In early July 2008, as China’s leadership was being buffeted by controversies about Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake and the coming Olympics, movies were on Beijing’s mind. The Chinese public had just fallen in love with the Hollywood animated feature Kung Fu Panda, which was released to mainland audiences on June 20. The outpouring of affection for Po the Panda set the Chinese government to trying desperately to figure out why Americans can make globally popular movies about Chinese culture, but Chinese filmmakers can’t. “The film’s protagonist is China’s national treasure and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn’t we make such a film?” plaintively asked the president of the China National Peking Opera Company. The press in the United States and elsewhere gleefully chronicled Bejing’s vexation. The Los Angeles Times, broadsheet of the global film production capital, gloated, “along comes Hollywood and turns the story of a panda who dreams of becoming a kung fu master into a global blockbuster—and the most successful animated film in Chinese history.”1
After much deliberation, the government committee to whom the opera company president had addressed his question recommended that “Beijing should relax its control in order to accelerate the reform and opening up of the cultural market and to enhance China’s cultural influence in the world.”2
Essentially, “We need to learn from Hollywood”, said one Chinese film producer.3
This was not going to be easy to implement, given the authoritarian government’s long-standing censorious habits. However, the Peoples’ Republic of China has an historical precedent to draw on from halfway around the world and half a century ago. Despite the disparity in culture and time, Beijing’s situation is a lot like the one that faced the Franco regime in Spain in the 1950s.
Both cases, after all, involve a dictatorship seeking international acceptance on its own terms, looking to cinema as a soft power means of massaging its image problems. As in China today, Spain’s domestic film-production infrastructure back then lacked the capacity to attractively project the nation’s cultural values overseas, and its experience in boosting its film industry suggests a few lessons for Beijing. The first lesson, which the the Chinese government evidently hasn’t absorbed yet, is that “relaxing control” is by itself unlikely to be a silver bullet. The core issue isn’t government oversight; it’s who’s making the movies, and to what purpose. The Franco regime itself only reluctantly absorbed that lesson five decades ago.
In the early 1950s, the Franco regime sought an exit from a period of international political isolation. A key part of its effort involved trying to use movies at home and abroad to tout the glories of Spanish culture and justify the regime’s tenure. The Spanish Ministry of Information and Tourism (MIT) was put in charge of motion picture production and domestic distribution. It approved scripts, doled out funds and sometimes commissioned projects. Things did not go so well. With few exceptions, MIT’s films were unpopular at home and box office duds overseas. Spain in the early postwar years was provincial and more than a little xenophobic; the Franco regime was intolerant of cultural or political assertiveness by ethnic minorities like the Basques and Catalans. This was not a promising environment for producing exportable movies.
But still the Franco regime tried. Perhaps the greatest cinematic disappointment for the dictatorship was the failure of Alba de America (1951), a big-budget epic made under government sponsorship that lionized Columbus’s New World exploits. The movie was handsomely mounted, but the script was full of heavy-handed references to the grandeur of Spain and its inspired leadership. Despite the MIT’s high hopes for success in America, Hollywood distributors viewed Alba de America as box-office poison and refused to release it.
Starting in the mid-1950s, however, independent American producers started coming to Spain, looking to make grand-scale movies while keeping their production costs down. The Franco regime was initially suspicious. (Hollywood was full of Jews and communists, of course.) Conservative elements were greatly concerned about the cultural pollution that outsiders would bring to Spain. Still, the regime was desperate to improve its international image, as well as desperate for dollars, so it decided it was worth the risk.
The gamble immediately began to pay off in terms of influence, and literally as well. American movie producers were spending millions of dollars in Spain, while American and European tourists began to visit in droves the Spanish sites they had seen on the silver screen. And Spain’s image was gradually being refurbished from a sleepy backwater and fascist police state into a modern, even glamorous country of solid Hollywood fare.
The key figure in establishing “Hollywood in Madrid” was Samuel Bronston. A relatively minor figure on the Hollywood scene when he arrived in Spain in 1958 to film John Paul Jones (1959), Bronston had used his preternatural selling skills to gain the financial backing of a deep-pocketed partner, Pierre du Pont III. Like the U.S. producers who preceded him, Bronston initially assumed that he would make one film in Spain and then move on. But he soon recognized that the Franco regime, if handled correctly, could be a very congenial host for a permanent Hollywood studio, and his partnership with du Pont gave him the means to keep a constant pipeline of films in production.
Between 1958 and 1964, the Estudios Samuel Bronston in Madrid turned out a series of ultra-lavish, highly publicized motion pictures featuring top international movie stars like Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, David Niven and John Wayne. Bronston’s studio trained a generation of highly skilled Spanish film technicians and became the driving force in turning Spain into one of the top international movie production venues of the 1960s. The Franco regime loved Bronston, showering him with medals, citations and lots of financial support, most of it covert. The greatest of Bronston’s epics, in both critical and box office terms, was El Cid (1961). The film starred Charlton Heston, then the world’s most popular male actor, as the knight who began the Christian re-conquest of Spain from the Moors in the 11th century. El Cid was one of 1962’s top-earning movies, and it made Time Magazine’s “10 Best Films” list for the year.
An American producer had accomplished what Spanish producers couldn’t: He took a quintessentially Spanish subject that would have seemed arcane to non-Spaniards and made it attractive to American and international audiences. And he did it under the regime’s perpetual scrutiny. Bronston, like every other American producer who worked in Franco’s Spain, made all of his movies under the supervision of the Franco dictatorship, whose officials vetted scripts before allowing filming to begin. Spanish government ministers and censors not only flagged objectionable material; they often made non-negotiable demands for script changes. American producers in Spain generally complied without protest, because the alternative was to shut down production. Even left-wing lions like Stanley Kramer, best known for liberal “message” films like On the Beach and Judgment at Nuremberg, toed the dictatorship’s line, reshaping the script for The Pride and the Passion, for example, when the Franco regime objected to some passages. Such Hollywood classics as Lawrence of Arabia, Patton and Doctor Zhivago ran this gauntlet. (The producers of Doctor Zhivago had to get a special dispensation from the fervently anti-communist government to film actors singing the Socialist Internationale.)
The ruthlessly instrumental Samuel Bronston characteristically outdid his industry colleagues by hiring a Spanish government propaganda official to help with script-writing on several of his films, including El Cid, where he helped fine-tune the script elements that subtly equated Francisco Franco and Rodrigo de Bivar. But while Bronston always sought to please the Franco regime, his first concern was international profitability. He wanted a hit film as big as Ben Hur, and he and his studio, unlike his Spanish hosts, had the tools and experience to try to make one.
As it became obvious to the Franco regime that Hollywood-produced films about Spain, or films simply made in Spain, had a cachet and credibility with overseas audiences that domestically made movies didn’t, the dictatorship eventually codified its policy of welcoming international film producers as “Operación Propaganda Exterior.” The top-secret plan demanded that films
a foreigner produces in Spain, about any facet of the national life, present to the foreign public a character of objectivity and dispassion that is not always conceded to nationals. . . . Co-production means . . . for the most part the guarantee of a world-wide distribution of the film, leaving the public unaware of the actual origin, obviating all possible suspicion of propaganda.
That was Spain then; what are the lessons for China today? The first is that Beijing can’t succeed at international filmmaking on its own, and isn’t likely to for the foreseeable future. For all the amazing economic and social progress occurring in China today, the Middle Kingdom is still a provincial and somewhat xenophobic place, much like Spain during the Franco era. The country is ethnically homogeneous, with Han Chinese accounting for around 90 percent or more of its population. The government views the other 10 percent either with condescension or as a potential menace to domestic stability, and still places a high premium on cultural conformity. You don’t get a fingertip feel for wooing international audiences with that sort of mindset.
Contrast China’s circumstance with that of heterogeneous America, a magnet for centuries for immigrants from all over the world who have contributed their cultures and entrepreneurial dynamism to the American mix. Hollywood is a reflection of this social and cultural heritage. U.S. movie studios have spent more than a hundred years making movies for America’s diverse population, cultivating an even more diverse global audience, and developing unparalleled worldwide distribution networks. Chinese filmmakers like John Woo and Taiwan-born Ang Lee are only among the latest émigrés to join a century-long parade of directors, writers, producers and actors who’ve come from overseas to work in Hollywood.
The second lesson is that profit must take precedence over propaganda. Note the term “film industry.” Hollywood is a private business enterprise geared toward profit. Art is part of the production mix, but the bottom line for American movie-making is the bottom line. With Hollywood movies, any propaganda, whether pro-America or not, is a salutary by-product. And yet it’s still often stunningly effective. Jiang Zemin enthused to Beijing Politburo members that the 1998 blockbuster Titanic “gives a vivid and thorough portrait of the relationships between the wealthy and the poor, between money and love”, and warned his colleagues, “Don’t fool ourselves that we are the only ones who know how to work on people’s brains.”
Actually, Jiang was overestimating China’s abilities vis-à-vis the United States; Hollywood generally does propaganda far better than any autocracy’s propagandists ever could. No one knew America’s prowess better than the nonpareil modern tyrant Josef Stalin, who once enviously stated, “If I could control the medium of the American motion picture, I would need nothing else to convert the entire world to communism.”4
Third, foreign-produced films that positively depict a dictatorship’s national culture are more credible than those domestically made. It’s as true now as it was fifty years ago, when the Franco regime concocted Operación PE. Domestic and international audiences tend to assume, not without cause, that authoritarian regimes blatantly manipulate information and ideas in any medium they control. International producers who are not overtly submitting to official oversight can be subtly and seductively effective in transmitting the images and messages the regime wants to disseminate.
This suggests a fourth lesson: What China requires is more Hollywood producers, who out of training, habit and need always keep their eyes trained on marketability. Beijing’s leaders should welcome U.S. productions whether or not they deal with Chinese subject matter. In the 1960s, Hollywood filmmakers used Spain’s varied geography to make Westerns, World War II movies, science fiction films and even movies set in China (among Samuel Bronston’s epics was 55 Days at Peking, about the 1900 Boxer Rebellion). Plenty of U.S. producers will still come up with Chinese-themed movies, for entertainment reasons, cost efficiencies and to please the leadership, just as Americans did in Spain in the 1950s–60s. Bronston’s El Cid proves that you can blueprint a production on all these grounds and still make a hit movie.
China is already doing a bit of this, and Hollywood filmmakers have shown little resistance to Beijing’s script approval demands, which are as stringent as Franco Spain’s ever were. But so far there has only been a trickle of American productions in China, all of them partly or wholly Chinese-themed, like the Western Shanghai Noon (2000), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), The Painted Veil (2006), and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008). Beijing should be aiming for a tsunami.
Indeed, Beijing should be praying for someone like Samuel Bronston, a Hollywood producer willing to make China his permanent base of operations. Ideally, he should arrive with his own financial wherewithal, as Bronston did. But the Chinese government should be on the lookout and perhaps even pass the word around that China is open to playing host. This would give a Bronstonesque Hollywood entrepreneur an angle for promoting funds from potential backers.
A neo-Bronston will likely not come to China as a film-industry superstar, but Beijing can help make him one. Bronston wasn’t originally in the first tier of Hollywood producers, but he had great ambitions and talent, and access to the money to back them up. He had little reputation to lose by cozying up to a dictatorship, and everything to gain. This should be Beijing’s ideal, for the simple reason that apex film-industry figures are much more sensitive about having their reputations besmirched than hungry newcomers. Steven Spielberg ran screaming from his appointment as an artistic director of the Beijing Olympics when Mia Farrow threatened to tar the Schindler’s List director as a latter-day Leni Riefenstahl. Bronston couldn’t have cared less. (To understand the type, ubiquitous in the U.S. film industry, consult Budd Schulberg’s classic novel of unbridled Hollywood ambition, What Makes Sammy Run? Samuel Bronston was one of Schulberg’s prototypes for the unscrupulous Sammy Glick.)
A permanent studio in China could serve as the backbone of a true “Hollywood in Beijing” that could rival or exceed “Hollywood in Madrid” four decades ago. China’s own Hengdian Studio complex is impressively gigantic, but it’s in the middle of nowhere, far from the centers of Chinese film activity in Beijing and Shanghai, which wouldn’t be very appealing for American producers looking for a permanent base. Also, its huge standing sets are geared almost exclusively toward Chinese subject matter.
As was the case in Spain in the 1960s, an important by-product of a “Hollywood in Beijing” would be training in U.S. methods, improved production facilities, economies of scale and availability of funds that would show Chinese filmmakers how to produce consistently marketable movies. Commercial viability is critical for reaching international audiences with favorable images of China.
The final lesson, then, is that China must be prepared to pony up financial support to foreign producers, and to do so quietly and creatively. To all appearances, Bronston’s feature productions were completely independent of Spanish government influence. Franco regime script approval and often script contributions meant that this was not the case, but the dictatorship generally hid its hand. The regime further backed Bronston with imaginative covert funding schemes that included oil and other product import licenses, which gave Bronston access to millions of dollars as an importation middle man. For China this would take the form of import licenses, tax breaks and free or subsidized use of facilities and personnel, among other strategies.
Beijing shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab for most of a movie’s financing cost. This wouldn’t be a good idea anyway, as it would reduce a producer’s incentive to maximize his project’s commercial viability. But significant backdoor aid would help a neo-Bronston in his quest for the big money from abroad needed to produce major Hollywood films. The People’s Political Consultative Committee report on Kung Fu Panda noted that the average budget for a Chinese film is around $1.5 million, less than one percent the combined estimated production and advertising costs of the animated film.
If China incorporates these lessons, Beijing is bound to reap considerable soft power as well as economic rewards, just as the Franco dictatorship did. Beijing will be able to harness the American film industry’s singular production skills and global distribution savvy to depict China in an attractive and sympathetic light around the world. And if China can attract a latter-day Samuel Bronston who’s willing to permanently base production in China, then it could gain a true, lasting “Hollywood in Beijing” that will draw even more talent from overseas while improving training and infrastructure for Chinese filmmakers.
Lest I be accused of writing a blueprint for the aggrandizement of the Peoples’ Republic of China, I should note that the experience of the Franco regime shows that, over the long run, Hollywood will put pressure on Beijing to liberalize the country’s repressive political system. Although arch-conservatives are the ones who reluctantly allowed American producers into Spain, key reformers within the Franco regime supported “Hollywood in Madrid” precisely as an agent of political and cultural change. Outright opponents of the regime also saw the presence of Hollywood as good for their cause: The Count of Motrico, one of the most prominent of these latter figures, worked for Samuel Bronston for six years as a political fixer before going into open opposition against Franco. One can readily imagine closeted admirers of the late Chinese democratic reformer Zhao Ziyang within the Chinese Communist Party apparatus taking a similarly supportive view of a “Hollywood in Beijing.” Some of them will doubtless be quietly looking toward the end of one-party rule in China.
Then there’s the people-to-people effect. Most if not all American filmmakers working in China would be good guests, if only for purely business reasons. But there would be numerous professional and personal exchanges where American and other foreign film personnel casually, even unwittingly, undermine their Chinese colleagues’ sense of political boundaries and attitudes toward government control. After hobnobbing with Americans, some of these Chinese filmmakers could eventually demand greater creative latitude from their government. Some of the most boundary-pushing Spanish directors of the late Franco era got their start working on American productions in Spain, including the horror film cult icons Paul Naschy and Jess Franco, a second unit director for Orson Welles before he started testing the regime’s censorship limits with movies like Vampyros Lesbos (1971).
Just as important, increased foreign tourism to China, which would be one of the great benefits of a “Hollywood in Beijing”, will also chip away at political and social control. By attracting foreign tourists with onscreen imagery, China stands to reap the political benefits of wooing them and sending them home as freshly minted goodwill ambassadors (not to mention the economic benefit of their spending). Beijing has gotten a serious taste of Hollywood-driven tourism as travelers from abroad flock to locations used in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
But visitors from the United States and other democracies who are drawn by “Hollywood in Beijing” will carry their values and expectations to China, just as they did to Franco’s Spain a half-century ago. Back then, a U.S. diplomat reported that “foreign tourists are bringing a new dimension to living and new ideas” to Spain and observed that “vested interests do not like this development.” Spain’s conservative elements lost out to change spurred from outside. China’s eventually would, too.
If China’s current rulers are serious about making popular films like Kung Fu Panda and gaining the global soft power benefits, they will need a major Hollywood presence, but they will end up encouraging the same erosion of their authority that helped undo Spain’s dictatorship. Many factors contributed to the Franco regime’s demise in the mid-1970s. But the policy of using Hollywood production in Spain to influence foreign attitudes toward the dictatorship, while a great success for many years from the government’s standpoint, played a significant if indirect role in undermining the regime’s control.
Beijing’s autocrats, like those of the Franco regime before them, will find that trying to co-opt Hollywood is like riding the tiger in the old Chinese proverb: The jaunt is invigorating while it lasts, but dismounting is liable to be fatal. But hey, at least the movies will be great.
Mark Magnier, “China had to Import ‘Kung Fu Panda’”, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2008; see also Richard Bernstein, “The Panda that Roared”, New York Times, June 20, 2008; and Jonathan Watts, “Hollywood’s panda hit makes China bare its soul”, Guardian (UK), June 8, 2008.
Li Huizi, “‘Kung Fu Panda’ Punches Away at Controls on Creativity”, China View, June 5, 2008.
Quoted in Magnier.
Stalin quoted in Anthony Smith, In the Shadow of the Cave: The Broadcaster, His Audience, and the State (University of Illinois Press, 1973), p. 187.