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Hollywood’s Great Leap Backward on Free Expression (theatlantic.com)
94 points by jseliger 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

>Why isn’t there a similar outcry about China’s mounting attack on the film industry, not just in Hong Kong but also in the United States? Over the years, the U.S. government has often praised and defended Hollywood films as a key component of American soft power—that is, as a story-telling medium that can, without engaging in blatant propaganda, convey American ideals, including free expression itself, to foreign populations around the world. But Hollywood has long since abandoned that role. Indeed, not since the end of World War II have the studios cooperated with Washington in furthering the nation’s ideals. Instead, the relationship today is purely commercial—on both sides. For example, Hollywood frequently enlists Washington’s help in fighting piracy and gaining access to foreign markets. But even while providing that help, Washington refrains from asking Hollywood to temper its more negative portrayals of American life, politics, and global intentions. (The exception is the Department of Defense, which insists on approving the script of every film produced with its assistance.)

Well, cry me a river.

For one, it's funny how the author mentions the "Department of Defense" as some small exception, whereas it's where the most blatant propaganda happens (in war and spy related blockbusters, touching foreign policy, US wars and meddling, the enemies du jour, etc).

Second, Washington doesn't have to temper with Hollywood's "more negative portrayals of American life, politics, and global intentions", because they are either "art house" films which few globally see and care about, or major films, which play into the national narratives and more often than not have "just some rotten apples/feel good" endings by design.

Third, the author seems fine to regard films "as a key component of American soft power" but is enraged if they wont be anymore (and cries about foreign influence preventing that)? How about films just being films/art, and not "soft power"?

The fact that the government doesn’t get to step in and insist on sanitized portrayals of American life is a huge part of why Hollywood has the soft power it does. Even the ratings system is technically opt-in and was set up by the studios to avoid a government ratings agency. (The MPAA has plenty of problems to be sure, but these days films can just be released unrated anyway.)

>The fact that the government doesn’t get to step in and insist on sanitized portrayals of American life is a huge part of why Hollywood has the soft power it does.

Well, as a European cinephile, I find the portrayals of American life in most Hollywood films (even the 'gritty' ones) so soapy and sanitized, that the government doesn't need to bother.

The last decades Hollywood movies with any real bite (the way, e.g. Dog Day Afternoon once had) are few and far between.

I'd say the "soft power" is more due to Hollywood being a kind of McDonalds for movie-goers, and the bigger budgets allowing no continued competition on this front from other parts of the world (whereas a European cop flick or western could compete visually with the average Hollywood one up until around the mid-late 70s).

Yup. If anything, it's quite interesting to see the Chinese film industry beat Hollywood at their own 'film as national narratives/ideals' ("in which heroic, righteous Chinese soldiers kick some serious ass, including cowardly, decadent American ass, in exotic foreign places that are clearly in need of Xi Jinping Thought") soft-power game. You'd expect that Hollywood would seek to respond by shifting towards the "artsy" direction, not away from it.

Hollywood doesn't care. The only ideology is "will this sell tickets." The most likely outcome is Hollywood will film patriotic block busters for both the US and China.

I can even see directors filming scenes twice then cutting the movie to present one viewpoint to China and a different take for the English-speaking audience.

This isn't hypothetical. There are international cuts of films already.

You are correct, but I think your prediction false. We need to remember that "Hollywood" is a specific set of entities. We're not talking about independent film producers. We're talking about the largest film publishers. And those film publishers are like publishers in any other creative endeavor - they have been almost completely eliminated in having any business reason to exist. While their empires were built upon solving the problem of distribution, that no longer has any value whatsoever. In fact, due to the ways they built their distribution networks, they are severely hampered in the ways in which they can actually do distribution compared to purely digital/online firms. Distribution, the golden goose that made them billions, is now a noose around their necks. Whereas once they funded new productions as a side hustle, something that was necessary just so they had something to distribute, their role as a source of money is now the only thing they have to offer that has any value.

Anyone can distribute a movie. A clever 12 year old who knows how CDNs work can set up global distribution in their spare time for fun. This is a problem. Being reduced to a source of funds in a creative business is almost guaranteed business death. In the past, total control over the distribution chain allowed movie publishers to manipulate things to be profitable. There is a very inconvenient fact that businesses in the creative space have to deal with (although they never admit it, not even to themselves) : the public response to any creative work is random. Truly and perfectly random. There is nothing you can do to improve your odds, they remain even. Sure it seems like there are things you can do to bend things in your favor, like use big-name stars, throw a lot of money at the project, etc. But run the numbers. It doesn't work. Not even a little. For every Titanic or Avatar you have a Waterworld or an Ishtar. The book 'A Drunkard's Walk' has a couple chapters about the creative fields, book publishing and movie publishing specifically, where they go through the research and the numbers. It's just random. The audience is different every time, so it makes sense that the end result is randomness in the theaters on opening weekend and right after publication.

So what do you do if you're a business who wants to make money, and your industry has changed from being this thing you could control and make profitable, kicking your failures aside as fast as possible and keeping your successes around for as long as possible, to being mostly a game of chance? You lean on the little control you still have, of course, and movie companies definitely do that in the theaters. Good luck catching a movie after opening weekend if not many people showed up that weekend. Maybe go see Avengers: Endgame for the third time? But that's pretty limited in how much it helps. It still hurts badly to drop $10 million filming a movie and then having to kick it to Bluray or streaming after 4 days in cinemas. What you do is play it as safe as humanly possible. You don't take any chances. You make sure the movies have big names, have big special effects, have big budgets, and you definitely don't do anything that would ever risk limiting your market whatsoever. You don't mention religion, you stay away from politics, you absolutely prostrate yourself at the feet of anyone and try to make the most broadly palatable thing you can based on aggressive focus-testing, analytics, etc. You go wholesale soulless. It's the only option, really. And it probably still won't work. It will probably still catch up to them eventually. Because you can't escape the numbers, and big chances even on the safest bets at the craps table is still gambling.

The creative work will continue to come from independent filmmakers, and their destiny is bright. Not billion-dollar Avengers: Endgame bright, but bright enough to keep yourself warm beside and make a living off of. No longer do they have to keep their fingers crossed and hope Weinstein buys the rights and puts it on a shelf somewhere to prevent it from competing against him in the box office. They can sell to Netflix or Amazon or Disney or just "publish" the thing themselves. And a niche market is fine and survivable.

While I broadly agree with your point, movie popularity is not random. Your own post contradicts this point:

> What you do is play it as safe as humanly possible. You don't take any chances.

How would it be possible to "play it safe" if movie popularity was random?

You make certain that even a 'failure' can break even, and make it so that a success gets milked for all its worth. While you can't increase the chances of a win, you can affect the payout, essentially.

I think it is important to recognize the bias in this article. It isn't until the end, that The Atlantic says, "This article is part of “The Speech Wars,” a project supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and the Fetzer Institute."

A quick search for Koch's influence on free speech will add light to their motivations. Here's a recent one: https://www.thenation.com/article/portland-speech-milo-antif...

And what was the bias that you recognized? I think attacking a piece as biased without explaining the view point that is missing is unproductive and lazy.

I don't really follow US media much. Is The Atlantic known to be a right-wing outlet?

I never considered them as such. I had previously put their writing in the same realm as The New Yorker or Harpers, maybe not quite that good. McCleans or der Speigel from other regions.

The Atlantic is on the left, and has a good reputation for factual and thoughtful reporting. I’d call them classically liberal.

I see the bias as support of free speech, an ideal once strongly held by both the left and right but waning lately. Koch’s are at heart libertarians so their funding of it isn’t unusual.

Meh. Despite what the article bemoans, DoD and CIA is still and will still be heavily involved in crafting "soft propaganda" narratives through Hollywood film.

Recent examples include "The Interview", in which State Department and CIA operatives made the film portray an assassination of Kim Jong Un and coordinate its dispersal in North Korea, and Zero Dark Thirty in which a story about indepedent actors in Libya protesting America's overthrow of its government by attacking its embassies and CIA annex on 9/11 became a "hero and rescue story".

Lots of leaked documents (SONY hacks, Wikileaks) contain modern (after WWII) discussions between US Gov and Hollywood execs about "crafting narratives" to help with US power projection and propaganda efforts. Always communicated as "lucrative partnerships" of course, because that's a mover for Hollywood execs.

Hollywood has a long history of antagonism towards free speech. Anyone who disagrees with the power brokers is liable to find themselves out of work.

Historical link below. For modern iterations, read what Tim Allen has to say. For even better material look at what Debra Messing has been saying recently.

Hollywood is decidedly anti-free speech.


This is because they are Pro-Money. The government (DoD, CIA, whatever) is a threat / stakeholder in that discussion, and they have to appease them in order to Get The Money.

But at the end of the day they're not doing it because they like the DoD, they're doing it for $$$.

The government of South Africa will not allow the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa. This has been on going for years.


This is non-sequitur at best. Americans aren't allowed to visit Cuba either. This has been going on for years and has nothing to do with the topic at hand.

It is a form of censorship. I didn't say Americans not being allowed to visit Cuba is right either. The question is always when will it actually affect your life. Having lived most of my life under and African dictator I can tell you that they never say anything "wrong". They defend the peace by jailing opposition leaders wanting to hold rallies. Keeping out pesky Western journalists is cloaked as exercising the rights of Africans to self regulate. Everything non-sequitur at best.

It's not censorship. Censorship would be South Africa removing writings of the Lama from libraries. South Africans still have access to his message, which, according to Penn & Teller is bullshit.

>These two films are also quite explicitly anti-American, which should be a clue to Hollywood veterans that their interests as Americans are not well aligned with those of Beijing.

I am not sure Hollywood veterans really care about their interests as Americans.

I've always found Hollywood to be ideologically mostly one-note, and a very disproportionate representation of US culture, as informed by its owners [1]. It was no bastion of free expression, even before China's influence.

[1] https://jasonbayz.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/demographics-of-t...

I imagine this comment was not intended to be openly anti-semitic, but it certainly reads that way. It comes off as the old "Jews control Hollywood and use it to spread their ideological propaganda" conspiracy theory. I would suggest you expand and clarify your point to avoid this hopefully accidental implication.

Huh, I think the blogpost parent links to at the time I'm writing this[1] is quite consistent with your reading. It's certainly hard to describe that implication as accidental. Quite sad!

[1] ("Demographics of the American Media Elite"; mentions "Jews" in the very first line of post content!)

I encourage you to correct any inaccuracies you find in the linked post.

Edit: I very deliberately linked to a specific post, and do not endorse, nor did I even bother to read, the site as a whole. If the best retort you can muster is attacks against the author, then may I assume that you dislike the author, but agree with the facts presented in that specific post?

I spent a few minutes skimming some of the blog posts on the page you linked and there are a few choice nuggets like this:

>For the last few years I’ve believed in, and written under my pseudonym about, hard racial differences in intelligence. I was quite sure that most or all of the gap between the measured IQ of Black and White Americans was genetic in origin, everything I observed seemed consistent with that, and I assumed it would eventually be proven scientifically.


>The American swing voter, overwhelming, sympathizes with Israel rather than with the Palestinians. Yet, he also doesn’t like to hear about Israel. Why? He knows why American politicians talk about Israel. Hearing about it reminds him of his impotence in the face of the Jewish lobby he knows about but whose existence he can’t even acknowledge. This is true whether his is a white nationalist, an American nationalist, or simply a voter who asks “which candidate cares about me?”

That is just old fashioned white supremacy and anti-semitism. If you don't agree with those principles, I highly suggest linking to some other source. If you do agree with them, I'll be polite and kindly ask that you don't spout those ideologies on a site like HN.

> That is just old fashioned white supremacy and anti-semitism.

I will concede the anti-semitism point. But the opinion on IQ is consistent with mainstream psychology [1] - it is, to the best of our knowledge, accurate. Of course you did not label the claim false, merely 'white supremacy'. Furthermore, the poster whatshisface made the claim that Jewish people have higher average IQ [2]. Do you believe he, and Jordan Peterson (who he sources for that claim), are Jewish supremacists for holding that position?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability_of_IQ

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20978083

I'm not going to debate the scientific justifications for white supremacy. You have yet to even make a halfhearted denial of these bigoted ideologies and therefore the benefit of the doubt that I had afforded you multiple times has worn out.

Labeling factual statements (well sourced, from mainstream publications) as "justifications for white supremacy" is nothing but a convenient way to avoid having to dispute them.

You accused me of white supremacy, of "spouting those ideologies", based only on dislike for the other writings of the author of the post I used as source, which I explicitly did not endorse. This is a post whose accuracy no-one has bothered to dispute. If defending the accuracy of my statements is unacceptable, then what kind of debate did you have in mind?

Did you hope I would just fall to my knees and beg forgiveness?

> You have yet to even make a halfhearted denial of these bigoted ideologies

I edited my earlier post. In case you missed it: "I very deliberately linked to a specific post, and do not endorse, nor did I even bother to read, the site as a whole." I consider this denouncement a charity - I do not owe it any more than I would owe denouncing eugenics for invoking evolution, or owe denouncing Soviet purges and the Holodomor for advocating for unions and welfare. I will not ignore facts just because bigots repeat them.

Your initial comment was just parroting the anti-semitic trope that the Jews control the media and use it as propaganda. Your source for that claim was a blog that you admit professes anti-semitic ideas. I didn't expect you to "fall to [your] knees" but anyone who isn't anti-semitic would probably be uncomfortable with how that looks and maybe try to explain how their comments weren't anti-semitic. You didn't do that. Your only defense seems to be that your and/or your sources apparent bigotry is based on facts. These is no way to have a legitimately debate against bigoted ideas like that which is why I am not trying to dispute whatever you are specifically citing.

deogeo 30 days ago [flagged]

> I didn't expect you to "fall to [your] knees"

Your entire post is a long complaint that I did not display enough contrition when citing uncomfortable facts. Not fringe facts - mainstream media/science acknowledged facts, that you refuse to engage with, and in the next breath complain that

> These is no way to have a legitimately debate against bigoted ideas like that

Where your only evidence for my bigoted ideas is that I cite facts you are sure only a bigot would cite. As a final note, ponder this: You accused me of white supremacism based on my belief in the heritability of IQ. But both East-Asians and Ashkenazi Jews score higher, on average, than whites. So shouldn't you have accused me of being a Jewish and/or Asian supremacist?

>Your entire post is a long complaint that I did not display enough contrition when citing uncomfortable facts. Not fringe facts - mainstream media/science acknowledged facts..

Your initial comment implied "Jews control the media and use it to push their propaganda". Do you believe that is an uncomfortable fact backed up by the mainstream media and science? I gave you the benefit of the doubt originally and assumed that implication was accidentally. You have had multiple opportunities to say that the implication was not intended and yet you seem to be unwavering in support of that implication. My complaint is that you are showing no contrition in stating this clearly anti-semitic idea.

Please don't feed this sort of tedious ideological flamewar on HN. If a comment is egregious, the guidelines ask you to flag it and move on.


Please don't do this sort of tedious ideological flamewar on HN. It's off topic here.


> Of course you did not label the claim false

Those claims are clearly contradicted by mainstream science on IQ and are flat out false.

Second paragraph of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability_of_IQ: "The heritability of IQ for adults is between 57% and 73% with some more-recent estimates as high as 80% and 86%."

Yes, I am aware. That at a minimum provides no evidence for a "hard racial disparity in intelligence" and arguably show that such a hard disparity is impossible. It also provides evidence against "SAT score differences due to race are wholely explained by genetics" claim.

Please learn how science and statistics works before using them to spread hate.

Evidence that IQ is mostly inherited, is evidence against it being explained by population genetics? Please explain how.

Evidence that a significant portion (even 20% is pretty significant) of intelligence is not determined by genetics is evidence against any strong disparity based on race (as any non genetic basis weakens that claim). It is strong evidence against genetics being the entire reason for test score differences.

Finally, a genetic basis for intelligence provides no evidence about genomic differences between ethnicities.

You have thus consistently failed to provide any actual evidence for your racist assertions and have failed to even understand the implications of the evidence you have tried to provide.

So please stop using your ignorance to spread hate.

You are poisoning the well. The fact that the author has an agenda doesn't mean that the blog post that was linked is inaccurate.

> The fact that the author has an agenda doesn't mean that the blog post that was linked is inaccurate.

What it means, for someone reading the comments here but has not yet followed the link, is that it’s not even worth my time to read it and try to separate the racist tripe from any valuable content. I’ve got plenty of other things to read without wading through garbage.

In other words: you’re right that the well is poisoned, but the author poisoned their own well, and I’m not going to waste my time by drinking it.

Nah, I'm not going to do that. Heck, why should I even care whether that post is accurate? Either way, it's just a bunch of manufactured divisiveness; a pointless distraction from far more real issues. Including the weird old-boy-networks in literally almost every other industry (tech being perhaps the one major exception) that you do not hear or read about, because no one can point to divisive demographics.

I have heard two stories told to explain this. One is, it used to be that acting and movie-making was considered a "low" thing to do, so a marginalized but white-looking minority got pushed in to doing it. Hollywood was low-status so long ago that there's no way the ethnic bias could still be around so I don't believe that theory.

The other one is that Jews have a high IQ average, so you find them in important positions more than you would otherwise. I used to think that was a fringe internet blog theory, but apparently the mainstream pop psychologist Jordan Peterson professes it: https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/psychology/on-the-so-called-...

Jewish people get more Nobel prizes, have higher SAT scores, and are overrepresented in so many things that the average IQ theory seems like the most reasonable explanation. This comes with the mandatory disclaimer that the variations between individual people are much larger than the differences between ethnic averages: making it useful for sociology on a mass scale but useless for understanding any individual person.

Explaining the success of other groups by invoking racial superiority is rarely received well. Usually 'privilege' is blamed instead.

> It comes off as the old "Jews control Hollywood and use it to spread their ideological propaganda" conspiracy theory.

Thoroughly debunked here: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-dec-19-oe-stein...

Disproportinate representation of US culture? Which culture do you think should be represented in Hollywood?

I think what OP is saying is that Hollywood isn't a great representative of U.S. culture as a whole. It is a bit of an exclusive club and it's dominated by a certain ideology.

Don't leave us hanging killer, what is that ideology?

From where I sit it's mostly a lowest-common-denominator approach that's designed to be inoffensive, appeal to the broadest culture possible, and sell the most tickets.

Sorry, I didn't mean to say that US culture is too prominent in Hollywood movies, but that the US culture itself is greatly skewed by the lens of Hollywood. There are exceptions, but it usually hammers on a handful of themes, and rarely allows stories that run counter to its sensibilities.

For example, in the recent Welcome to Marwen film, the attackers are all white, and one has a neo-Nazi tattoo. In the real incident the movie was based on, one of the attackers was black, and none had neo-Nazi tattoos.

A second example is the invented racist fix in a boxing match, where, again, the white boxer is shown as unfairly being selected as the winner of the match, despite incompetent compared to the black boxer. But in the real fight, most everyone, including the black boxer, agrees the match and outcome was fair: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hurricane_(1999_film)#Laws...

In the case of historical movies, this bias is easy to spot (except when it comes to the selection of which parts of history to show). But in fictional stories, it's harder to complain, yet the narrative pushing is just as strong.

Entertainment media narratives are mostly interesting when they are done for reasons outside of maximizing sales. You certainly can't blame someone for making up plots with just any old nonsense as long as the butts fill up the seats.

I wonder if the writers of penny dreadfuls ever tried to 'improve' the public in some way. There's probably a sociology paper in looking at older pulp fiction or movies made via the old mass-production system to see if they are aimed in different ways than modern ones.

Back in the 90's you used to see famous actors walking around with shirts that said "Free Tibet", but you never see them anymore, could that be because China is now heavily invested in Hollywood? Come to think of it I haven't seen a single actor talk about Hong Kong.

Brad Pitt was banned from China for nearly 20 years for the film “7 Years in Tibet”. That wasn’t a career ending occurrence in the 90s, but I’d venture that it would be today.

And what is still happening in Tibet is sad, and the internet is full of angry atheists who have somehow been taught Tibet was a theocracy where monks held absolute authority and because religion is bad, China must be right.

It's a little bit more complicated than that.


>could that be because China is now heavily invested in Hollywood?

I don't know man?

I mean, right or wrong, it's obviously because they want to sell their movies and merchandise in China. The level of Chinese investment in the Fast and Furious franchise could be billions. It could be zero. (Probably is zero.) But that's irrelevant to whether or not the people who make those movies want to get that Chinese box office money. They want that money anyway, so they go out of their way to stay in good standing in China.

Should famous actors be willing to forego getting any money from the Chinese market to support whatever cause? Well, if they believe in the cause, then yes. But what we're discovering is that most people and companies don't actually believe in these causes, they were just supporting those causes to be chic, or popular. Like most everyone else in America, and the world for that matter, what they really believe in, is money.

Which, given behaviors observed repeatedly in American and world history, shouldn't really come as any big surprise I suppose.

You used up so many words to say Chinese money influences actor's politics. It's that simple.

Part of that is how successful their colonization of Tibet has been ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lhasa_(prefecture-level_city)#... ), Han chinese making up 35% of the population as of 2000, other more modern estimates put it a ~66%.

It's a lot harder to make the case for independence when there is a large Chinese minority, even harder if it becomes a majority.

> If The Great Wall had turned out to be the massive hit everyone was expecting, this process might have continued. But The Great Wall was not a hit. It was a massive flop—in China, America, and everywhere else.

OK, I don't go the the movies a lot [1] so am generally unaware of much of what is in theaters, but I do watch a lot of TV live (as opposed to on DVR) on channels that have ads and on which studios run lots of ads for the movies that they expect to be big, so I'm usually aware of what is opening that the studios are expecting to be big.

I don't recall ever hearing anything about this movie before reading that article. Was there something anemic about their advertising in the US? Or were the ads just so forgettable that I did see them but completely ignored or forgot them?

[1] My complete movie theater history for the last 20 years: American Beauty, Gladiator, second two Matrix movies, the three Lord of the Rings movies, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Wild Wild West (by accident...was trying for Star Wars and went into the wrong theater), How to Train Your Dragon 2, How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World, and Avengers: Endgame.

They probably didn't want to waste ad money on a movie they knew was gonna flop. The money they expected to make with this wasn't from sales at the box office, but rather from financial contributions from China.

Same thing happens in real estate. Americans work with Chinese investors on a real estate deal. Buy lots of land. Promise to build lots of houses. Pay themselves 6 or 7 figures per year to work on the project. Ultimately, however, nothing sells. Few or no homes are built and the Chinese investors are left with nothing, while the Americans putting the deal together are millions richer for it.

> I don't recall ever hearing anything about this movie before reading that article

I watch a lot of movies and I heard about this movie all the time. There was a trailer for it in every pre movie trailer showing.

I saw an ad but it truthfully looked pretty lame.

It is rich of the Atlantic to advance a basically sinophobic point of view sponsored by the Koch foundation.

However we should not feel schadenfreude or spite about the bankrupting of American cultural industries, certainly when newsmagazines like the Atlantic are suffering so much more than Hollywood, a growing enterprise. I don’t necessarily believe that selling out your hard-earned editorial brand to a conservative think tank is a much greater betrayal to Americans than removing a flag on someone’s fucking jacket that you only heard about through Reddit for a market you don’t even live in, because both are bad in their own way. One is a complete disregard for the sanctity of your own work, and another is shitting on a movie you’re not even going to watch.

I also like that the articles concern seems to be less that Hollywood is losing its freedom to the Chinese and the fact that the US govt doesn’t exert the same pressure on Hollywood (with the major caveat of the DoD, which sounds like one of those “other than that, how was the play, Mrs Lincoln” statements).

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