Chris Fenton: Inside Hollywood’s Thorny China Problem

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China is the largest movie market in the world. And huge profits are at stake for those that don’t toe the line of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). John Cena recently drew the ire of the regime when he called Taiwan a country while promoting the latest “Fast and Furious” film. He publicly apologized.

Concerns are also growing that Marvel’s upcoming “Eternals” movie might not get a China release because its Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao has previously made comments critical of the Chinese regime.

In this episode, we sit down with Chris Fenton, a longtime Hollywood executive and film producer, who played a key role in getting Iron Man 3 screened in Beijing’s Forbidden City. After a change of heart later in life, he authored the book, “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA and American Business.”

Below is a rush transcript of this American Thought Leaders episode from June 29, 2021. This transcript may not be in its final form and may be updated. 

Jan Jekielek: Chris Fenton, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Chris Fenton: Absolutely a pleasure for me. I’m always humbled and honored to be a part of this.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s been about a year since we talked last, and the world has changed a bit since we did that. Of course, you’ve been a producer in Hollywood for years. Are we going to see a big budget Hollywood film about what increasingly looks like the conspiracy against the Wuhan lab leak theory?

Mr. Fenton: The quick answer to that is no. I was about to say, “Well, yeah, wasn’t that King Kong vs Godzilla.” But no. Right now we have to figure out what exactly happened, right? So that it doesn’t happen again. And as we’re finding, just simply even having a discussion about what happened in Wuhan, where the pandemic originally started, how we can prevent something like that happening again. Not just as Americans, but as the global community. We can’t even talk about it without it becoming politicized.

So the idea of Hollywood actually diving into it and making Transformers 10 the source of COVID is very far-fetched and probably never going to happen. But in the most constructive manner, I would like to see us at least be able to talk about this openly and make it more of a red and blue discussion so that this doesn’t happen again. Because what happened over the last year and a half is something that was beyond tragic and something that we as a world need to stop from ever occurring again, at least during any of our lifetimes,

Mr. Jekielek: Do you think that if it turns out that it was a Wuhan lab leak. I don’t know if it’s even possible to get smoking gun evidence on this at this point. If it did turn out to be, do you think the Chinese Communist Party would ever admit to it?

Mr. Fenton: I don’t think so. And by the way, if any of your audience is interested in really diving into a deeply, I highly recommend Josh Rogin’s book Chaos Under Heaven. I think he portrayed the politicization of how things transpired over the last year and a half and how dusty and muddied the conversation got in regards to figuring out where the source of this terrible pandemic came from. And the amount of coverup that was occurring on both sides of the Pacific.

But the Chinese Communist Party has the most to lose in this one. And they have not only the audience of the globe watching,, but they also have 1.4 billion people that they oversee watching and monitoring their competence in something like this. So the answer to that question is we’ll never know for sure.

Mr. Jekielek: So let’s jump to Hollywood, kind of your area of expertise clearly. What is the state of Hollywood’s engagement with respect to the Chinese regime and frankly China, market in China today versus a year ago when we spoke last week?

Mr. Fenton: Well, it’s a fantastic question because in the last 400 days since we were last talking about this subject, so much has changed in Hollywood. Not only here in the United States where we’ve seen massive disruption occur just from the technology sector encroaching into traditional media space. But then the COVID outbreak created all kinds of consumer habit changes.

But then, that is combined with what’s been going on in China. And since we last spoke, in China, we’ve seen the China market come back alive theatrically. And they’ve been using and showcasing best in class Chinese productions. Productions that have used the capabilities and the technology that we have shared with them, the expertise we’ve shared with them, and the exchanges that we’ve done with them over the past 15 years to bring them up to speed so that they can be a world-class industry themselves.

And the deal we made with them was if we did that, they would open their market more and more to our movies. And if you flash back to 2011, we had roughly 80% of every dollar that came in was a Hollywood movie working in that market. In 2019-

Mr. Jekielek: Wait, let me get this. 80% of what exactly, just to be clear?

Mr. Fenton: So if you look at the total box office that was occurring on a week to week basis.

Mr. Jekielek: Like Hollywood overall?

Mr. Fenton: Hollywood overall was doing roughly anywhere from 60 to 90% of the box office there. In fact, it got so bad, that the Chinese government said, “We’re going to tax extra theaters, cineplexes, that were doing more than 50% of their revenue from foreign titles.” So there was a big push to essentially, even if Hollywood movies were doing well, to take ticket sales from those Hollywood movies and apply them to local language movies so they wouldn’t be overtaxed.

Those types of protectionist policies were done in various different ways. And then on top of it, Hollywood engaged in this skill set exchange, the technology exchange, the storytelling expertise that we knew so well, we were teaching them.

And we were doing that on movies that I was involved with, whether it was Loop, or Ironman 3, or movies like The Meg, or movies like The Great Wall with Matt Damon. These were all big budget Hollywood movies that were required to utilize Chinese people to make those side-by-side with the best in the world, the Hollywood below the line crews. And as they did that, they got very good at making their own movies.

We cut to today, instead of that 60 to 95% threshold of market share, in 2019, we dropped to 32%. Last year during a COVID year, it was 16%. This year, it’s debatable where it’s going to end up being. But I would argue it might be around 16% again. Because I look at February where the box office in China alone made $1 billion U.S., yet Hollywood only contributed $18 million of that. Think about that for a second.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, I mean fascinating, and makes me think of the situation in a number of other industries.

Mr. Fenton: Exactly. And if you think about it, Hollywood’s a very high profile business. A lot of people pay attention to it. So it’s pretty shocking to see those numbers and to see the decrease in market share occur as we teach them the best in class skillset that allows them to do it themselves. We’ve essentially created Hollywood’s greatest competitors.

Well now, the canary in the coal mine, which is Hollywood, is being repeated in every other industry. Whether you look at Boeing and Airbus, who by the way have just decided to sort of end their trade war and their subsidy battle that was going on between the European Union and the U.S., mainly because China has their own commercial airliner that’s going to compete with their 737 Boeings.

And Airbus, I think it’s the 319. Suddenly they’re coming online with their own version of a plane. And quite frankly, that plane looks a lot like if you took Boeing and Airbus and mated them, what would the baby look like? It looks like that China plane.

Mr. Jekielek: What are you suggesting exactly, Chris?

Mr. Fenton: I’m suggesting that everybody needs to wake up to the fact that the way we’ve engaged with China over the last 40 years was a great game of chess, a long-term game of chess that the Chinese Communist Party had been playing. They knew that we wanted to get our products and services into that market, no matter what the cost.

Because we thought it would create aspirational qualities that would translate to the Chinese consumer and maybe even the Chinese government to want to become more like us, more like a democracy. And at the same time, we’d create revenues for these companies. We also grow GDP and create jobs in the United States of America.

A lot of that stuff hasn’t happened, but we have created good revenues, a good sugar high for all these publicly traded global companies, these big private companies that are global. Great sugar highs. With revenues, profits, all showcasing how big a market China is.

But over that period in order to get access to that market, they’ve been learning how we do it, and they’ve been creating competitors. So with all that market share we gained, we’re now seeing it retreat.

And eventually if China 2025 actually comes to fruition, which is something that they’re driving towards, they can internalize all of those industries, all those companies, so that they’re Chinese and they cater directly to the Chinese consumer. Which would mean all those foreign companies that had done all that hard work to get into that market are suddenly left out.

Mr. Jekielek: So let’s jump to Hollywood just for a moment here. So how is Hollywood reacting to this, I guess?

Mr. Fenton: Well right now, Hollywood is reacting in the way that it always has. And I’m not calling out Hollywood on reacting that way. And that way is putting the head in the sand, being crickets about it, not talking about it. Because what happens if you do talk about it, is the Chinese Communist Party retaliates.

And we’ve seen it. Just since we last met, we saw it with Mulan, the Disney movie, where some Xinjiang Province officials were thanked in the closing credits. That PR problem became a global PR problem. Chinese Communist Party essentially slowed down the box office receipts of that movie, stopped the promotion and marketing of the film in China, and even took away expansion rights to the Hong Kong theme park from Disney, all because of that small PR issue that could have been abated by Disney simply coming out and saying here in the United States, “We don’t condone what’s happening in the Xinjiang Province. And we apologize for thanking those government officials.” They could have firewalled that in China, and the geopolitical tempest in a teapot, which expanded into something much bigger than that could have been contained and wouldn’t have embarrassed the Chinese Communist Party or Disney.

But instead, the Chinese Communist Party knew that Disney would keep it quiet. And critics and government officials, journalists, citizens in the United States all pounced on that and created it into a big issue. We saw not very long after Chloe Zhao, who is the director of Nomadland, somebody who created a fantastic piece of cinematic art in that movie. I loved it.

And in fact, a movie that showcase is probably not the best part of being American. But Chloe Zhao does not live in China. She did not do the Yao Ming, which was go put yourself on the global stage, become the best in the world at something, get the accolades at the highest level, and then go back to the Homeland.

She lives in Ojai, California, Chinese Communist Party is not super excited about that. So they retaliate not only by not allowing Nomadland to air or to be shown in China. But then on top of it, Disney’s wondering are they going to be able to release the Eternals? Which is a big Marvel movie, which if you look at the last Marvel movie, Avengers made almost $700 million just in the China market.

That’s a big play for Disney. And if that’s a retaliation that affects Disney at that level, which will eventually affect the Marvel IP across the board and affect their theme park, you realize the ramifications of coming out and talking about something that’s critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr. Jekielek: I mean you’re describing $700 million on a film. I mean, you can’t predict how much, but that is an astronomical amount of money. That’s a massive amount of leverage that the Chinese regime can basically use like that to influence some of the biggest corporations in the world.

Mr. Fenton: It’s 100% the case. And we saw that with the NBA. Daryl Morey tweeting out his support for the Hong Kong protesters. That was immediately retaliated against by the Chinese Communist Party. NBA was taken off of the CCTV networks. All the merchandise was removed from store shelves. And the amount of money that was lost by the NBA in that market was massive.

And it was a huge punishment that was put on the NBA simply for seven words that Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets tweeted out here. Well actually, in the Western world. I believe he was in Japan at the time.

But it shows the amount of leverage and the amount of dependence our industries and our businesses have on China revenues, on China profits, and on the China growth story that they have to tell their shareholders and have to tell their investors. And that’s something where if I call out Disney for not doing the right thing, I have to remember why Disney didn’t do the right thing.

Because that’s the cold. The symptom is the C-suite not coming out and saying what we want them to say. The cold is why they don’t. Why they don’t, is the pressure that investors and shareholders are putting on these companies and industries. And that’s where we need to help.

We need to figure out how to make capitalism come after patriotic duties. The ability to create a strong foundation of a nation that allows free market capitalism to thrive. And if we continue to let it deteriorate, our form of capitalism is going to be more like the Chinese Communist Party’s form of capitalism.

Mr. Jekielek: What industry that has market share in China could possibly not be subject to the type of leverage you’re describing?

Mr. Fenton: Well, one of the plus sides of Hollywood losing its grip on the Chinese consumer, right? And keep in mind that has to do with copycats or imitators doing it as well as we do. But it also has to do with consumer sentiment turning on American products and services simply because of the tension between the two countries.

So one of the plus sides, the silver linings is that the more we lose that market, at least in the Hollywood space, the less leverage the Chinese Communist Party has on Hollywood. So it will be interesting to see where that red line occurs. Where suddenly, the upside of China isn’t enough for Hollywood.

Keep in mind, Hollywood is the pillar of free speech. The pillar of freedom, of creativity, and expression. If our industry can’t speak up, then no industry is going to speak up. But if our industry can speak up, it’s very high profile and it could create a lead by example scenario.

So I am curious to see if that red line gets crossed at some point. And keep in mind while that red line in China is occurring, we’re also seeing Washington DC wake up to what’s going on between the U.S. and China and where the imbalance is and the unfairness is.

And then on top of it, we see journalists picking up on it, both on the right and the left, which is key. Because the last time I saw you, it was all just on the right. And then we’re also seeing consumers start to notice. And when consumers notice in the Western world what these companies are doing to engage with China and get their products and services into China that aren’t following the rights, and the values, and the principles, and the things that we hold dearly. Consumers in the West will retaliate.

So you’ll have that combo of losing market share in China and losing market share in the West. And then the question is where will businesses take their priorities? And my guess is they’re going to stick with the West. But when does that happen?

Mr. Jekielek: Well this is really interesting because I don’t think that Hollywood has at the moment, the best reputation among being this pillar free speech that one would hope it should be, right? Both domestically and in the international market. So it’s a whole nother discussion perhaps.

Mr. Fenton: Well, and I’m not going to argue with that either. It’s my community, and I agree. There’s a lot of hypocrisy. A lot.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve talked a little bit offline about the Beijing Olympics. We know that genocide is documented to be happening in Xinjiang, close to that level of crimes against humanity against multiple groups in China. But the Olympics seem to be going full speed ahead from everything we know.

There’s calls for a boycott, “How could we possibly participate?” Many people are saying. And then there’s other people that are saying, “Hey, don’t ruin it for the athletes.” There’s many, many perspectives. You’re seeing it as a kind of a point of leverage of sorts. And I’m very curious for you to tell me about how you see this as a possibility.

Mr. Fenton: Well, it’s a great question because no one’s asking that question. And I think about 2008, and the company I worked for was heavy in the advertising and marketing business. And in particular involved in the sports business. We worked with the CBA, which was the Chinese version of the NBA and the NBA China.

And we knew the importance of the 2008 Olympics. Because at that time if you think about it, China was this economic, it was a fledgling economic powerhouse. They were coming out of their pre-teen years in capitalism or in capitalism with communist characteristics, or however you want to describe it. And they wanted on a world stage to pull off the perfect coming of age party. And they wanted perfect attendance, and they wanted it to go off flawlessly. And they pulled it off. It worked.

And I think about even leading into those Olympics, like from 2006 to 2008, it was almost as if a lot of stuff got shut down, or halted, or put on hiatus until that Olympics came. And it went perfectly. And then everything started up again. Because it was like, “Okay, that’s behind us. Let’s move on to the next.”

I think about the same thing with the Beijing 2022 games, which obviously are winter Olympics. But China’s already been through their pre-teen, teen years, early adulthood. And now they’re fully in their adulthood stage. And this Olympics is like their fancy dinner party. And a fancy dinner party, you want all the premier guests to show up, and you want it to go perfectly.

And if it doesn’t, on a global level, you lose face. And on a domestic level with 1.4 billion people watching, you lose face. So they need it to go perfectly. So why don’t we use that as leverage and say, “Hey, there are things that we don’t agree with right now in the U.S. China dynamic or in the allied world China dynamic. We’ll show up, but here are the things we require in order to do so.”

And that to me is a point of leverage that doesn’t come often. And why no one is talking about, “Hey, why are we asking whether we should boycott or not? And instead asking, what do we want in order to show up?” I feel like is a missed opportunity.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s very, very interesting perspective. Well, let me ask this. What would it mean if the free world just shows up 2022 no questions asked? What would that mean for us?

Mr. Fenton: Well for the Chinese Communist Party, it shows that they can do whatever they want to do because the leverage is there. Because you think of all the things that we have problems with, with them, and we’re still coming to them. We’re still allowing them to showcase all of their amazing attributes that have allowed them to have this perfect games.

And our biggest athletes are there. And our biggest announcers, and media companies, and press attention. That is just allowing them to say, “Hey look, we are the dominant force in the world. We’re allowed to do what we need to do. And I know people criticize us all the time, but look, they’re all here.”

And I think symbolically, that’s something we don’t want to do. I think we don’t want to penalize athletes. But at the same time, I feel like if they get that right and that ability to showcase themselves on a global stage, we need to say, “Here are some requirements you need to satisfy.” And a lot of people are going to go, “Well, what are those?” And that’s part of the discussion. That’s what we need to have.

I mean, you think about the provocation of what they’re doing with Taiwan right now, flying PLA planes into their airspace or bringing ships into their maritime territory. I mean, that is stuff that we got to say if that happens over the next 250 days, we’re not coming.

Or, “Wuhan. We want full access to real investigators to find out exactly what happened in Wuhan, where this pandemic started. We want to know. We’re going to get there. We need to be on the ground. And if you don’t allow us to do that, then we’re not showing up.

Xinjiang. You’re saying, ‘There is no genocide here. There’s no issues here. These aren’t concentration camps. They’re re-education camps that are teaching people skills. And they’re essentially like dormitories at a college.” Well if they are, we’re going to come, and we’re going to investigate it. And prove us right. But you’re not going to get 30 days to prepare for it. We’re going to show up with three days notice or whatever it is so we can properly address what we think is happening there. And if it’s not, great.” But we probably know it is.

But those are the things that we need to throw out there. And there’s all kinds of things on the economic stage from WTO designation. Let’s re-designate them to a developed nation rather than developing prior to the Olympics. And if they have a problem with that, then we’re not coming.

There’s all kinds of different things. And they can’t be these north star issues where it’s impossible for them to address in the next 250 days. They have to be baby steps that lead to those north star issues. Because as you know, it’s always the pie in the sky when it comes to China. But you need to figure out what are the steps to get there. And we’re not even talking about what those steps are, and we’re not even trying to address them right now. And we should.

Mr. Jekielek: So in 2008, the idea was by giving Beijing the Olympics, “Yes, you can be a partner on the global stage. This is your party to showcase yourself. But you’re also going to adhere to some international norms on basic human rights and other things.” That was the expectation. Of course, we know that didn’t happen. In some ways, things got worse. Right?

I’ll mention this actually, because one of the protests that actually happened in 2008, I don’t know if a lot of people remember was Tibetan activists unfurling a giant Free Tibet flag. If I recall it said Free Tibet. But what activists have told me since is that the CCP was so furious with that, that they actually destroyed the whole Free Tibet movement subsequent to that. They were embarrassed. Right? But I don’t know how many people actually remember that that happened.

So today, it feels like are we going into the same exact scenario? Again, the question is how could we do this, right? How could we actually look ourselves in the mirror as the free world?

Mr. Fenton: Yeah. It’s such a complicated question or I guess a complicated solution. Because we are a capitalistic society, and we’re also one that’s about free markets. And democracy supports that. So to say that we can’t engage in that type of capitalistic behavior seems counterintuitive to what we are as a country and what our allied nations are.

To me, it’s deeper than that though. Because capitalism cannot thrive. Free market capitalism that we have grown to love and cherish can’t thrive without a strong nation. And the nation has to be stronger than just what makes money. It has to be built on principles, and values, and rights that we hold dearly. Things that we’re so passionate about, that we would go to war over, and we have gone to war over.

To me, that is what we need to take a stand on. Not necessarily to say to China, “You need to change to be like us.” That’s something that hawks can debate about for decades. And maybe we get there someday.

But right now to me, it’s about who are we as a nation? Who are our allies as nations? And why haven’t we protected what makes us, over the last 40 years when it comes to China’s engagement with us? We’ve allowed them to overreach so far, to the point where we’ve lost freedom of speech rights in so many areas.

I mean, there was a Hollywood reporter article recently where they talked about how Disney literally pressured a journalistic publication filmmaker magazine to remove quotes that Chloe Zhao said that upset the Chinese Communist Party. That’s something that is not American. Journalism should be a protected trade. And what’s in publications as news should be protected. To remove that just makes us them. And that to me is the big issue.

I don’t care right now about getting them to become like us. I know a lot of people want to. What I want is the country that I’m growing my kids up in to be the nation that I believed it was when I was growing up, and I believe can be for my kids to grow up in. But right now, we’re just allowing money and this silence to take over the way we operate. And it’s just not who we are as a people.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s interesting. I’ve heard this from a number of people. We wanted to change China, but actually China changed us. Right? That’s kind of what you’re saying here.

Mr. Fenton: It’s hard to say, because I think it’s hard for people to hear. But there’s a lot of examples in the way we are behaving that is either just completely kowtowing or catering to what they are demanding of us in order to have access to their markets. I.e., they have leverage over us. Or, there are probably examples where literally we are becoming more and more like them.

And I know the right or the left has all kinds of different issues that they’re battling each other over. Which if you look at some of the censorship that occurs on Fox News about things that they don’t want to cover, or what’s happening on MSNBC that they don’t want to cover, you could argue is just us being censored the same way as the CCP might censor different journalists or different platforms.

But to me, there’s a common ground that I see that all Americans and all of our allied nation citizens should be able to rally around. National security, economic security, human rights, and freedom of speech. I don’t care if you’re far right, you’re far left, you’re red, you’re blue, you’re purple, you’re green, there’s no way you can’t come together on those. And those are the ones that are most in jeopardy by our present engagement with China.

Mr. Jekielek: I’ve seen in your social media feeds that you’re concerned about these continued large flows of money into the Chinese regimes coffers, so to speak.

Mr. Fenton: Well, I’m not an economist by trade, but I do pay attention a lot to investment. Because I’ve been involved in the M&A activity between the two countries. And the access to our capital markets fuels the growth of a lot of these companies in China. And a lot of these companies in China are very much involved with the Chinese Communist Party, or part of the Chinese Communist Party, or part of state owned enterprises, which are essentially governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Or as we see with Alibaba, are simply private sector companies that if they do one little thing wrong, their C-suite disappears, right?

To me, why are we allowing unrestrained access to our capital markets to fuel the growth of these companies that literally can be shut down on a moment’s notice by the Chinese Communist Party or have C-suite individuals disappeared or put off the grid for a while just because they said something that might be slightly critical of the Chinese Communist Party? Or even worse, we’re allowing them access to our capital markets without SEC and accounting standards practices that all other companies have to abide by simply because they can hide by state secret laws.

Which essentially means we have pension funds. We have average Americans who are in passive accounts that are involved with indexes and different mutual funds, etc., that are invested in these companies that literally can go to zero overnight. Or in fact use their investment dollars into things that might be used against us as Americans or allied nations. And that to me is wrong. And we need to think about it.

I don’t have a problem with these companies that are about free market capitalism, and about growth, and about revenue building, and investing in smart M&A. I don’t have an issue with that. I mean, I’ve been a part of that too. What I would like to see though is a discussion and a slowdown of what’s been going on for the past 40 years. And essentially, real question asking as to whether this is in the best interest of our nation moving forward in the longterm.

Because I do feel like there’s a lot of motivation based on daily stock price fluctuations, quarterly results, P&L’s, two to four year election cycles, that essentially forces us into this game of checkers. Whereas we’re playing with an entity that’s been around 5,000 years, and with a government, Chinese Communist Party that looks at a playing field over the course of 75, 100 year plans. And that allows them to essentially play this game of chess and think long-term.

And that is where I get discouraged about where we’re moving as a country. Although I do see with this latest strategic and innovation legislation that the Senate has passed, at least the green shoots of this idea that R&D is smart, especially if it allows us to elevate our game as a premier nation on the global stage. Because we got a rival across the Pacific that’s going to require us to play at our best level.

Mr. Jekielek: Hollywood put as you described earlier, everything into the Chinese market created ostensibly as you’re saying the premier competitor to itself in the process. That’s been replicated in all sorts of different industries. The financial sector still, as we just discussed is pumping money into that system. How do you expect this can change and this actual focus on American values happen? How do you see this transpiring?

Mr. Fenton: The first thing is you have to see it percolate in Washington D.C. on a bipartisan level. If it’s political and only the right or only the left is talking about it, then it goes nowhere. Once that percolates in Washington D.C., the hope is that the average American, the constituents, the ones that put these elected officials into office, they start to understand what’s going on more and more.

I think everybody’s busy. Everybody has all kinds of stuff going at them all day long. So China is not a huge part of their life in the way they think. But it’s important for the average American to know that China affects them so deeply in so many different areas of their everyday existence. And part of that is getting the message out in a way that’s digestible given how little time they have to think about it.

So journalists have to be on it. And we’ve started to see that quite a bit. I mean, it used to be pretty taboo for the New York Times, the Washington Post to talk about some of the big issues between the U.S. and China. And now, we’re seeing it. We’ve always saw it come from the right, but that was also a Donald Trump pulling the fire alarm on what was going on between the U.S. and China and saying, “China is a threat. China’s a challenge,” etc. etc. And that became something that the left didn’t want to talk about.

But now we’re seeing the left on the journalistic side, we’re seeing the left on the Washington D.C. side now combine forces with the rights. So now, since we have both sides of the aisle engaged in it, it’s important for the average American to understand, “Well, why are they engaged in it? What’s important about China?” And that goes back to things that John Cena, the wrestler/actor who’s in Fast & Furious 9 put on a nice mass appeal stage recently where he apologized to the Chinese for calling Taiwan a nation. That was eye-opening I think to the average wrestling fan or sports fan, whether on right or left to see their hero do that. It was pretty shocking to see him do it in Mandarin too. It sort of added to the symbolism of the kowtowing.

Mr. Jekielek: So wait. You’re saying that John Cena is actually inadvertently the best PR for this cause.

Mr. Fenton: One of the greatest. One of the greatest. Daryl Morey in October of 2019 which I think put it on a stage. In fact, created the ability for me to wake up to it too. Because I remember thinking, “Hey, I like this cultural and commercial exchange with China. Let’s keep it going.” Never really thought about some of the conversations my wife had with me who said, “You sure you feel okay about what you’re doing with this?” Or after a panel discussion, somebody yelling out, “You’re a chill for China,” or whatever it was. Or even the LA Times calling me a Benedict Arnold of my generation, right?

I waved that stuff off. I said, “You don’t understand. This is really important. We’re engaging with the other superpower in a way that’s going to be good for everyone.” It wasn’t until Daryl Morey’s tweet where I saw the bumbling and fumbling of everybody around him trying to come up with the right answer and whether to support him, not support him, all that kind of stuff. And then you think about it and you’re going, “Geez, this is what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years.”

And those are those wake-up moments that everybody has to have. And that woke up some people, right? But then maybe it’s a Mulan controversy, maybe it’s Chloe Zhao, or maybe it’s a wrestler named John Cena who’s a gargantuan guy, super good guy. Made a movie called Blockers with him. And you see him almost look like he’s groveling to the Chinese government to try to keep a movie alive and build box office.

And I know what he was doing. I’m not blaming him for it. I’m blaming essentially the pressures that investors, and shareholders, and everybody else engaged in this activity have created that environment that sort of makes somebody do something like that. But the more that happens, the more the average American goes … I look at Twitter and social media, and just the reaction to what he did there. And I’m realizing people are waking up to it slowly. You need more of that.

And quite frankly, I look at somebody like John Cena and I go there’s somebody who’s got an amazing platform. He’s got the left and the right. He’s got sports world. He’s got the entertainment world. And he’s in a no win situation, right? He’s got one foot in one boat, one foot in another boat. And they’re both drifting apart and he’s about to fall in the water. He’s got no right way to go. He can tow the Communist Party line. And obviously that didn’t really work because the movie only did half what it was supposed to. Or you could come over here and do the Western world party line, and that will shut them off to China. Well, guess what? It’s not going to work either way.

And I’ve been pretty vocal about it. I think he could be Muhammad Ali. I think he could be somebody that says, “You know what, I’m bigger than just the sport I play, wrestling. I’m bigger than just the community I’m a part of, Hollywood. I’m going to be a global activist. I’m going to lead the world as being a Muhammad Ali figure in doing what’s right when it comes to the U.S. China engagement.”

And whether China shuts him out, which they will, he’ll grow a huge following beyond what he’s built in the Western world and add zero onto his checking account in the process of doing what’s right. And I think LeBron James could do the exact same thing.

Mr. Jekielek: Well Chris Fenton, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on again.

Mr. Fenton: I love coming, and I will do it again. And I just hope over the next year, we don’t see as much chaos as this year prior. But I’m humbled and honored to be on the show. And I’m a big fan.

Mr. Jekielek: Thank you for the kind words Chris, and look forward to next time.

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