Disney’s Beauty & the Beast Saga is About China & Malaysia – But Also About Emerging LGBT Asia

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IMG_6505Disney’s Beauty and the Beast indefinite delay in Malaysia, due to its “exclusively gay moment”, has been lifted. Disney refused to release the movie in the country without it and Malaysia caved.

Meanwhile, the movie has opened huge in China, with 100,000 reported screenings on its opening night. This constituted 43% of China’s screenings that night. And not only was the movie released in its uncut form and without any special ratings, it also received the support of the government. The People’s Daily tweeted: “Controversial gay moment kept in Disney’s #BeautyAndTheBeast. Movie premiered on Mar 17 in China, requires no guidance for minor audience,”

This interesting situation raises the question: would Disney have behaved the same if China’s film board had made objections similar to Malaysia’s? And how exactly is Disney making these decisions about Asia’s growing entertainment markets?

The “Beauty and the Beast” saga is actually a more complicated case than it first seems. Yes, China’s entertainment market is too large to ignore and Hollywood studios are always going to be acutely sensitive to government sensitivities. The Malaysian market is fairly small, so it is not surprising that Disney felt it could just walk away.

However, it is also worth pointing out that a little controversy is helpful. “Beauty and the Beast” director Bill Condon was clearly stoking controversy by highlighting the movie’s “gay moment” prior to release.

Additionally, there is another issue that Disney is also likely sensitive to. China has a huge gay and lesbian population and a growing LGBT (ie., pink) economy. Both of which have been emerging in the recent years. Estimates put China’s LGBT population at likely 40-100M. Not only is this the largest LGBT population in the world, it is actually larger than the entire population of Malaysia (approx 31M).

China’s growing LGBT economy

China is the world’s most populous nation so it stands to reason it has, or will have, the largest gay, lesbian and transgender population. Definitely larger than the population of Malaysia and probably larger than the populations of the UK and Germany. And in the last 2-3 years, this population has been increasingly visible. For example, in May 2016, China’s second annual LGBT job fair was held. It attracted 34 companies and over 500 job seekers. Companies participating included Morgan Stanley, Starbucks, Citi, 3M and Didi Chuxing. Also in 2016, Taobao and Blued, the largest Chinese gay dating app, held an online content to choose 6 same-sex couples to fly to West Hollywood to get married. Over 2,000 couples sent in videos for the contest.

There is also increasing discussion about the emergence of China’s “pink economy”. One area within this that is getting significant attention is tourism. This demographic typically spends more time and money than heterosexual groups on lesiure (tourism, entertainment) and personal image building (gym, beauty, physical therapy).

Another current area of interest in China’s LGBT economy is dating apps. Market leader Blued now has over 15M members in China alone, making it the largest gay dating service in the world. And it was only founded in 2012. And while Grindr is probably the world’s most famous gay dating app, this is actually also Chinese, having been purchased by Beijing Kunlun for $93M. Note: Grindr has 10M registered users compared to Blued’s 15M.

A New Legacy for Howard Ashman

Finally, this week’s “Beauty and the Beast” saga can also be seen in relation to the legacy of Howard Ashman, the writer and lyricist for the original animated version of the film. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, shortly after the movie’s premiere. Director Bill Condon has said that he added the “exclusively gay moment” that set off the Malaysian drama as a tribute to Ashman.

While Ashman had a history in both theater and movies, it was his five years at Disney for which he is best known. With composer Alan Menken and animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, he created “The Little Mermaid”, Disney’s first new animated movie in 30 years. This was followed by “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” These three films revived Disney’s fortunes and started a renaissance in animation.

Of these three films, it is “Beauty and the Beast” that most clearly speaks with Ashman’s voice. Belle with “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.” Cogsworth with “If it’s not baroque, don’t fix it.” And Gaston’s famous “I’m especially good at expectorating.” Condon has said that for the new movie he drew on unused lyrics Ashman wrote for the 1991 movie.

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Overall, the “Beauty and the Beast” saga raises interesting questions about how Disney approaches Asia’s growing entertainment markets. Did Disney pull the movie in Malaysia because of its smaller market size? Or was it because authorities wanted to cut its tribute to Howard Ashman? How much consideration are they giving to Chinese authorities? And how much is consideration for China’s now emerging LGBT community? There are several interesting factors in this.

Malaysians will now apparently see the entire film, belatedly and without edits. But China (and its emerging LGBT community) saw it first and in its entirely. That sounds like a pretty good result for Disney – and a nice legacy for Howard Ashman in rising Asia.

Note: A special thanks to Jonathan Ly and Jay Hyunjee Lee who did a fantastic report on China’s LGBT economy for one of my classes. Many of the above stats are from their work.

(reposted from Nikkei Asian Review, located here)

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Thanks for reading. My writing (and speaking) are on:

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About: I am a Professor of Investment at Peking University Guanghua School of Management in Beijing. I am also an investor, consultant and former executive / slave to Prince Alwaleed.

Top photo by Carrie Kellenberger, Creative Commons license with link here.

 

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