A bipartisan group of lawmakers met with Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger, as well as other filmmakers and executives, this week to discuss the escalating tensions between the U.S. and China over intellectual property and trade issues.
We reported on the planned meeting a few days ago. The delegation of ten lawmakers was led by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.
A source told Deadline that the meeting “was constructive and it was candid.”
Gallagher reportedly expressed concerns about censorship and Iger spoke about “the relationship with the Chinese Communist party and how it has changed” and other topics.
Other Disney executives with Iger spoke about how “their goal is not to change the stories.”
“They admitted it was a value judgment and don’t always get it right,” the source said, pointing out that sometimes Disney complies with China’s censorship requests and sometimes they do not.
In 2020, Gallagher and other lawmakers sent a letter to then-CEO Bob Chapek about the live-action “Mulan” and Disney’s work with authorities in the Xinjiang region, where Uyghur Muslims have been held in detention camps. Gallagher brought up this issue again at the meeting and Iger said measures have been put in place to make sure such a situation doesn’t happen again.
The meeting also covered the kinds of requests that Disney gets from Chinese film authorities. In the past, Disney has edited things such as overt references to LGBTQIA+ identities out of movies for release in China and other foreign countries, but they have more recently refused to do so, such as with Pixar’s “Lightyear.”
This is Disney’s global policy regarding edits: “In countries where we operate, 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 and China
In the past, Disney has had a strong presence in the Chinese film market, which restricts many foreign films from being shown in China. Studios have attempted to appeal to China by avoiding the use of Chinese villains. Many studios have also edited their films for the Chinese market with racy or subversive content, with Disney getting many of its films on the distribution list.
In a 2020 speech, former United States Attorney General William Barr accused The Walt Disney Company of “kowtowing” to China. “Walt Disney would be disheartened to see how the company he founded deals with the foreign dictatorships of our day,” critiqued Barr.
Gallagher has also been critical of Disney’s relationship with China in the past. “We want to make sure that the power of the Chinese economy is not seducing certain companies into betraying American values,” Gallagher said during a recent interview on “Face the Nation”.
A recently passed defense bill goes so far as to restrict the U.S. government from spending money on movies that are altered specifically to appeal to the Chinese government. A legislative aide representing the House Select Committee has shared with Axios that this week’s private meeting with Iger and other executives is meant solely for constructive dialogue. The aide saw the meetings as a rallying effort to gather ideas from the various leaders on how best to compete with China.
Outside of the United States, Chinese box offices brought in more money for Disney films than the next six countries combined in 2019. The impressive figures have been on the decline, however, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of popular Disney exports, including all four Marvel films released in 2021, were blocked from being released in Chinese movie theaters.
The group of lawmakers is also scheduled to meet with a group of Silicon Valley leaders on Thursday, including Microsoft President Brad Smith. The tour is expected to wrap up on Friday with a private meeting between the committee and Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple.
Meanwhile, China has reopened its borders to foreign tourists, allowing American guests the chance to visit Shanghai Disneyland for the first time since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.