Hollywood in China—What’s the Price of Admission?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last week, DreamWorks Animation (DWA), the Hollywood studio behind the worldwide blockbuster Kung Fu Panda films, announced that it will cooperate with the China Film Group (CFG) on an animated feature called Tibet Code, an adventure story based on a series of recent Chinese novels set in 9th-century Tibet—even as China’s policies on Tibet are regularly targeted by Western human-rights critics and are a persistent challenge to Beijing’s efforts to improve China’s international image. DWA CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg told The Wall Street Journal that Tibet Code has no “secondary agenda,” but was chosen because it is a “blockbuster story.”

Arguments can be made both for and against this highly visible publicly traded American company’s decision to aid a state-run studio that answers ultimately to the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party in the making of an animated—and thus more easily dubbed and exportable—film about Tibet when China’s own domestic media long has had its hands tied when trying to tell Tibet stories.

Trading automobile tires or medical equipment with China seems to me to be one thing. But trading the media savvy to use animation and mass marketing know-how to entertain and, yes, teach the world about far-away Tibet in a way that’s unlikely to deviate from Beijing's oficial line that the territory has always been a part of China is another kettle of fish entirely.

Jonathan Landreth


When Katzenberg denied any political motivation behind DreamWork’s decision, he was telling the truth.

Hollywood’s change of heart from Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet to Tibet Code has little to do with ideology. Hollywood was not out to smear China then and is surely not on a mission to rehabilitate China now. It’s the bottom line that the studios are attuned to. It’s no secret that Hollywood increasingly is reliant on revenues from overseas markets and now China is the world's second-largest movie market in terms of ticket sales.
It's important to note, too, that the censorious Chinese state is not the only one to blame for Hollywood’s compromise. After all, affluent Chinese moviegoers like to see China in a flattering light. What’s missing from the incessant political narrative about censorship and control is the more complex commercial logic and cultural dynamic at work that makes the Sino-Hollywood courtship so intriguing.
Furthermore, Hollywood paid ample attention, from day one, to what is permissible and indeed preferred in its export destination. A significant proportion of the correspondence in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s between the Hays Office and China reflected American studio executives’ concerns about Chinese sensitivities, both cultural and political. During China's Republican Era, U.S. studios modified their pictures to appease the Chinese state and the public, both ultra-nationalistic and hypersensitive to China’s humiliations at the hands of Western powers.
Lastly, cheerleading for an assertive superpower has been one of Hollywood’s greatest talents. For almost a century, Tinseltown was at the forefront of promoting U.S. soft power by puffing up the American way to sell more movie tickets on the home front. The diversion to a new master in China simply follows the same logic.
There is no doubting the power of cinema in shaping values and perceptions. With the Chinese emphasis on expanding its “soft power” by promoting Chinese culture around the world, film has become an important component in China’s “going out” campaign. And what could be a better tool than Hollywood’s help in facilitating China’s image-lifting campaign?
Ultimately, Hollywood has to decide what China business it wants to be in. Google’s China profit dwindled after it pulled its search engine out of China. Meanwhile, Apple and Microsoft made headway in China by complying with Chinese censorship. Sooner or later, more companies will have to confront similar issues.

The Wall Street Journal reported that “Mr. Katzenberg dismisses suggestions that Tibet Code serves any political purpose,” while noting a few lines later, that “Han Sanping, the chairman of China Film Group Corp., the powerful state distributor, ascribed a broader goal to Tibet Code.” He hailed it as a vehicle to portray to the world “Chinese values” and “Chinese morality” as well as its history, culture and landscape.

They are saying completely different things, talking different languages.

And it is understandable as they are speaking to different audiences. Katzenberg must please the markets, while Han must please the Poliburo.  It’s easy to see how Hollywood and the Chinese film authorities could come to a cozy understanding: all they need to do is make superficial action blockbusters where much of the production is done in China. Make sure the theme is not too anti-Chinese, then make one version for Western audiences and another bowdlerized or adapted version for inside the Great Firewall. Voila! You make money and tick the soft power boxes.

Where I think perhaps Katzenberg and Han slipped up in their clever scheming was choosing a Tibet theme for their first blockbuster. They are going to suffer a little for that choice, although their bank balances will no doubt do just fine.

DreamWorks Animation and the China Film Group may “suffer a little” indeed, Jeremy—well said—but, as you point out, it’ll likely be on the way to the bank. Unless, of course, we’re surprised by another round of fight from Hollywood’s diminishing stable of fading stars who once vocally and publicly counted themselves Friends of Tibet—your Richard Geres and Stephen Segalls and...who else is there these days? (Does Bjork count?) Though more than 100 Tibetan men and women have chosen to light themselves on fire in protest since February 2009 rather than live another day under Chinese rule, it seems they have few friends with any degree of influence bringing much attention to their cause in U.S. media.

Looking back to October 2012 in Los Angeles—to a meeting between Han Sanping, the so-called Godfather of modern China's movie business and Katzenberg’s No. 2 at DreamWorks, Lewis Coleman—I guess few people should be surprised today at the decisions being made in the name of growing ticket sales. At the 3rd annual Asia Society U.S.-China Film Summit, Coleman told a roomful of Hollywood aspirants to China’s silver screens that he and Katzenberg would, and I quote, “be transforming DreamWorks Animation from an exporter of films to China into a China-based family brand that would create entertainment in China, for China and, importantly, (into) an exporter of Chinese culture to the rest of the world.”

If Coleman and Katzenberg have been talking up that message in Hollywood and among investors for nearly six months and nobody’s been able to steer them away from cooperating with the China Film Group (which, as Jeremy points out, ultimately answers to the Politburo of the Communist Party of China and to its Propaganda Department), then, hopefully, these two Hollywood insiders know something that most don’t about coming reforms in China’s media sector. Hopefully, the masters of DreamWorks can trust assurances that there will be a true opening in the Chinese press that would allow for a free discussion of what’s really going on in modern Tibet.

If that’s not the case, and Chinese moviegoers whose interest in their relationship with Tibet is piqued by Tibet Code can’t find any balanced context in their local media, then the DreamWorks film will, unwittingly, bear a greater social responsibility as the largest Tibet-related media product ever made and viewed in China. Since very few outside China trust what they read about Tibet in China’s heavily censored press, then DreamWorks Tibet Code also has the potential all on its own to be the largest CPC-approved media product about Tibet ever to reach a mass audience around the world.

I dare to dream and hope to be surprised but can’t help but remember that in October in L.A., Coleman, the president and chief financial officer of the company that brought me and my eight-year-old daughter joy with its free and imaginative films Shrek and Puss in Boots, acknowledged that China’s regulatory system is “very focused on managing the details,” making it “very difficult for the creative process to breathe.”  It’s occurred to me that the shackles China’s censors clap on DreamWorks screenwriters—who are just now getting going on tackling Tibet Code—could result in a bad DreamWorks film, a box office flop for the first time in more than 17 outings. In the end, in the U.S., where we are blessed with a free press,  an informed public will decide. In China, Tibet Code is likely to be released into a vacuum of other detailed information about Tibet and Tibetans and influence a whole generation of Chinese children. Chinese may not know the difference and, given the censorship around them, it’s not all their fault. The question is, will we know the difference, and, if we do, will we care?


It’s not surprising that DreamWorks is moving its factory to be closer to its market. The automobile makers did the same thing.

The question, remains, however, will the joint venture go the way of Beijing Jeep? There’s a long and rich tradition of business partners getting into bed together and finding that their dreams never mesh. In the worst case scenarios, joint ventures have fallen apart. There’s a chance that the clash of cultures between a freewheeling American company driven by profits will run aground when paired with a company whose ultimate goal is promoting the party’s agenda.

Even worse, DreamWorks could be training its ultimate rival with this joint venture. There’s been a consistent tendancy by American executives to underestimate their joint venture partner’s abilities. Before you know it, complex technologies that the Americans thought the Chinese would never crack are being sold at a cheaper price.

For China, the chance to coproduce a movie isn’t about the Tibet Code—it’s about breaking the Hollywood Code. China’s desperate to understand the secret sauce that makes American culture universally appealing. Americans may think that their success stems from some intangible, ephemeral “American-ness” that can’t be taught. But the experiene of Japan and South Korea in marketing manufactured pop stars shows they’re wrong. Successful pop culture is a product just like undearm deodorant and toasters. A decent product, good advertising and a nice package sends it flying of the shelf.

Still, choosing Tibet’s odd. Sure, there’s the classic “Tintin in Tibet” and snippets of Indiana Jones. But you have to wonder about DreamWorks’ political advisors. Tibet is the third rail of Chinese politics. No matter what you say, someone’s going to hate you. You’re either not pro China enough, or you’re not pro Dalai Lama enough.

Ultimately, though, what happens at DreamWorks serves as a crucial test. China’s shown that it can make world-class technology. It’s one thing to make a car. It’s a lot harder to make a good kids movie.