster performance to date should serve as a warning to Hollywood studios seeking to crack the Chinese market.
“Barbie” sparked a scandal earlier this month when Vietnam banned the film over a scene involving a crayon-drawn map of the world that appeared to depict the “nine-dash line,” a cartographic feature Beijing uses to exert its unlawful territorial claims over most of the South China Sea, including territory also claimed by Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.
Warner Bros., which released the film, denied the dashed line next to a continent labeled “Asia” was a reference to the controversial feature. Nevertheless, the scene earned harsh criticism from influential figures in Washington.
Whether or not the studio wittingly supported Beijing’s claims, “Barbie” is only the latest film to show what seems obvious to everyone except Hollywood studios—that censoring (or in this case, including) content on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party is not worth the trouble.
For two decades, Hollywood studios have gone to great lengths to please Beijing. This is partly due to China’s strict quotas on foreign films, which force studios to compete for access to what is now the world’s largest movie market.
They do this by procuring Chinese partners and investors, giving Chinese actors screen time, and developing storylines they think will appeal to Chinese audiences. They also curate content to please the CCP censors who must approve every cultural product released in the country.
Paramount Pictures’ initial decision to remove the Taiwanese and Japanese flags from protagonist Pete Mitchell’s jacket in “Top Gun: Maverick” was a classic example of this pandering. Paramount later reversed the decision after the departure of a Chinese investor and the studio’s belated recognition that, with U.S.-China tensions at record highs, there was little chance Beijing would approve a film that glorifies the American military.
Even more outrageous are the attempts to please Beijing by inserting CCP propaganda narratives into scripts. This isn’t always as obvious as in Columbia Pictures’ 2009 film “2012,” which literally showed China saving humanity. The stunt helped the film briefly become the highest-grossing movie ever in China, though it’s been far surpassed every year since then.
Subtler forms of propaganda, such as the nine-dash line in “Barbie” and in Dreamworks’ “Abominable,” seek to court Beijing in ways that are less noticeable.
But people are noticing, and they don’t like what they see.
The great irony is that all this effort to please Beijing often doesn’t even pay off. Hollywood studios have never made the kind of money they hoped to in China, where they are only permitted to take 25% of box office revenues, compared with 50% in the U.S. and 40% in other countries.
In recent years, they’ve had even more difficulty in the country, as domestic studios inside China churn out productions more attuned to the interests of local moviegoers and with quality that is closing the gap with Hollywood. And things are only getting worse. Hollywood films experienced a 69% drop in Chinese ticket sales the first half of this year, compared with 2019, the last year before the market was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And that only accounts for the lucky films that are allowed to screen in China in the first place, which is far from guaranteed. For instance, Marvel’s 2021 film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was made to order for the Chinese market, but Beijing never gave it a license.
Those that do manage to be released in China often do so at a great cost. Disney’s live-action version of “Mulan” was released in China to great fanfare, but it offended much of the world in the process. Hong Kong democracy advocates boycotted the film after its Chinese-American lead actress, Liu Yifei, posted on social media in support of the Hong Kong Police Force’s 2019 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Meanwhile, the broader international community was horrified to see the film’s credits thank Chinese government entities implicated in the Uyghur genocidein the Xinjiang region, where part of it was filmed.
After all this trouble, Chinese moviegoers were unimpressed with the film’s bungling of historical and cultural context. Disney literally tripped over itself to make “Mulan” a success in China, and it fell on its face.
“Top Gun: Maverick,” on the other hand, showed it didn’t need the China market. After reversing its initial decision to censor the protagonist’s bomber jacket, the film earned well over $1 billion and became Paramount Pictures’ highest-grossing film ever.
In fact, not only does catering to the CCP not help studios crack the China market, it increasingly carries risks, as “Barbie” discovered in Vietnam.
“Barbie” was not the first film banned because of the nine-dash line—Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have banned others in recent years, with “Abominable” being the most prominent example.
The U.S. Defense Department last month implemented new rules prohibiting any production assistance for directors who comply with Chinese censorship demands. If enforced, that could seriously hurt films with military themes, which depend on various forms of Pentagon assistance—such as access to military bases and technical expertise—to ensure the accuracy and authenticity needed to create blockbusters.
That’s a good start, and other government agencies should follow suit. Officials should also push for greater transparency with respect to studios’ dealings with the CCP.
A report by The Heritage Foundation in March called on Congress to organize public hearings and exercise subpoena power to force U.S. firms and cultural enterprises to explain cases of self-censorship. Such transparency measures would increase the reputational cost to studios of cooperating with the CCP and help Hollywood realize what a bad deal Beijing is giving them. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
At the end of the day, Hollywood studios are profit-oriented businesses and will continue catering to China as long as they think it’s in their interest to do so. But it’s increasingly the case that pandering to China doesn’t help—and may even hurt—their bottom line. It’s time they woke up to this truth.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.