Insulted by Films, Beijing Orders Halt to Studio Deals
Angered by films that it claims “viciously attack China” over Tibet and human rights issues, a cultural agency of the Beijing government issued a statement ordering a temporary halt in business dealings with the three Hollywood studios that are distributing the films.
A recent memo from China’s Ministry of Radio, Film and Television is aimed at the Walt Disney Co., Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Columbia/TriStar studios and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after the agency registered protests about the three films. The ministry’s Film Industry Administration Bureau ordered the halt in the importation of films, co-production of film and TV shows and discussions of new projects with the studios.
Representatives of the three studios said Thursday that they had no knowledge of any business dealings being cut off with China, nor have they been officially informed of any retaliatory measures undertaken by Beijing.
One Shanghai film industry executive said she is afraid that the political edict will harm the fledgling cooperation that is being built between China and American studios. “It’s a pity,” the executive said. “It hurts all of us.”
In Los Angeles, one high-ranking studio executive said he has yet to notice fallout from the edict.
“Our position is that we will continue to do business as before with them,” said Tony Manne, executive vice president of international marketing and distribution for Columbia/TriStar. “We’ll continue to offer them our films, and that’s it.”
Manne said his studio received the memo through its business representative in China two weeks ago.
The major films that have incurred China’s wrath are TriStar Pictures’ “Seven Years in Tibet” and Disney’s “Kundun,” which are set against the backdrop of China’s occupation of neighboring Tibet, and MGM’s “Red Corner,” a political thriller starring Richard Gere that harshly depicts China’s legal system. “Seven Years in Tibet” is in theaters, “Red Corner” opens today, and “Kundun” will be released Christmas Day.
A Western entertainment consultant in China who deals frequently with Chinese film and culture officials said the policy is having an effect but thought that the ban will not be permanent.
“Film imports have been affected. Negotiations are supposed to be frozen though people are still talking, and co-productions that are underway seem to be continuing,” he said. At the 3rd Annual Shanghai Film Festival this week, Sony and Disney are each showing three films despite the memo.
The consultant noted that Disney is adding staff at its Beijing office. The company still hopes to build a theme park, but an animation dubbing studio in Shanghai was closed down about six months ago because of China’s anger over “Kundun.”
The Xing Xing Film and TV Co., which dubbed “Toy Story” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” into Chinese for Disney, halted its business relationship after the first edict.
“Because our Foreign Ministry condemned the production of [Kundan] in the U.S., no [Disney] films came to our studio anymore. The cooperation has stopped,” said Cao Lei, the director of film dubbing. “Disney wanted to show ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ in China this year, but it is impossible now.”
In a related development, MGM confirmed Thursday that Chinese officials approached studio executives last week in an unsuccessful attempt to have MGM postpone today’s scheduled opening in 2,300 theaters of “Red Corner” because it might reflect poorly on the ongoing U.S. visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
“We can confirm that a meeting took place at which Chinese officials expressed their concerns,” said an MGM spokesman. “We can offer no further comment beyond that.”
The studio declined to identify participants at the meeting.
The films have provided a convenient platform during Jiang’s visit for groups opposed to China’s claim on Tibet.
Gere, a longtime supporter of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, has appeared on various television talk shows and at protests in Washington this week to condemn China’s human rights record. On Wednesday, he addressed a rally in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, where President Clinton was holding meetings with Jiang.
The controversy over the movies comes at a time when Hollywood studios are attempting to widen business links with China.
Late last year, Chinese officials issued a warning to Disney that its business plans in the Asian nation could suffer if the studio went ahead with plans to release “Kundun,” director Martin Scorsese’s account of the early life of the Dalai Lama.
Disney drew widespread praise from the creative community when it announced that it would stick by Scorsese--one of Hollywood’s leading directors--but the studio has stepped cautiously around the political fallout from its decision. It has consulted with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger about how to approach China since the controversy surfaced.
The Chinese ministry’s recent memo makes it clear that Beijing’s ire at Hollywood is intensifying as each movie is rolled out with considerable publicity.
“Taking up Tibet and human rights issues, those films viciously attack China [and] hurt Chinese people’s feelings,” the memo states. “Although the matter has been taken up by the Chinese parties concerned, and all kinds of efforts have been made, those three American companies are still pushing out [these] films. We must maintain sharp vigilance.”
Welkos reported from Los Angeles, Farley from Hong Kong. Times staff writer Rone Tempest in Beijing contributed to this story.