The trade war between the US and China is claiming an unexpected new victim: the burgeoning cohort of American actors seeking fame and fortune in China’s fast-growing film industry.
Actors and film industry staff have told the Financial Times that Chinese studios are imposing an informal ban on American nationals, fearing that a worsening trade war could lead Beijing’s censors to place restrictions on US-related content.
“My agency in China ended our contract claiming the trade war with America amounts to force majeure. I can only assume it looks bad for them to be working with an American,” said Matt William Knowles, who was cut from a $75m project last month.
As one of dozens of US actors in China’s fast-growing film industry, he has played a second world war hero, an oil company executive and even a mythological god.
China’s film industry has expanded rapidly in the past decade to boast box office takings that rival North America’s and has more screenings than the US. That has enabled Chinese productions to hire Hollywood A-listers from Christian Bale to Matt Damon.
But the bulk of American actors affected by the current informal ban are those who have moved to China to meet a rising demand for portrayals of foreigners.
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a ceasefire in the trade war at the G20 meeting in Tokyo last weekend, with Washington promising to delay the threatened imposition of more tariffs. But this might not be quick enough to save the jobs of American actors in China.
“The vast majority of legitimate film companies are tiptoeing around [the hiring of American actors],” said an American who has acted regularly in Chinese films and television dramas but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Some of China’s largest television companies have imposed a similar ban. “It’s a nightmare,” a manager at a Shanghai-based talent company said, comparing the situation with a recently-lifted ban on South Korean entertainers working in China imposed during a diplomatic dispute in 2017.
Efforts by the Chinese film industry to distance itself from the US were evident at the Shanghai film festival last month, where none of the 15 films in the competition were American, compared with six last year. One US executive who was a producer on a movie featured at the festival said he was instructed to avoid the event’s red carpet at the last minute.
Mr Knowles, 33, whose roles in China since 2012 have also included a “Chinese culture-loving boyfriend” and a “half-Chinese half-Russian travel photographer”, said his current focus was outside China, after landing a role in US director Spike Lee’s latest project.
“The Chinese film industry has afforded me opportunities that I never dreamt possible. No matter what happens, I will never give up [on] China. That is why what is happening with this political climate is so hurtful to me,” he said.
Trade tensions have so far not affected the distribution of Hollywood films in China, with US movies breaking box office records in the country this year. But if the trade war deepens “we are worried about restrictions”, said one US film industry executive.