PEN America calls for Hollywood transparency on China censorship to 'protect artistic freedom'

Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, Hollywood has recently taken heat from politicians for its willingness to alter its movies to appease the Chinese government. Now PEN America, a free expression advocacy group, is also calling out the American film industry for self-censorship.

The New York-based nonprofit on Wednesday published a 94-page report detailing the ways China's power has influenced not only what movies are shown in the world's most populous country, but also what kinds of stories are told to a global audience.

PEN America, known for defending persecuted writers and journalists, called on Hollywood studios to adopt "strategies and practices to govern their interactions with the Chinese government" that "affirm and protect artistic freedom to the fullest possible extent."

Among the many recommendations in the report -- titled "Made in Hollywood, Censored by Beijing: The U.S. Film Industry and Chinese Government Influence" -- PEN America asked the major studios to commit that, if a film is altered to satisfy the demands of censors in China, those changes will be made only to the version released in China and not to the cut released globally. The group also asked studios to commit to publicly share requests for changes made by foreign governments. Additionally, it called on the Motion Picture Assn., which lobbies for the five major studios and Netflix, to issue an annual report on the industry's relationship with China.

"Filmmakers cannot reduce their work to the lowest common denominator of only content that is deemed acceptable by one of the world's most censorious regimes," the report said.

The MPA declined to comment.


Industry insiders who spoke to The Times about these issues have largely dismissed such recommendations as unworkable and potentially counterproductive. China's censorship regime is famously opaque, and officials there do not tell studios why a movie has been rejected. Publicly proclaiming when their movies are being censored would likely damage studios' standing in China, setting back years of work spent opening up the market.

But PEN America argues that China's lack of transparency is a "feature, not a bug," forcing studios to avoid content and themes that might be offensive to government interests. James Tager, the PEN America researcher who authored the report, said openness about censorship is a first step to fighting it.

"The kid-gloves and hands-off approach that Hollywood is normalizing gives China a free pass to continue these policies when it comes to the global community," Tager said in an interview. "If this phenomenon remains invisible, or semi-visible at best, no solution will ever emerge."

PEN America's document on the relationship between China and Hollywood has been in the works for more than a year. It comes after several weeks of attacks against Hollywood by Trump administration officials and their political allies accusing executives of kowtowing to Beijing's demands while vocally supporting social justice causes at home. U.S. Atty. General William Barr last month railed against the film industry for making changes to movies including "Doctor Strange" and "World War Z" to placate China's desire to project a positive global image.


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