#OscarsSoRed: Who is giving blood money to Hollywood?

Hollywood has no qualms about accepting investment from prominent human rights abusers.

China, Saudi Arabia and Israel have major financial interests in Hollywood [File: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton]

Although over the past year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put some effort into addressing the traditional lack of diversity in its structures and film award selection, this year’s Oscars did not go by without controversy. While several wins by people of colour were widely celebrated, the awarding of the Oscar for Best Picture to the film, Green Book, caused much outrage among many racial justice activists for the problematic portrayal of its main black character.

Hollywood clearly still has a long way to go in combating racial and gender discrimination, but at least discussions are being held and some measures are being taken.

But another equally pernicious aspect of the US film industry has remained largely ignored: blood money. More than ever before, Hollywood appears to be addicted to funding from some of the most brutal regimes on earth, whether in the form of reaching into lucrative new markets, securing new investment streams, or developing creative content.

So as we keep the pressure up with #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s time to add #OscarsSoRed to the discussion.

Chinese money and censorship

In recent years, China has become a major player in Hollywood, both as a source of revenue for, and investment in, films. Before dropping significantly after Trump’s election, Chinese investment in Hollywood had reached several billion dollars. Indeed, as US box office attendance slipped to the lowest levels in decades, foreign attendance figures, with China leading the way, have never been better.

As Hollywood has come to depend on China as both a market and a source of investment, filmmakers and studios have increasingly not only tailored storylines to appeal to the Chinese government, but also engaged in direct self-censorship in terms of themes they will deal with.

Remember the accusations of whitewashing Asian characters when Marvel’s Dr Strange was released? Turns out Tilda Swinton was cast as the “Ancient One” not because she’s white but because in the comics, the character is Tibetan, an identity that, if retained, would have doomed the film’s potential release in the all-important Chinese market.

Do you know why you hardly see Richard Gere in major films anymore? In his view, it has everything to do with his long-term support for the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.

Self-censorship and crafting storylines to appeal to (or at least not upset) a government with deep pockets and a penchant for “soft power” is nothing new in Hollywood. But today, China has taken repression to a whole new level.

If two decades ago the New York Times was reporting that Chinese officials were allegedly flaying people alive, today the US media is documenting the horrors of a massive security campaign against the Muslim Uighur population of Xinjiang province, who are living in conditions that increasingly resemble a giant concentration camp, with levels of surveillance, imprisonment, “reeducation” and violence that have no parallel in the contemporary world.

As Hollywood tackles painful issues of racism and sexism at home, it does not make sense that it should turn a blind eye to efforts by one of its major financiers to erase the culture and religion of a whole ethnic group.

If today, Richard Gere can be blackballed by China at the height of his career, how much more direct censorship and direction will Hollywood accept in the stories it tells and the places it tells them at, as Chinese power grows? 

The ‘new Chinese’ of the Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia has become another major source of funding for Hollywood with much blood on its hands. Its financial capacity is smaller than China, but the potential negative impact is just as significant.

A year ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) engaged in what Forbes called his “prince charming” act in Hollywood, promising billions in investments and a lucrative undeveloped domestic market where cinemas had been banned until recently.

Ignoring the massive human rights violations, starvation and death Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen had inflicted on the Yemeni population, Hollywood insiders probably saw MBS and his entourage as a miraculous new source of “dumb money“. But the Saudi crown prince, like his Emirati neighbours, sees Hollywood as a major component of his own China-like campaign of highly controlled cultural opening that serves to reinforce rather than challenge the ruling elite’s hold on power.

Indeed, with Chinese investments in Hollywood at least temporarily down, the Saudis and their $230bn sovereign wealth fund, along with the UAE (which has already signed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deals with Hollywood companies) were being viewed as the “new Chinese”. That is, until Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder forced some of the film and talent companies like Endeavor to suspend agreements already in process with the kingdom. 

The fallout of the Khashoggi murder, however, is likely to be only a temporary setback for Saudi investments in Hollywood. Many companies, including theatre chains like AMC, chose to proceed with their Saudi deals. As the Committee to Protect Journalists has noted: “Everyone who had investments or relationships with Saudi Arabia knew their human rights record … and the war in Yemen … the treatment of women.” With hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue a year on offer, “privately” a large share of executives have “expressed hope that a mitigating explanation would emerge that would allow business to continue.”

And just a few months after the tragic death of the Saudi journalist, news reports about Netflix conceding to a Saudi censorship request demonstrated just how dangerous this newly involving financial relationship can be. Just like with China, Saudi Arabia’s investment is likely to translate into casting and scripts that seek to please the source of funding.

Israeli hasbara

If China and Saudi Arabia’s relationships with Hollywood have only recently emerged, Israel’s has far deeper roots and remains on the most secure footing, despite intensive efforts by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement to raise awareness about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Even if we allow for some exaggeration, the claim by the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jay Sanderson, that there is no “country that has a stronger relationship with Hollywood than Israel” is not wide of the mark. This is not just about the support for an overly represented pro-Israeli Jewish community in Hollywood or the role of Israelis in US film industry today, but also about how Israel itself has become a major source of talent onscreen and an important voice in programming.

As Moment magazine explained in a 2018 article, the development of Israel as a creative source for Hollywood was decades in the making and the product of intensive efforts by the government and the local Jewish community to develop the talent pool. With “master classes” and all-expense paid trips, these efforts helped Tel Aviv become a major incubator of the industry, leading to local original shows being adapted in the US (such as In Treatment, The Affair and Homeland).

Despite the fact that more actors and musicians are coming out in support of Palestinian rights and even BDS, the overall relationship between Israel and Hollywood remains incredibly strong.

The Israeli government has been investing significant efforts to ensure it stays that way, not just by fighting an all-out war against BDS, but also by promoting the development of local content and ideas that support stereotypical portrayals of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as terrorists and Israeli security and intelligence forces as wounded and heroic, if flawed, defenders of the Middle East’s “only democracy” (regularly “trending” Netflix shows like Fauda and Inside the Mossad are a good example of this phenomenon).

It seems Hollywood will continue to ignore Israeli crimes, even as the likes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promise to bring millions of new Jewish settlers to the occupied Palestinian Territories and engage with the openly genocidal far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

It will continue to ensure successful “hasbara” (propaganda) efforts by the Israeli government, turning Israel’s various wars into award-winning psychological self-examinations and even the “apartheid” wall into a prop in the zombie film, World War Z, (which the Times of Israel called the “greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel” since the 1960 film Exodus).

In his acceptance speech after winning Best Director for his film, Roma, Alfonso Cuaron declared that the job of artists is “to look where others don’t. This responsibility becomes much more important in times when we are being encouraged to look away.”

In reality, Hollywood’s financial and creative relationships with some of the most powerful forces in the entertainment universe (and here the outsized role of the US military in the shaping of Hollywood narratives is equally impossible to ignore) have created an environment where the very values that Oscar night is supposed to celebrate – unfettered creativity, insightful filmmaking, the building of bridges and the remembrance of the world’s “forgotten” peoples – can never be realised.

If Hollywood’s most creative and progressive stars are serious about changing this dynamic, they must start by refusing investments by governments engaged in massive human rights violations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.