Disney Wanted to Make a Splash in China With ‘Mulan.’ It Stumbled Instead.

Companies as big as McKinsey and Disney can have equally big blind spots:

Executives at Walt Disney Studios were celebrating. “Mulan,” a $200 million live-action spectacle five years in the making, had arrived on Disney’s streaming service to strong reviews, with critics lauding its ravishing scenery and thrilling battle sequences.

The abundant controversies that had dogged “Mulan” over its gestation — false rumors that Disney was casting a white lead actress, calls for a boycott after its star expressed support for the Hong Kong police — had largely dissipated by Sept. 4, when the film arrived online. Success looked likely around the world, including the crucial market of China, where “Mulan” is set and where Disney hoped its release in theaters on Friday would advance the company’s hold on Chinese imaginations and wallets.

“In many ways, the movie is a love letter to China,” Niki Caro, the film’s director, had told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Then the credits rolled.

Almost as soon as the film arrived on Disney+, social media users noticed that, nine minutes into the film’s 10-minute end credits, the “Mulan” filmmakers had thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, the region in China where Uighur Muslims have been detained in mass internment camps.

Activists rushed out a new #BoycottMulan campaign, and Disney found itself the latest example of a global company stumbling as the United States and China increasingly clash over human rights, trade and security, even as their economies remain entwined.

Disney is one of the world’s savviest operators when it comes to China, having seamlessly opened Shanghai Disneyland in 2016, but it was caught flat-footed with “Mulan.” Top studio executives had not seen the Xinjiang credits, according to three people briefed on the matter, and no one involved with the production had warned that footage from the area was perhaps not a good idea.

The filmmakers may not have known what was happening there when they chose it as one of 20 locations in China to shoot scenery, but by the time a camera crew arrived in August 2018 the detention camps were all over the news. And all of this for what ended up being roughly a minute of background footage in a 1-hour-55-minute film.

Disney declined to comment.

Asked about the credits fiasco at a Bank of America conference on Thursday, Christine M. McCarthy, Disney’s chief financial officer, noted that it was common practice in Hollywood to credit government entities that allowed filming to take place. Although all scenes involving the primary cast were filmed in New Zealand, Disney shot scenery in China “to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography for this historic period drama,” Ms. McCarthy said.

“I would just leave it at that,” she said, before allowing that the credits had “generated a lot of issues for us.”

No overseas market is more important to Hollywood than China, which is poised to overtake the United States and Canada as the world’s No. 1 box office engine. Disney has even more at stake. The Chinese government co-owns the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort, which Disney executives have said is the company’s greatest opportunity since Walt Disney himself bought land in central Florida in the 1960s. Disney is also pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades at its money-losing Hong Kong Disneyland in hopes of creating a must-visit attraction for families.

Disney worked overtime to ensure that “Mulan” would appeal to Chinese audiences. It cast household names, including Liu Yifei in the title role and Donnie Yen as Mulan’s regiment leader. The filmmakers cut a kiss between Mulan and her love interest on the advice of a Chinese test audience. Disney also shared the script with Chinese officials (a not-uncommon practice in Hollywood) and heeded the advice of Chinese consultants, who told Disney not to focus on a specific Chinese dynasty

“If ‘Mulan’ doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” Alan F. Horn, co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, told The Hollywood Reporter last year.

The “Mulan” controversy underscores the dilemma companies face when trying to balance their core principles with access to the Chinese market. The Chinese government shut out the National Basketball Association last year after the general manager of the Houston Rockets shared an image on Twitter that was supportive of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The backlash cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. (After mounting pressure from American politicians to sever ties with a basketball academy in Xinjiang, the N.B.A. disclosed in July that it had already done so.)

Disney has long argued that its infractions are unfairly magnified because its brand provides a convenient punching bag. A lot of American companies had operations in Xinjiang in 2018, and some still source goods there.

Apologizing for the Xinjiang credits could anger China and threaten the release of future movies. China blocked the release of Disney’s animated “Mulan” for eight months in the late 1990s after the company backed Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” a film seen as sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. The animated “Mulan” bombed in China as a result.

“On one hand, Disney supports Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement and has been responsive to calls for inclusion by making a movie like ‘Mulan’ with an all-Asian cast and a female director,” said Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “On the other, it has to be very careful on the topic of human rights in China. That’s business, of course, but it’s also hypocritical, and it makes some people angry.”

The political realities have shifted drastically since 2015, when Disney started working on “Mulan.” As part of its escalating confrontation with the Chinese government, the Trump administration has started to attack Hollywood for pandering to the country. In July, Attorney General William P. Barr criticized studios for making changes to films like “Doctor Strange” (2016) and “World War Z” (2013) to avoid trouble with China.

The pressure is not coming just from conservatives. PEN America, the free-speech advocacy group, on Aug. 5 released a major report on Hollywood’s censoring itself to appease China.

“Hollywood was already in the election-year cross hairs,” said Chris Fenton, the author of “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the N.B.A. & American Business.” “This situation with ‘Mulan’ only makes it worse.”

At least 20 members of Congress have already written Disney to express outrage over the Xinjiang matter and demand more information.

It remains to be seen how “Mulan” will fare in China. The country’s 70,000 theaters have reopened, but most are still limiting capacity to 50 percent as a coronavirus precaution. Rampant piracy and chilly reviews could also cut into ticket sales.

On Friday, theaters in China were decked out with large posters of a fierce-looking Ms. Liu as Mulan, clad in a red robe and wielding a sword as her long black tresses billowed behind her. At one Beijing cinema, moviegoers were invited to test their archery skills.

By the end of the day, “Mulan” had taken in a humdrum $8 million. “The Lion King,” released last year, collected $13 million on its first day in China.

Detail-oriented Disney set out to make a movie that rang true to Chinese audiences in aspects big and small — much as the company approached Shanghai Disneyland. It infused the park with myriad Chinese elements and avoided classic Disney rides to circumvent cries of cultural imperialism.

“I had an army of Chinese advisers,” Ms. Caro, the film’s director, told the Xinhua News Agency. Many Chinese feel an intense ownership of the character of Mulan, having grown up learning about the 1,500-year-old “Ballad of Mulan” in school. The poem has been the source of inspiration for countless plays, poems and novels over the centuries.

In the quest to make a culturally authentic film — and to give “Mulan” sweep and scale — Disney sought to showcase the diverse scenery of China. In keeping with China’s rules on filming in the country, Disney teamed with a Chinese production company, which secured the necessary government permits. A crew filmed in the Xinjiang area for several days, including in the red sandstone Flaming Mountains near Turpan, said Sun Yu, a translator on the film.

“Usually when a lot of foreigners go to Xinjiang, officials there are pretty sensitive,” Ms. Sun said in an interview. “But actually our filming process went very smoothly because the local government was very supportive and understanding at the time.”

To find the perfect Mulan, Disney casting directors scoured the globe before choosing the Chinese-born Liu Yifei. To Disney, Ms. Liu was ideal: physically fit, a household name in China (for playing elegant maidens in martial arts dramas) and fluent in English, having spent part of her childhood in Queens.

Then, last summer, as tensions boiled in Hong Kong over the antigovernment protests, Ms. Liu reposted an image on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, expressing support for the police there.

The backlash was swift. Prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists quickly called for a boycott of the movie.

Mr. Horn told The Hollywood Reporter that her post had caught Disney by surprise. “We don’t wish to be political,” he said. “And to get dragged into a political discussion, I would argue, is sort of inherently unfair. We are not politicians.”

As Disney’s marketing campaign for “Mulan” ramped up this year, other contretemps surfaced. There were complaints about a lack of Asians among the core creative team; cries of sacrilege that Mushu, a wisecracking dragon in Disney’s animated version, had been jettisoned; and grumbles that this telling of the Mulan tale seemed to pander to Chinese nationalism.

The internet storms had mostly died down by the time “Mulan” arrived on Disney+ on Sept. 4. The credits changed that.

As many as one million Uighurs — a predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority — have been rounded up into mass detention centers in Xinjiang in what advocates of human rights have called the worst abuse in China in decades. The entities mentioned in the movie’s credits included a local police bureau that the Trump administration blacklisted last year from doing business with U.S. companies.

As the backlash over Xinjiang mounted, China ordered major media outlets to limit their coverage of “Mulan,” according to three people familiar with the matter.

Still, on Friday night, the Emperor Cinema in Beijing was set for a “Mulan” party.

Some moviegoers wore red, in homage to the title character, while others opted for a more traditional Chinese look: flowing robes and bejeweled hair accessories. After the screening, two traditional Chinese opera singers dressed in elaborate red-and-yellow costumes took the stage to perform an excerpt from a well-known Henan Opera rendition of “Mulan” called “Who Says Women Are Inferior to Men?”

The movie had already been playing in China, thanks to pirated versions on the internet. By Friday’s opening, there were more than 76,000 reviews on Douban, a popular Chinese review website. Most were tepid, averaging 4.7 out of 10 stars. (The 1998 animated version had 7.8 stars.)

In a review posted on Weibo, Luo Jin, a Chinese film critic who goes by the nom de plume Magasa, called the film “General Tso’s Chicken” — an Americanized take on Chinese culture.

“Some people are just going to be against these Hollywood takes on Chinese movies no matter how well made the movie might be,” Mr. Luo said in a phone interview. “For them, the thinking is like, ‘Who are you to appropriate our culture for your own benefit?’”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/business/media/disney-mulan-china.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Business

How Black Activists Changed Disney’s Mind About Princess Tiana’s Skin in ‘Wreck It Ralph 2’

Good example of positive activism and the receptivity to criticism, reflecting likely both openness as well as fears of a public backlash to the film:

This summer, Disney’s upcoming Wreck-It Ralph sequel created a good deal of buzz, thanks to a heavily teased princess sleepover scene. But while many fans went wild for the 2018 take on animated royalty, some were quick to point out that certain princesses were more noticeably “updated” than others. Princess Tiana, Disney’s first black princess, appeared to have had some work done. As The Root pointed out in August, “The newest iteration of Tiana seems to have traded in her dark skin and more African features for a seemingly more caramel hue and prototypical Pixar snub nose, complete with a mane of 3c curls.”

The internet didn’t take kindly to Disney tweaking Tiana’s appearance, underscoring that the shift toward more Eurocentric features and a lighter skin tone reinforced colorism and racist beauty standards. The racial justice organization Color of Change crystallized these sentiments in an online petition, writing that, “To re-create Princess Tiana with Eurocentric features sets a harmful precedent that Black features are considered less valuable than white features.”

“It is crucial that Princess Tiana remain the same as her original depiction,” the petition continued. “Disney must take responsibility for changing Tiana’s image and work to restore her to her original image.”

Rashad Robinson, the President of Color of Change, told The Daily Beast that the organization had been in the process of drafting an email to its over 1.4 million members when they first made contact with Disney. “We wanted to reach out to them first,” Robinson recalled. “We were very transparent on our end, by actually sharing with them the copy. We have well over a million members, and when we send out a petition like this, oftentimes news media will cover it before we even get a lot of signers, especially on an issue like this. We never had to send out that email.”

“We had that back and forth, and then on August 21 we had a phone meeting with Disney,” he explained. The group received a “verbal agreement” that changes would be made to restore Tiana to her original depiction. Next, they had a “series of text exchanges confirming the extensive changes that had been made,” and were invited to come to Burbank to walk through the alterations in person.

Color of Change’s campaigns span the government, technology, media, and culture sectors. As Robinson puts it, “We do everything from working on the written rules of policy to the unwritten rules of culture.” The Princess Tiana controversy was a natural fit for the organization, and an issue that members were extremely passionate about. “It wasn’t that I was sitting at home and saw the Wreck-It Ralph trailer,” Robinson joked. “It’s that people really reached out to us with this.”

“When Princess Tiana’s character came out, this princess who was from the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans, Louisiana, it was a character that we hadn’t seen before at that high level of a princess movie. And she represented the image that a lot of black girls could see in themselves, could see in their aunt or their cou sin or their mother. And then when the new representation was coming out, it just looked radically different, and the image of Tiana had become something that took away some of the features that made Tiana so unique in the first place for a Disney character. Doing that without a conversation felt, for us, deeply troubling.”

For Robinson, Disney’s willingness to re-draw Princess Tiana and reanimate portions of Ralph Breaks the Internet sends a strong statement—not just about Disney’s openness to critique, but about the community’s power to band together and effect real change. “I think Disney did the right thing here,” he told The Daily Beast. “Disney heard from the community, they recognized there was a problem, they sought to work with us as a racial justice organization, and they kept us informed. We wanted to let our people know that they spoke up and changes were made.”

He explained that, from the get-go, Disney “recognized that there was a problem, and they were willing to work on it… They explained various reasons for how the problem came about, but there did not seem to be any interest from them in saying that they just wanted to go forward, or hoping that we would be OK with that.” And, as Robinson pointed out, the redraw “certainly was not cheap.”

“Hollywood still has work to do,” Robinson stressed, noting that “this country had a black president before it had a black superhero.” Still, he continued, “I really want to celebrate the fact that this was not months of fighting with Disney. This was a conversation. If they didn’t make the changes, I would be here pushing hard at them for not doing that, but I think it’s important when folks do make the changes that you celebrate the fact that they were willing to listen, especially in this era when so often we are really closed off from listening, and from hearing concerns from communities that are not our own.”

Disney has been repeatedly criticized for whitewashing, from casting Johnny Depp as Tonto in 2013 to recently creating a new character just so they could cast a white person in Aladdin. The Ralph Breaks the Internet trailer actually set off multiple parallel controversies, with fans arguing that both Pocahontas and Mulan appeared to have lighter complexions and altered facial features. Asked how Disney was unable to recognize the potential pitfalls of Tiana’s redesign before unleashing it on the critical masses, Robinson replied, “I really can’t speak to it, but I’m assuming that Disney will be able to catch these in the future! I also hope that this opens up more space for black women and black folks who are animators to be in positions of power and positions of opportunity.”

On Instagram Anika Noni Rose, the voice of Tiana, shared that she also spoke with Disney about the Wreck-It Ralph alterations. “This summer new images were released where [Tiana] looked very different, with lighter skin and much sharper features,” Rose wrote. “My team and I immediately put in a call to the studio to talk about the visual changes.”

Through an in-person meeting, the actress explained, animators “explained how CGI animation did different things to the characters’ color tones in different light compared to hand drawn original characters, and I was able to express how important it is to the little girls (and let’s face it, grown women) who felt represented by her that her skin tone stay as rich as it had been, and that her nose continue to be the little round nose that [original animator Mark Henn] so beautifully rendered in the movie; the same nose on my very own face and on many other little brown faces around the world, that we so rarely get to see represented in fantasy.”

Rose concluded, “I also appreciate that this far into the process Disney had enough care and respect of all who love Princess Tiana and her legacy to spend the time and money to make the adjustments necessary.”

Source: How Black Activists Changed Disney’s Mind About Princess Tiana’s Skin in ‘Wreck It Ralph 2’