Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China's economic carrots and sticks are putting pressure on Hollywood to produce films that might soar in the country's box office — and avoid those that may displease Beijing.

The big picture: By censoring American blockbusters, Beijing believes it can prevent American and global audiences from imagining the Chinese Communist Party as a major threat, and from viewing the targets of China's repression as victims worthy of sympathy.

Driving the news: Disney is set to release its highly anticipated live action remake of "Mulan" this weekend to more than 60 million subscribers on Disney+.

  • Analysts expected the film, about a young female Chinese warrior during the Han dynasty, would bring in $1 billion in global box office sales, in large part from China, though that estimate was before the pandemic.

What's happening: China's box office is projected to soon surpass the U.S. as the largest film market in the world.

  • "Access to that market can make or break the success of a major Hollywood film," said James Tager, the author of a recent PEN America report about how the Chinese government censors the U.S. film industry, and how the industry responds by self-censoring.
  • But the Chinese government tightly controls access to the market, excluding films that include content it dislikes, and blacklisting individual actors or film studios that have previously participated in activities the Chinese Communist Party doesn't like.

The result is an "epidemic of self-censorship" in Hollywood, said Aynne Kokas, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and author of the book Hollywood Made in China.

  • "They are removing content that they worry could upset the Chinese government even before actually proposing it to the Chinese government. And there is pressure to include content that is more flattering to Beijing," said Tager.

Background: Hollywood has played an enduring role in the creation of foreign enemies in the American imagination, from Soviet Russia to Middle Eastern terrorists in the post 9/11 era.

  • A succession of James Bond movies, "Rocky IV," and "Air Force One" are just a few of the major American films featuring iconic Russian villains.
  • Popular post 9/11-movies such as "American Sniper" and "Zero Dark Thirty" presented the U.S. killing of Middle Easterners and the CIA's secret torture program as justified.

The effects of such depictions can be powerful and lasting.

  • On the silver screen, Russians are still America’s favorite bad guy, even 30 years after the end of the Cold War.
  • Hollywood has so effectively equated Russians with villainy that even the hint of Slavic accent is often a dead giveaway that the character is evil.

Movies also have an almost unmatched ability to instill widespread public sympathy for vulnerable groups and to prolong remembrance of crimes against humanity, such as the Rwandan genocide, depicted in "Hotel Rwanda."

  • But the last time a major Hollywood studio made a movie that presented a vulnerable group as the victim of Chinese government aggression was in 1997 with "Seven Years in Tibet" starring Brad Pitt.
  • The Chinese government responded by slapping a five-year ban on Columbia TriStar, the production company that made the film — a response that cast a chill over the U.S. movie industry.

The result: Film studios now go out of their way to ensure their movies avoid topics or depictions of China that might fall foul of China's censors.

  • "The most significant effect of this censorship and self-censorship is completely invisible, because it involves the movies that are never made," said Tager. "What major Hollywood studio would make a movie about what is happening in Xinjiang, with the internment of over a million Muslims?"
  • “For 10 years, you haven’t seen any bad Chinese guys,” said Schuyler Moore, a partner at Greenberg Glusker. “If I saw a script with an anti-Chinese theme, I would advise my client that that film would never be released in China.”

Yes, but: '"From my perspective, the fact that we don’t have Chinese villains in Hollywood films is a good thing," said Kokas. "It’s deeply dehumanizing when certain groups become the target of villainy."

China's clunky censorship also causes American and global audiences to lose out on a deeper understanding of China's society, says Becky Davis, the China bureau chief for Variety magazine.

  • Davis points to the independent American film "The Farewell," a story about the looming death of a Chinese-American family's matriarch, as an example of a movie that presents life in China, and Chinese families abroad, in a complex and deeply sympathetic way.
  • "Think of all the other kinds of 'Farewells' we could have, and all the other types of stories that could be made if information could flow more freely between the two countries... if there wasn't such a risk to tell those stories bravely," says Davis.

What to watch: The pandemic shuttered most of the world's theaters, putting even more pressure on the film industry. That economic upheaval may mean even less incentive for studios to stand up to China.

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