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Hollywood Revisits Battle of Midway—With Backing From China

Director Roland Emmerich had trouble finding financing for his movie about the 1942 battle of Midway. Then his agents suggested he seek funds in China.
Ed Skrein, left, and Mandy Moore in a scene from ‘Midway.’ Photo: Reiner Bajo/Associated Press
By
Erich Schwartzel
    Erich Schwartzel
    The Wall Street Journal
  • Biography
  • @erichschwartzel
  • erich.schwartzel@wsj.com
Nov. 8, 2019 7:00 am ET

LOS ANGELES—At the after-afterparty for Tuesday’s premiere of his war movie “Midway,” director Roland Emmerich posed for two photos back-to-back as he navigated the sushi tables and tiki torches around his home’s tile-lined pool.

One was with “Glee” star Darren Criss, who appears in the film as an American pilot fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. The other was with several executives from Starlight Culture Entertainment Group, a Chinese company that financed Mr. Emmerich’s movie.

“You’re first like, ‘Whoa, who are they?’” said Mr. Emmerich, the director of blockbusters like “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” referring to the Chinese executives. “But now we’re friends.”

The new-found friends saved his movie after Hollywood said no to it. Starlight and another Chinese firm were the unlikely financiers of Mr. Emmerich’s $98 million drama about the 1942 battle of Midway—one of the most expensive movies made outside of a traditional Hollywood studio in recent history.

‘Midway’ director Roland Emmerich and Starlight Media CEO Peter Luo at a premiere party for the movie at Mr. Emmerich's mansion in Los Angeles. Photo: Starlight Media

Opening in theaters on Friday, “Midway,” starring Woody Harrelson and Mandy Moore, is among the more unlikely examples of Hollywood’s complicated relationship with China. Its release comes at a time when Chinese funding of Hollywood has dried up and the two countries show little of the China-U.S. camaraderie depicted on screen.

But World War II narratives from Hollywood have gained traction in China—particularly when a Chinese subplot is available and Japan loses the fight. It is an extension of sorts to the government-sponsored propaganda films about Japanese aggression that have aired on Chinese TV for decades as tension between the two countries still simmers.

Hollywood movies that unintentionally play into that dynamic have found success at the Chinese box office. In 2016, Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” a gruesome depiction of the American fight against the Japanese in the battle for Okinawa, grossed $62 million in China, just $5 million less than it did in the U.S.

‘Hacksaw Ridge,’ a movie about World War II, did well at the box office in China. Photo: Lionsgate/Everett Collection

In a “Midway” subplot concerning real-life U.S. Army Air Force officer Jimmy Doolittle, the pilot crash-lands in China after leading a bombing raid on Tokyo. The Chinese citizens who find him are skeptical that he comes in peace until one asks, “You bomb Japan?”

“I sure did,” Doolittle replies.

The Chinese lower their guns. “Welcome!” they shout.

Studios were reluctant to back “Midway” because Mr. Emmerich’s recent record has included some notable flops. It wasn’t exactly franchise material either: even a critical 20th century battle doesn’t have the same kind of name recognition as Iron Man or Harry Potter.

Agents for the 63-year-old director had an idea, Mr. Emmerich said. “Let’s find you some money in China,” they told him.

China, for years, was a crucial source of financing for Hollywood, as the country’s box office rose to become the second-largest in the world after the U.S. But the Chinese government has cracked down on such investments recently, telling businesses to invest more within China’s borders.

Director Roland Emmerich at a film forum in Shanghai in June. Photo: Visual China Group/Getty Images

When Mr. Emmerich began talking with Chinese companies about financing “Midway,” he found they knew the specifics of the battle well because of the Doolittle raids, he said.

Acknowledgment of the bombing raids and Chinese cooperation ebbed along with relations between Washington and Beijing in the ensuing decades; but the story has grown in popularity recently, with a museum on the Doolittle Raiders opening in China last year.

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About 45% of the $98 million budget of “Midway” was covered by foreign distribution deals, Starlight Media Chief Executive Peter Luo said. Starlight, a division of a Chinese real-estate company that recently expanded into entertainment, and another media firm, Shanghai RuYi Entertainment, covered the rest.

“Midway” writer Wes Tooke said he knew Chinese moviegoers responded to World War II narratives about the Japanese—“especially when they lose”—but he also considered the Doolittle raids an integral part of the story of how the U.S. defeated Japan.

“There are a lot of cynical exercises” in Hollywood that pander to Chinese moviegoers, he said, but “we knew that Doolittle piece was narratively helpful.”

China has chosen to back a movie that hits many Americana themes. The hero, based on a real aviator named Dick Best, is a cocky gum-chewing pilot who tucks a black-and-white photo of his wife into the controls of his dive bomber before he takes off. Singer Nick Jonas plays an aviation machinist who heroically takes down a Japanese warplane barreling toward his Navy mates as they stand atop the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier.

Woody Harrelson plays U.S. Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz in ‘Midway.’ Photo: Lionsgate/Entertainment Pictures/Zuma Press

Chinese censors required minor cuts to the film before it could be shown in their theaters on Friday, Mr. Emmerich said, including a scene in which one military official is told that superiors in Washington disagree with his plan. State censors have previously zeroed in on plot points that depict insubordination.

Mr. Luo, the Starlight CEO, said his company was drawn to a war film that would show “how the Chinese people suffered.” A note at the end of “Midway” acknowledges that some 250,000 Chinese were killed by Japanese forces in a campaign launched in retaliation to the raids.

“It’s far from today, but it’s not that far,” Mr. Luo said.

His company is also planning to fully finance a movie from “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis about China’s only female empress.

“We want to use Hollywood stories to tell the Chinese story to everyone in the world,” Mr. Luo said.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com

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