Few directors in Hollywood have more power than Martin Scorsese, the Oscar-winning director of box office hits "Goodfellas," "Casino," "The Departed," and "The Wolf of Wall Street."
But even the legendary filmmaker lacked the clout to save the fate of his movie "Kundun" (1997) when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came knocking on Disney’s door.
The film is probably one most readers have never heard of, even though it was nominated for four Academy Awards and included the legendary Mr. Scorsese. A historical drama written by Melissa Mathison, "Kundun" explores the life of the young Dalai Lama, who in 1950 saw his homeland of Tibet invaded by the CCP.
Ms. Mathison conceived the project after meeting the Dalai Lama in 1990, and though she had concerns that Hollywood would not be interested in such a film, she landed a break when she convinced Mr. Scorsese to direct the film.
“I’m not saying he wants to do it, but I know he’s going to get it,” Ms. Mathison recalled thinking. “I knew he’d understand the society, the moral code, the journey, and the spirituality of it,” she said in the documentary "In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese."
Disney eventually agreed to distribute the film, which was given a $28 million budget. But China had other ideas.
Tibet, along with Taiwan and Tiananmen, is among the forbidden Three Ts—the issues considered most contentious by the CCP. So with China becoming an emerging global power in the 1990s, the CCP decided to flex its muscle and attempted to nix the project.
Two days into the production of "Kundun" in 1996, a representative from the Chinese Embassy approached Disney's chief strategic officer, Lawrence Murphy.
“You started shooting a film in Morocco about the Dalai Lama, called 'Kundun,'” said the diplomat, who went on to explain that Beijing had concerns with the film’s subject matter.
'Play by China’s Rules' … or Else
At the time, Mr. Murphy hadn’t even heard of the film. But it would soon become clear that the CCP wanted the shooting of "Kundun" shut down. Why Beijing would want the movie censored is obvious. "Kundun" describes atrocities China’s communist regime committed in the 1950s following its invasion of the Himalayan country.
“The Chinese have bombed the monastery of Lithang. It has been destroyed,” an adviser tells the Dalai Lama at one point in the movie. “Nuns and monks are made to fornicate in the streets. They put guns in the hands of Khumba children, and force the child to kill the parents.”
While the description is horrifying, even more moving is the scene in which an elderly Tibetan woman tearfully and frantically insists she is “happy and prosperous under the Chinese Communist Party.”
This is not exactly flattering stuff for the CCP, any more than "Schindler’s List" is for the Nazis. Yet history is not always pretty.
In any event, the CCP’s decision to lean on the film left Disney CEO Michael Eisner in a pickle.
If Mr. Eisner shut down the film, he’d anger Mr. Scorsese and look weak for caving to the CCP. If he proceeded with production, he risked losing Disney’s commercial and manufacturing foothold in China, as well as the 1.4 billion potential consumers.
So Mr. Eisner opted for a third way. He allowed the shooting of "Kundun" to proceed, but he limited the film’s distribution and marketing. "Kundun" was released on Christmas Day in 1997—in two theaters nationwide.
In other words, in the contest over truth and creative freedom versus government censorship, Disney blinked, and film producer Matt Tabor describes what Disney’s decision meant going forward.
“If foreign companies wanted access to [China’s] market, they were going to play by China’s rules,” Mr. Tabor noted in a recent production by the Foundation for Economic of Education on the showdown. “'Kundun' marked the first opportunity for China to flex that muscle in the movie business.”
It was a watershed moment. And if there was any doubt that Disney caved to China, which officially considered the film “an interference in China’s internal affairs,” one need only read the groveling message Disney sent to China after the dust had settled a year later.
The Apology: ‘We Made a Stupid Mistake’
Despite “sending 'Kundun' quietly to the gulag,” Disney found itself kicked out of China’s burgeoning markets, along with other U.S. film studios.
“These films are full of inaccuracies,” a Chinese official told The Washington Post. “That’s why they are not popular within China.”
So in 1998, Mr. Eisner got on a plane and flew to meet the premier of China. In his book "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy," Erich Schwartzel recounts what Mr. Eisner told Chinese officials.
“We made a stupid mistake in releasing Kundun. This film was a form of insult to our friends. The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it. Here I want to apologize, and in the future, we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening. In short, we’re a family entertainment company, a company that uses silly ways to amuse people.”
Mr. Eisner’s complete capitulation would have a profound impact on the global entertainment landscape for years to come. It explains why "Kundun" can’t be streamed on Amazon or Netflix even today. It explains why NBA executives go apoplectic when a single GM tweets his support of protesters in Hong Kong.
One can appreciate the tough situation Mr. Eisner was in without agreeing with his decision to banish "Kundun" to Siberia. Companies have commercial interests, and balancing those against doing the right thing or supporting creative expression is not always easy. Indeed, this balancing act existed before Disney banished "Kundun," evidenced by one executive’s stated reason for passing on the film.
“I don’t need to have my spirits and wine business thrown out of China,” Edgar Bronfman Jr.—the CEO of Seagram, which briefly owned Universal Pictures—replied when pitched on "Kundun."
Yet the message of Disney’s showdown with China isn’t really about the ethics of dealing with a powerful communist regime. The real lesson is that we should prevent governments from amassing such dictatorial power in the first place, and remind ourselves that governments are hardly arbiters of truth. Indeed, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that government officials have no business deciding what is true and what is false—even though it’s a power they clearly desire.
The reality is those who wish to censor speech are usually far more interested in power than truth—the CCP’s attempt to censor "Kundun" reinforces that idea—and reminds us that sometimes the best way to exercise freedom is to watch a movie they don’t want you to see.
Matt Tabor contributed to this article.