I Wish More Countries 'Stole' Our Movies
from the not-making-a-policy-proposal dept
A significant part of the appeal for copyright maximalism is respect for the artist as a singular, uncompromising force for expressing their values in an otherwise crass, materialistic world. This view is traditionally identified with the artists’ rights attitude featured in the continental tradition, but has gained prominence in the Anglosphere.
It’s grimly ironic, then, when copyright incentivizes artists to subvert their values for those very same crass, materialistic concerns. Recall the case of Charles Dickens, an abolitionist who came to support the Confederacy in the Civil War because of his distaste for copyright-disrespecting Northern publishers.
This pattern repeats itself in contemporary Hollywood, in the form of creative choices influenced by the increasingly Chinese-moviegoer-driven bottom line. “Will it play in Beijing?” is the new “will it play in Peoria?”
Casting a Chinese actor or changing some elements to appeal to the new audience is one thing, and far from unheard of. Changes to cater to the demands of an authoritarian regime are another thing entirely—a form of self-censorship that I believe is unconscionable and fundamentally immoral.
The 2012 Red Dawn remake, where the conquering army was changed to North Korea from China, was an obvious move to not alienate Chinese moviegoers. Trailers for the new Top Gun film sparked controversy when Maverick’s signature jacket dropped the Taiwanese and Japanese flags. The Departed was pulled due to a scene where the Chinese government illicitly purchased military technology from Jack Nicholson’s criminal enterprise. The list goes on.
I wish this weren’t the case. Indeed, I wish that major movie studios and production companies would forgo astronomical returns on their movies, settling for simply sky-high ones, by allowing blatant copying, piracy, and (already extensive) bootlegging in film markets hosted by oppressive regimes.
I want to make something perfectly clear: I am not, repeat not, making an argument for any specific policy change. Rather, I want to make an appeal for rights holders to do their part by not making creative choices with an authoritarian audience in mind.
As much as Hollywood likes to pretend it’s on the right side of history, it has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to kowtow to the censorial demands of the PRC.
This dynamic was brilliantly displayed in an episode from South Park’s most recent season:
The episode, called “Band in China,” led the show to be, predictably, banned in China. Parker and Stone released the following statement shortly after the episode aired:
— South Park (@SouthPark) October 7, 2019
For those of you keeping score, the creators of an animated movie with the most swear words in history, who received an Oscar nomination for best original song in that movie, and showed up to receive their award on LSD wearing dresses, have demonstrated more courage in standing up to an authoritarian regime despite the financial consequences than any other media company in the U.S., if not the world. Let that sink in.
Have I mentioned that I’m not making any policy proposals here? Aside from making copyright law stop at the border, I’m not even sure how one could craft policy to address my specific concerns. Rather, my argument is for corporate social responsibility. It is incumbent on studios making a point with their content to forgo making a buck in order to spread their message.
In cases where production companies have to choose between changing their movies to satisfy the demands of an authoritarian regime and allowing anti-authoritarian ideals to be spread, it is clear that they should choose the latter.
Though showing the American flag on the Moon or the Taiwanese flag on Tom Cruise’s jacket probably won’t be enough to end communist dictatorship, liberal western culture can expose some of the cracks in authoritarian regimes. Smuggled copies of Dallas showed Romanians living under Ceausescu a life without breadlines. Activists risk their lives to smuggle flash drives full of American and South Korean shows and movies into North Korea to undermine the Kim regime. Though (not unfairly) criticized as “propaganda,” some of the most popular early broadcasts into the Soviet Union were of jazz music.
If my advocacy for spreading a message of liberalism and anti-authoritarianism is too bold for you, what about taking a stand for LGBT rights? Call Me By Your Name and Brokeback Mountain are banned in China due to a prohibition on pro-LGBT content.
To use a different example, Disney deliberately removed the lesbian kiss at the end of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in its release in Singapore to avoid a more restrictive rating, as required by Singaporean censorship guidelines. If Disney wanted to take a stand for gay rights and thumb their nose at homophobia, they could have made the uncut version of the movie free for all to see in Singapore.
I’d like to close by referencing the Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. One of the major premises of the show is (spoiler alert) the ability of characters to travel to other universes and retrieve film reels from them. The most important of these MacGuffins is the film reel that kicks off the series, named “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”:
The film reel is “real” in that it comes from another universe where the Allies won the war. Other than setting up the sci-fi elements of the show, the relevance to the plot is to show occupied Americans that the Nazis and the Japanese can be beaten.
It turns out that films from faraway places can inspire hope — even when they don’t add to the bottom line back in the home market. That’s a valuable lesson for Hollywood to keep in mind.