How China Captured Hollywood

Over this next century, China wants to use the movies to rebrand itself, and it has learned how to do so from the best.

A child poses in front of a giant King Kong statue.
A giant statue from 'Kong: Skull Island' movie displayed in Guangzhou, China in 2017. (Anadolu Agency / Getty)

In the weeks following the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, a group of Chinese executives traveled to Los Angeles for a crash course in influence. Inside the UCLA classroom of the film professor Robert Rosen, a parade of Hollywood executives conducted a series of lectures on America’s entertainment industry. The students had been chosen by their country’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, and they were in Los Angeles with a mandate: to learn how the American film industry had achieved its status as the leader in global culture—and how China could re-create that achievement back home.

The head of Universal Pictures, the studio behind Frankenstein, Back to the Future, and The Fast and the Furious, spoke about his film operation, a conglomerate grown out of a collection of nickelodeons founded in 1912. So did the CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a company that was established before the talkie and eventually produced The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, and The Silence of the Lambs. An agent at William Morris, the talent agency that counts Matt Damon and Denzel Washington as clients, talked about how he managed America’s biggest movie stars. An independent producer explained the art of putting a movie’s finances together, and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America detailed his organization’s lobbying work in Washington on behalf of the nation’s entertainers. It was hard to imagine a more glamorous set of day jobs, positions that turned the men and women who held them into stewards and emissaries of American culture.

Book cover of Red Carpet.
This piece is excerpted from Schwartzel’s recent book.

That China would send officials to Los Angeles to learn from America’s most famous capitalist enterprise would have been unthinkable in prior decades, when the Cultural Revolution and the massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square left little doubt about the government’s attitude toward free expression. Yet China in 2008 was ascendant, even if that rise occurred out of view of many Americans—including many in Hollywood, where the country’s work was just beginning. At the time, the Chinese visitors’ unassuming exterior masked incredible power. One young executive worked at a movie channel that had 800 million viewers, a scale beyond what any of his Hollywood instructors could fathom.

In a matter of years, the positioning of the two parties in that classroom—the Chinese as students and the Hollywood executives as teachers—would seem both prescient and absurd, the dynamic soon to reverse, with Hollywood looking to China for help.

Consider the future of the entities represented in that classroom alone. Within a decade of those classes, Universal would complete a $500 million financing deal with a Chinese firm, cast Chinese actresses in its biggest movies, and construct a Universal theme park near Beijing. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would shop itself for a Chinese takeover and censor James Bond movies to make sure Chinese citizens never looked weak when matched against England’s ageless secret agent. William Morris would open an office in China to help the country’s new class of A-listers win over global audiences. Producers would rewrite scripts, trading New York for Shanghai if it meant getting a movie financed by Chinese billionaires. The MPAA and other officials in Washington would do anything they could to maintain access to the fast-growing Chinese box office as domestic moviegoing flatlined.

Chinese theaters were largely closed off to the world until 1994, when Hollywood studios were allowed to export 10 movies a year to the country. At the time, $3 million represented a record-setting gross in China. Even when those Chinese students arrived at UCLA, the market was growing but still a bundle of optimistic projections. By 2020, though, China had become the No. 1 box-office market in the world, home to grosses that routinely neared $1 billion—a market that became too big to ignore and too lucrative to anger. Through it all, China would continue to see Hollywood much as those early visitors did: as the ultimate template for building a show business that helped fuel a country’s rise, their goal a 21st-century sequel to what America’s entertainers had done for their country over the course of 100 years.

I joined the Los Angeles bureau of The Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2013, hired to be a fresh set of eyes on the Journal’s Hollywood coverage, and I soon started seeing China everywhere I looked.

One announcement followed another: The Chinese star Fan Bingbing had been cast in the new X-Men. An American theater chain headquartered in Leawood, Kansas, was trading on Wall Street thanks to financing from China’s richest man. Paramount Pictures was rushing to edit World War Z to remove a scene implying that a zombie outbreak had originated in China. Seemingly every producer in town was shopping a script based on the Flying Tigers, the World War II pilots who helped defend China against Japan. Moviegoers in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao were flocking to see the latest Transformers, sending millions of dollars in unexpected grosses back to its studio on Melrose Avenue.

To many observers, this was another round of “dumb money” flowing into Hollywood, long an industry capable of wooing investors with stardust. When I learned that a government agenda out of Beijing was actually backing the efforts—an agenda clear for anyone to see—I realized that this would not be a case of fleeting interest.

China’s economic leverage had quickly translated into political sway, most often in the censorship practiced by Beijing bureaucrats. Unbeknownst to most moviegoers, studios were removing scenes and dialogue from scripts and finished movies to appease Chinese censors—scrubbing any production of plot points that brushed up against sensitive Chinese history or made the country look anything less than a modern, sophisticated world power. Even more disturbing than the movies being changed were the ones not getting made at all, for fear of angering Chinese officials. Hollywood became a commercial arm for China’s new ambition, and piece by piece, China’s interest in the American film industry revealed itself to be a complement to its political ascendance, one that is rewriting the global order of the new century.

The story of this unexpected relationship can be told in three acts. It begins with the founding of Hollywood itself, an industry of workaday seamstresses and actors that transformed into a powerhouse that pulled the world toward the United States. Hollywood became America’s No. 1 export, shipping the swagger of John Wayne, the resistance heroes of Star Wars, and the romantic sweep of Titanic around the world. For politicians, the movies became a vehicle of influence—especially so in China, which began to permit Hollywood films into its theaters in the 1990s as part of a broader modernizing effort. Economics bested Communist Party instincts to hide dangerous thoughts from its people, generating box-office grosses that would prove indispensable to American studio executives.

The second act is the collision that followed, a decade during which Hollywood vulnerabilities met Chinese ambition. Out of nowhere appeared a market with 1.4 billion potential customers—a population of spenders that one Hollywood executive described to me as “a great national resource.” Accessing that resource would require bowing to censorship demands and navigating political land mines to build a theme park or secure Chinese financing. Throughout this period, Chinese producers and politicians maintained the student-teacher relationship evident in that UCLA classroom, turning to Hollywood experts for help building a commercial film industry of their own, one that transformed the theatrical propaganda of previous generations into popcorn entertainment.

The third act focuses the spotlight on China, where President Xi Jinping presides over a movie industry that has become an essential arm of a recast Middle Kingdom, a business modeled after America’s but molded to account for the Communist Party’s expectation that art will serve the state. The filmography of China in recent years has given its audiences what Americans have taken for granted: stories about people who look like them, who work and play in a country claiming a moment in history. Now China is trying to complete the hardest piece of the puzzle: shipping those movies overseas—and with them the values and vision that they embody and the alternative mode of governance to Western liberal democracy that they promote. As China redraws the geopolitical alignments of the world, it wants to use its movies to redraw the cultural borders atop them.

Still of the movie Top Gun.
Paramount Pictures / Sunset Boulevard / Corbis / Getty

The arc of China’s influence is evident in a single Hollywood franchise, Top Gun, in which the geopolitical tensions of the next century came to be reflected in a two-inch patch sewn onto a movie star’s costume.

The original 1986 film is a hallmark of Ronald Reagan’s America—Tom Cruise as the aviator-wearing daredevil Maverick, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” the hero declaring, “I feel the need …” 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. They scrapped a scene involving a crash and turned Maverick’s love interest, originally a fellow Navy member, into a contractor so audiences didn’t see the hero breaking rules about relationships among personnel. Moviegoers didn’t mind the jingoism; 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 any other movie released that year. It also did what years of state-produced recruitment videos could not, boosting young men and women’s interest in joining the armed forces. Recruiters waited in theater lobbies to catch moviegoers on their way out of the film. (Ray-Ban sales shot up too.)

In 2017, Paramount Pictures announced that it would reboot Top Gun with its original star, another example of Hollywood’s effective strategy of bathing audiences in nostalgia. But much about the global film market had changed in the intervening years. Top Gun: Maverick, as the sequel would be called, was so expensive that studio chiefs approved its production with accounting projections that assumed its global gross would include Chinese ticket sales. What’s more, some of that $150 million budget came courtesy of Skydance Media, a Los Angeles film and TV company partially financed by Tencent, the Chinese tech firm behind China’s most popular messaging app. Chinese money was backing the new Top Gun in two ways: in financing behind the scenes and in expected box-office grosses once it hit theaters there.

This all explains what happened to Tom Cruise’s jacket. In the original film, Maverick’s bomber featured a patch that highlighted the U.S.S. Galveston’s tour of Japan, Taiwan, and other countries in the Pacific, with flags from those countries below his collar. Chinese investors on the new movie pointed out to Skydance executives that those 1986 patches now posed a problem: China has long argued that Taiwan—a self-ruling island off the coast of the mainland—is a renegade province, and has insisted that it will be reintegrated into China. 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.

When Paramount 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. 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 weigh in. If it could help Paramount executives make their case to Chinese censors that Top Gun should show in Chinese theaters, Maverick’s bomber would adhere to the One China policy.

What happened between the two Top Guns is a story with implications that stretch far beyond the entertainment industry. Hollywood’s experience has served as a precursor for numerous American industries and companies trying to do business in China, including Apple and the National Basketball Association. In the months following the coronavirus outbreak, China’s economic recovery proved a financial salvation for struggling companies across numerous sectors, further boosting the country’s leverage.

China’s omnipresence onscreen reflects the country’s increasing ubiquity in business and in other parts of the world. That ubiquity has also exported a worldwide fear of crossing China. These concerns only grew as tensions between the U.S. and China escalated during Donald Trump’s administration and Xi’s aggressive crackdown on dissent. As China loomed large in the collective imagination, the lives and experiences of individual Chinese citizens were lost in many sweeping geopolitical analyses. Those deeply involved in Hollywood’s economic relationship with China grew quiet too, worried not only about losing their business but also about graver consequences: being called in for questioning, getting thrown out of the country, disappearing.

In early 2020, I had lunch at a vegan restaurant blocks from Warner Bros. with an executive who worked in China. Before we could begin talking, she turned off her cellphone and put it in her purse underneath the table. When that didn’t assuage her fears, she took her purse to the other side of the restaurant and asked the staff to keep it behind the counter. She then wondered if she should go put it in her car, because she’d heard that the Chinese government could surveil a conversation even from across the room. Chinese paranoia had infiltrated Burbank.

By pressuring Hollywood and its own entertainment industry, China could displace the American film industry as the chief narrator of the 21st century. Hollywood, by maintaining warm relations with the regime, has bolstered China’s campaign for global influence with American movies that either turn every portrayal of the country into a state-sanctioned commercial or avoid anything that challenges how Xi’s party sees the world.

In some cases, the rise of China’s entertainment industry has deepened our understanding of a country and culture that remain misunderstood, even demonized. In more insidious cases, it has braided a censorious agenda into moviemaking, corrupting America’s most effective tool for selling democracy and free expression to the world. Over this next century, China wants to use the movies to rebrand itself, and it has learned how to do so from the best. All of this has happened before our very eyes.

This piece is excerpted from Schwartzel’s recent book, Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy.

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