SCRIPT Act Aims at China, Hits America’s Film Industry
By Jon Decker
When weighing ones free market bona fides, few hold a candle to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX.) He even made waves during the 2016 presidential primary for floating a return to the gold standard — a position typically reserved for only the most ardent followers of supply-side economics.
That’s why it was somewhat surprising and disappointing to see his recent introduction of the SCRIPT Act in the U.S. Senate. The SCRIPT Act intends to break down China's censorship of American films, but in practice, its imports China’s own tactics – hurting our movie industry by denying US government cooperation with filmmakers if the Department of Commerce determines they made any changes to a film – no matter how trivial – to access the Chinese market.
That could greatly disrupt US filmmaking, which relies on government cooperation for a host of production needs. Whether it’s filming with drones, shooting on public lands, soliciting advice from the military to accurately portray our Armed Forces, and more – the SCRIPT Act would bar collaboration that benefits storytellers and our national interest alike.
Moreover, Cruz’s legislation is a solution in search of a problem. China is a huge market for films, to be sure, and will soon be the biggest theatrical market in the world. But it’s misleading to think that market potential empowers Chinese censors to dictate the content of American films in exchange for access. Why? Because only 34 foreign films that share revenue with local distributors are allowed into China per year. That means only about 5% of the over 700 films produced in the US are ever released in China.
Therefore, instead of making it harder for US creators to produce films here at home, lawmakers should focus their efforts on helping filmmakers access the Chinese marketplace on freer and fairer terms. This would help our economy since every time a person buys a ticket to see Star Wars in China, an American company (Disney) and their workers benefit. For this reason, we want people from every country watching more of our movies. After all, even modified versions have positive cultural and economic impacts versus the alternative of being locked out of the Chinese market.
We frequently accept less than ideal terms in international trade. But we don’t frequently punish our domestic industries for abiding by those terms and domestic laws and regulations. For instance, the United Kingdom currently “censors” America’s chicken over scientifically nonsensical concerns related to chlorine cleaning. One of the biggest obstacles holding up a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement is that England prohibits U.S. farmers from selling poultry in their country because they believe our chicken is unsafe due to farming practices commonly employed here in the U.S.
So, if American chicken farmers adopted chlorine-less cleaning practices in return for conditional access for the small fraction of chickens they sold in England, should we deny those farmers access to U.S. government resources and permit approvals (as the SCRIPT Act would)? Of course not. We should negotiate the best terms we can in international trade, but at the end of the day it's better to have U.S. products and services enjoy partial foreign access than none.
As it pertains to films, no one likes changing their movies to appease governments – particularly creators themselves. For instance, recently Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood refused to comply with the Chinese government’s alleged demand that a scene depicting Bruce Lee unfavorably – a national hero in China – be deleted. Taratino and the film’s distributor Sony Pictures refused. As reported by Indiewire:
“They absolutely backed me, 100%,” Tarantino recently told Deadline about Sony agreeing to skip China. “They were all disappointed, and so was I. Partly because we had Chinese co-producers and we wanted to do well by them. But there is a certain line you cannot cross. If it was just ‘Ok, Cliff slams Katie’s face into the fireplace four times…can we make it two times?’ Ok, I could do that. To actually remove an entire scene because the country finds that scene objectionable? No.”
Clearly the private sector should play the leading role in determining which content restrictions it can meet, and which are a bridge too far, in order to get a movie to market in China. The alternative would mean less great movies, less revenue for U.S. the US economy, and less American films in China — a great soft power resource that increases American influence in the world.
We all lose in that scenario. Although Senator Cruz has been a great free market champion, his latest bill is unfortunately off-script.