EXCLUSIVE: Members of a House select committee on China met with Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger and later with a group of Hollywood filmmakers and executives Wednesday, amid concerns over industry business practices in engaging with Beijing.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), was joined by nine other members, including its ranking member, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL).
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According to a source close to the committee, the hourlong meeting “was constructive and it was candid.”
Gallagher expressed concerns around censorship, and Iger spoke about “the relationship with the Chinese Communist party and how it has changed,” among other topics, the source said.
Iger was joined by other Disney executives, and they spoke about how “their goal is not to change the stories,” the source said, adding that the executives conveyed how they tried to walk the line between cultural and political requests from Chinese censors. “They admitted it was a value judgment and don’t always get it right,” the source said, with the point made that sometimes the studio complies and sometimes it does not.
The private meeting was set up with Iger as lawmakers of both parties focus on China’s influence over American business and culture. Hollywood has been a target of members on Capitol Hill in recent years over some high-profile examples in which movies were edited, or their storylines changed, to appease Chinese censors.
In 2020, Gallagher was among the lawmakers who previously sent a letter to then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek over Mulan and concerns over Disney’s work with authorities in the Xinjiang, the region where Uyghur Muslims have held in detention camps. The U.S. has said the Chinese government has committed genocide against the ethnic population.
Gallagher raised the issue again at the meeting, the source said, and Iger talked of how measures have been put in place to make sure such a situation doesn’t happen again. Also discussed were the kinds of requests that the studio gets from Chinese film authorities.
Gallagher has said that he wanted Iger to testify on Capitol Hill at some point, but it is unclear whether that is still a possibility.
Disney’s global policy in countries where it operates is that “we seek to share our stories in their original form as we and the artists involved have created them. If we make edits because of legal or other considerations, they will be as narrow as possible. We will not make an edit where we believe it would impact the storytelling. In that circumstance, we will not distribute the content in that market.”
Disney has a large footprint in China beyond movie releases, including Shanghai Disneyland, which opened in 2016. The park is majority owned by Shanghai Shendi Group, with Disney having a 43% stake, according to corporate documents.
Other members at the meeting included Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-FL), Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-IA), Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI), Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI), Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA).
Later on Wednesday, five members of the House committee and 17 industry representatives met at Cecconi’s in West Hollywood for an off-the-record session in which Hollywood figures shared experiences of doing business in China. The group included filmmakers, executives and producers, as well as representatives from academia and industry associations, but the names of the attendees were not disclosed to allow for a more frank discussion.
Producer Chris Fenton, who has been serving as an unpaid adviser to the committee, said that the meeting touched on China’s film quotas, revenue sharing, tech swaps, forced edits, pre-meditated censorship and “things that go beyond the China border.”
Fenton said that the goal was to “make sure it was as wide a perspective on the situation as possible, and to make sure that the members got as full an education and an idea of the nuances and the pressures on everybody with respect to China.”
He added, “Overall, the idea was, ‘How do we unite on pushing back on things that have gotten out of control?”
In a recent op-ed, Fenton wrote that the industry, at the center of culture and commerce, should work with lawmakers so “our community can help keep those two vital bars of connection while helping to design policies and regulations we can live with as an industry.
“Without a healthy collaboration with Washington, I fear Hollywood will attempt to continue the status quo as China continues to impose its massive market leverage, forcing widespread industry compliance even as its domestic movie industry continues to rise, displacing American movies in theaters and smartphones,” he wrote.
The House group also was planning meetings with Silicon Valley executives on Thursday, and was scheduled to meet with Apple CEO Tim Cook on Friday.
The committee — named the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party — held its first meeting in February, and was unusual for the bipartisan focus on concerns over China’s influence.
In an appearance on Face the Nation in February, Gallagher told 60 Minutes, “I think we can have a productive conversation with companies that have substantial business interests in China, and we want to make sure that the power of the Chinese economy is not seducing certain companies into betraying American values.”
Lawmakers have criticized studios for self-censorship in the way that movies are edited as a way to gain entry into China. One incident that created an uproar was when the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick showed Tom Cruise’s character wearing a bomber jacket with two of the flag patches, for Taiwan and Japan, replaced with other symbols. The flags were restored when the film was finally released last year, albeit not in China.
When he was attorney general, William Barr cited reports that in the case of Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, filmmakers changed the nationality of a major character from a Tibetan monk to Celtic.
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