When Erich Schwartzel moved to Los Angeles in 2013 to cover Hollywood for The Wall Street Journal, he started seeing Chinese influence everywhere he looked. China was on its way to becoming the most powerful foreign market for American movies—and those movies were becoming a proxy battleground for the ideological rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
The studios, eager to maintain access to the biggest box office in the world, were all too willing to accommodate Communist Party censors. The examples are legion—and many are ridiculous. In 2016, Tilda Swinton’s character in Disney’s “Doctor Strange” became a Celtic woman instead of a Tibetan monk. In the 2018 film “Green Book,” producers edited a scene in which a black pianist portrayed by Mahershala Ali is discovered naked with another man in a YMCA—the better to shield Chinese moviegoers’ eyes from the suggestion of homosexuality. This year, Warner Bros. cut six seconds of dialogue in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” that make reference to Dumbledore being gay.
And this is to say nothing of “Mulan,” the 2020 Disney movie. At the end of the film, Disney made a point of thanking local authorities for permitting them to film in Xinjiang Province, where countless Uyghurs are being held in Chinese detention camps.
That all came after Americans started paying attention to China.
There were countless edits and mini-controversies that happened before anyone knew what Uyghurs were. For example, Paramount, in 2006, edited a scene from “Mission: Impossible III,” in which one can spot laundry hanging from an apartment building in Shanghai (the Chinese thought that made them look backward). Or “Men in Black 3” (2012), which featured an apparently very dangerous fictional tool that wipes clean the memories of eyewitnesses of alien encounters. Censors saw this as an obvious allusion to authoritarian mind-control and insisted on it being cut.
Erich’s recent book “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” tells these sordid stories and so many more.
With the recent flap surrounding the release of “Top Gun: Maverick” and the itsy bitsy flag everyone seems to be talking about, I asked Erich what we should make of all this. How, as he puts it below, “studio chiefs in Los Angeles started to think like Ministry of Propaganda apparatchiks in Beijing.” And whether that might be changing. —BW
It was early in Top Gun: Maverick when Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, played by Tom Cruise, slipped on his iconic bomber jacket—the same one he wore in the 1986 blockbuster about fighter jets, bromance and containing Communists. There—for the briefest of seconds—was the patch.
It was the patch of the Taiwanese flag that had first appeared in 1986, disappeared in 2019, and was now restored in 2022. The story of that patch is a microcosm of the entire relationship between the most powerful cultural industry in America and the world’s would-be hegemon.
In the original Top Gun, Maverick’s bomber featured sewn-on flags that highlighted the U.S.S. Galveston’s tour of Japan and Taiwan, stationed just below his collar. Yet when the movie’s studio, Paramount Pictures, unveiled the poster for Top Gun: Maverick in the summer of 2019, it showed Cruise from the back, his signature brown leather jacket in focus and the flags of Taiwan and Japan—U.S. allies in real life—removed.
The reason: China. Chinese investors in the movie worried that having a global movie star flaunt Taiwan’s flag on his back undermined Chinese sovereignty. And given China’s decades-long animosity toward Japan, the studio executives reasoned that they should play it safe and erase that patch, too. Only then, they reasoned, would the movie have a chance of being approved by Communist Party censors to play in Chinese theaters, where executives in Los Angeles projected grosses nearing $100 million. If it helped Paramount executives make their case to Chinese censors, Maverick’s bomber would adhere to the One China policy.
Chinese officials did not even have to weigh in. By 2019, Hollywood had so fully absorbed Beijing’s political preferences that such decisions were made by teams in Los Angeles months, or even years, before Chinese officials would take a look. How we got here, how Hollywood grew so beholden to a foreign country, can be told in the story of the two Top Gun’s—which not coincidentally parallels the story of America on the cusp of triumphing over the Soviet Union to America nearing its ignominious exit from Afghanistan.
The original 1986 film is a hallmark of Ronald Reagan’s America—the aviator-wearing daredevil Maverick, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” the hero declaring, “I feel the need, the need for speed.” In a sign of how deeply the film saw itself as a celebration of the U.S. Navy, producers asked the military to cooperate on the picture and acceded to its wishes to make the movie a robust demonstration of American military might. Moviegoers didn’t mind the muscular patriotism; they wanted to watch their country’s naval aviators pull off awesome stunts and save the day. Top Gun grossed $177 million in North America, more than Crocodile Dundee, Aliens, or any other movie released that year.
Top Gun was the product of eight decades of Hollywood burnishing America’s image. From its earliest days, Hollywood was a factory town that exported the swagger of John Wayne, the romantic valor of Rocky, and the resistance heroes of Star Wars around the world. Politicians immediately recognized the big screen’s capacity for political persuasion. In a 1916 speech, President Woodrow Wilson instructed his country’s filmmakers to “make this world more comfortable and more happy and convert them to the principles of America.” The film industry’s leading lobbyist boasted that he represented “an adjunct of the State Department.”
In the decades that followed, a combination of pro-America storytelling (Yankee Doodle Dandy; Sergeant York) and American coolness (Rebel Without a Cause; Saturday Night Fever) combined to form the nation’s most famous form of soft power, a cinematic gravitational pull toward the U.S. that turned the country, in the words of one scholar, into an “empire by invitation.” This was the history the original Top Gun inherited and built on when it premiered, a few weeks after the Chernobyl disaster and a few months before news of the Iran-contra affair broke. Military recruiters waited in theater lobbies to catch moviegoers on their way out of the film. Ray-Ban sales shot up, too.
Then, in 1994, Chinese officials began allowing American movies into their theaters for the first time since the 1949 communist revolution. When, in 1999, Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic caused hearts to swoon around the world, China’s president, Jiang Zemin, first glimpsed the potential power of the big screen in his own country. “We should never think that we are the only ones who know how to persuade people,” Jiang told fellow Party members, an early indication of China’s aspiration to replicate Hollywood’s soft-power playbook.
Soon China was building 27 movie screens a day, the cinematic complement to a massive urbanization campaign that caused glistening megapolises to sprout atop the countryside. By the time Avatar was released in 2009, grossing more than $200 million in China, it was clear that China’s box office was the growth market to break into, with theatrical ticket sales in the U.S. sputtering in the face of growing at-home viewing.
But accessing those Chinese screens required the approval of Chinese censors, so studio chiefs in Los Angeles started to think like Ministry of Propaganda apparatchiks in Beijing. They scrubbed scripts of any scene, image, or line that might anger officials, avoiding at all costs the “three T’s” (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen) or flashpoints like ghosts (too spiritual), time travel (too ahistoric), or homosexuality (too immoral). Behind-the-scenes changes became common: Red Dawn was only released after editing out a Chinese antagonist; World War Z was revised to cut implications that a zombie pandemic had originated in China; and Bohemian Rhapsody shoved Freddie Mercury back in the closet before Queen fans in China could see his story.
This was the economic reality in 2017, when Paramount Pictures announced that it would reboot Top Gun with its original star. What had been a closed market in 1986 was now on its way to becoming the No. 1 box office in the world. What’s more, about 12.5% of Top Gun: Maverick’s $150 million budget came from Tencent, the Chinese tech firm behind China’s most popular messaging app. Chinese money was influencing the new Top Gun in two ways: in financing behind the scenes and in expected box-office receipts once it hit theaters there.
When the bomber jacket reappeared in 2019 in the new Top Gun: Maverick poster—this time without the Taiwanese and Japanese flags—fans and some politicians in the United States called it out. Postergate, if you will, compounded mounting fears about China’s influence on American business, whether at Apple or Tesla or the National Basketball Association. But then Covid-19 shuttered theaters for much of 2020, delaying the movie’s release several times. During those two years, China’s hidden influence in the West became less hidden, and anger in the West over China’s role in the spread of the coronavirus grew, prompting a widespread reassessment of the U.S.-China relationship: What was once an issue primarily seized on by Republicans became more of a bipartisan cause, with Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Abigail Spanberger calling out Western businesses that self-censored to curry favor with the regime.
In Hollywood, the box-office receipts that once justified such self-censorship grew less reliable, with Chinese officials putting the kibosh on the release of blockbusters like Spider-Man: No Way Home—a casualty of rising diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing. By keeping the flags off the bomber jacket in Top Gun: Maverick, Paramount risked angering Americans in exchange for access to a market that it might not have wound up accessing. Tencent, the Chinese financier, quietly backed out of the film as Donald Trump’s fight with Xi Jinping was escalating, apparently worried that Beijing would punish it for supporting a brazenly pro-American movie. The uneasy courtship that had formed between Hollywood and China in the 1990s seemed to be heading toward an acrimonious divorce. China had used business from American movies to help it become the No. 1 box office in the world, and it didn’t need the U.S. anymore.
Will Hollywood ever stop worrying altogether about those censors in Beijing, or even go so far as to make movies that properly interrogate this looming clash?
That may be putting too much hope in a two-inch patch reintroduced onto a bomber jacket. The decades of serving as that “adjunct of the State Department” created the expectation that Hollywood would do America’s bidding, even as the industry was becoming a borderless business. Today those dueling expectations—Americans’ expectation that the studios would further American interests, and studios’ expectations that they would further those of shareholders—have placed the nation’s entertainers at odds with Washington.
China’s pressure on Hollywood and its own entertainment industry has the potential to challenge the American film industry as the chief narrator of this next century. In considering the fight for the upcoming generation of hearts and minds, look beyond movie theaters in the U.S. and China.
Look to all those places on the frontlines of the fight for democracy—starting with Taiwan. Top Gun: Maverick has made about $8 million in the country, a pittance for Paramount. But according to reports from auditoriums there, audiences in Taipei are greeting the Maverick bomber scene differently than in America and certainly China. They are bursting into applause.