Big Trouble in China

An interview with media executive Chris Fenton, author of ‘Feeding the Dragon’.

As a film executive, Chris Fenton was one of the first American representatives to reach out to China in a serious, modern way. He helped cut deals with the Chinese elite to break out movies like Looper and Iron Man 3, and was a fervent advocate of using soft media to thaw relations between the world’s two remaining superpowers. He wrote his new book, Feeding the Dragon, mostly before COVID-19 and the Hong Kong protests presented China to the world in a freshly unflattering light, but some quickly-added pages at the end point to the urgency of his mission. I talked to Fenton about the relationship between Hollywood and China, and what might be coming in the future.


The live-action Mulan was a flop in the U.S. for various reasons, but I’m more curious about why it’s failed in China.

A few reasons.  The current anti-American sentiment in China played into it. Disney is an iconic American studio adapting a cherished Chinese legend into a Hollywood-ized film. It’s poor timing.  Also, the Chinese film industry is now delivering content at or near Hollywood quality for its own audience.  Many versions of Mulan have been made in both film and TV. If the Chinese want to see another, they’ll want their own industry to produce it. It’s a bit as if Wanda Studios in China decided to make “The Abraham Lincoln Story” for American audiences using a Chinese director and Chinese actors. Would Americans see that?

Also, the XiinJiang/Uighur controversy and Disney’s inability to keep it muted irritated the Chinese Communist Party. They retaliated by hindering the promotional efforts for the movie in China.

What role, if any, can Hollywood play in calling attention to the human-rights abuses ongoing in China and Hong Kong?

They can do it, but only if the whole industry backs the effort. Calling attention to the atrocities should be done by Hollywood as a whole, rather than individual filmmakers or studios. If it’s just lone wolves, the CCP will just replace the business of one studio or one filmmaker with another to retaliate against speaking out. However, if the full weight of all the studios back the effort, that’s something the CCP can’t handle. Their populace expects to see a certain amount of Western content in theaters. If it’s shut off, it will create discontent. And discontent can lead to uprisings. If there’s one thing the CCP wants to avoid, it’s 1.4 billion unhappy people.

Does Hollywood soft-pedal Chinese misdeeds because it’s trying to protect its bottom line?

One hundred percent yes! But I’m optimistic we can fix that. Strength in numbers, leverage, and a change in mindset to patriotism before capitalism will get the job done.

Has the NBA Bubble been popular in China? 

No. They don’t air the games. The NBA is still in the doghouse there. It’s well-known that the NBA and its players should never tread into sensitive areas or speak ill of the CCP’s rule. Of course, the obviously third-rail issues continue to be Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, any human-rights issues akin to the Uighurs or political dissidents, and national-security interests.

Chris Fenton. Photo by J.P. Cordero.

What kind of entertainment does China want from Hollywood?

Moving forward, I implore Hollywood to do what the industry does best, making movies from the treasure trove of strong IP and original scripts the industry controls. In addition, we must push back on the encroachment of First Amendment rights the CCP vastly increased over the past decade. As a unified industry, making quality films for the world to enjoy, we can force the CCP into retreat because their populace will demand it. After all, those 1.4 billion people do really love Hollywood movies. Especially when we focus on using our protected freedoms as filmmakers rather than catering to a communist regime.

To what extent and how has the industry’s ability to deliver that changed since you worked on Looper and Iron Man 3? Is that the reason why we rarely see Chinese bad guys in the movies anymore?

That’s an obvious thing to avoid, so we can do that in a premeditated way at early-script stage. But beyond that, let’s simply make good movies for the world to see. If we build them like Hollywood is capable, the Chinese will come. I’m certain of that!

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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