After almost three years of increasingly draconian coronavirus lockdowns, Chinese citizens have plenty of things to protest. The QR code system that determines where they can go is dystopian. Welding people inside apartments is barbarous behavior, as is blaming those who burned to death in a fire for being “too weak” to save themselves. But the chants from crowds calling for “cinema freedom” should spark as much reflection from Hollywood filmmakers and executives as from Chinese leaders.
With “Avatar: The Way of Water” set to hit Chinese theaters in just a few days, the cheer has newfound resonance. But the American film industry accepted escalating restrictions on its own storytelling as Hollywood raced for access to China’s highly restricted, and hugely lucrative, film market.
With that access fading, the industry as a whole is, ironically, better situated than it has been in some time to support Chinese film fans clamoring for greater freedom at the cinema and beyond.
The Chinese film market has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Partly as a result of closures during citywide quarantines, as when Shanghai theaters were closed for extended periods. To be fair, it’s hard to blame moviegoers for avoiding the Wanda multiplexes when a red QR code due to “close contact” and testing positive could mean a week or two in a literal coronavirus camp.
It doesn’t help that Chinese moviegoers have been largely shut off from the American film market, as Chinese President Xi Jinping and his allies have pushed Chinese films on the masses. Reports are saying some U.S. studios have simply written China off entirely, assuming a box office of zero from the Middle Kingdom when greenlighting projects. Meanwhile, the National Defense Authorization Act currently winding its way through Congress includes a “Prohibition on use of funds to support entertainment projects with ties to the Government of the People’s Republic of China.”
The increasingly desperate situation has led film lovers to take greater risks.
“A video showing protestors in Shanghai chanting, ‘I wanna see a movie!’ was widely shared on WeChat among Chinese film fans and industry professionals over the weekend,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Xi and the rest of the Chinese Communist Party might have pushed Hollywood too far: There’s little for U.S. studios left to lose in terms of revenue and the Chinese people have been pushed so hard and so mercilessly during the “zero covid” campaign that Xi might have more to fear from depriving the masses of a much-anticipated feature such as “Avatar: The Way of Water” than writer-director James Cameron would from speaking out in favor of “cinema freedom.”
Which is why it’s so disappointing to see the “Titanic” and “The Terminator” filmmaker stay so quiet in the face of massive civil unrest. The word “China” appears zero times in this nearly 5,000-word Hollywood Reporter feature on Cameron and his long-awaited “Avatar” sequel.
That’s odd not just as a human rights issue. Cameron says the movie needs to be one of the five highest-grossing films of all time to succeed. That feat is likely impossible to achieve without Chinese viewership: Chinese audiences remain enraptured by the original “Avatar” and of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time, only one failed to secure a release in China. My requests for comment about the Chinese protests and the film’s impending opening from Cameron and 20th Century Studios went unreturned, as did a voice mail left at Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.
That’s a shame, because Cameron might have more leverage than one would think, given the series’ popularity in China. As film executive Chris Fenton, who helped open China’s film market to Hollywood, has repeatedly noted, Chinese authorities have to strike a careful balance that keeps the population just happy enough to refuse to openly revolt. But with open revolt already underway, the time has never been better to speak up.
“With his latest film opening in China, Cameron has defied the odds of a near blackballing of Hollywood this year,” Fenton told me. “Beijing respects him, the people adore him, and theaters need him.”
Regardless of what Cameron chooses to do — or not to do — Hollywood as a whole should take this downturn in Chinese box office fortunes as a chance to reset and rethink their relationship with Chinese authorities.
What does this mean, practically? If China is a lost market anyway, studios should institute what we might call the “Tarantino Standard” when it comes to censorship boards: China can either have or reject a film, but Chinese audiences will be free to see the same thing American audiences see.
Blacklists of artists that have run afoul of Chinese sensibilities on topics such as Tibet need to end immediately. A major studio should beg Richard Gere, notoriously persona non grata for his activism on behalf of the Dalai Lama, to take a big role just to show that U.S. distributors no longer fear having their product shut out of China for employing him.
And, finally, now might be the time for streaming giant Netflix to earn some good will in the United States by flooding the zone with documentaries and films critical of the Chinese Communist Party and its repressive policies. Netflix isn’t available in China, so they have nothing to lose — and Chinese film connoisseurs are adept with virtual private networks, meaning they might be able to access those pictures anyway.
The protests roiling China matter for reasons far beyond what happens in the world of film. But there hasn’t been a better time in recent memory for Hollywood studios to exert a little soft power of their own in a way that will not only benefit themselves but also the Chinese people. Here’s hoping they grab the opportunity while it’s available.