Unity native, journalist’s book explores China’s ‘Red Carpet’
After covering the “business of Hollywood” for The Wall Street Journal for the last six years, Unity native Erich Schwartzel is expanding his research into how China is influencing the film industry.
Schwartzel, 32, is writing his first book, “Red Carpet,” after inking a deal with Penguin Press publishing house.
Now living in Los Angeles, Schwartzel is a graduate of Greater Latrobe High School and Boston University.
He began his reporting career with a 2007 internship at the Tribune-Review’s Greensburg office.
While working for a Pittsburgh newspaper, Schwartzel dove deeply into business and energy reporting.
“Marcellus shale and gas drilling — that was my bread and butter for a long time,” he says.
Assignments took him to the fields of West Virginia and to Amish communities in Ohio. He honed his narrative and storytelling skills to cover a massive industry that angers some landowners and enriches others. He had many adventures during his days in the field, he says.
Within a few years he changed coasts and employers, heading west to cover the world of entertainment.
“The Wall Street Journal has a tradition of putting people on beats without (relating) background or expertise. I think it does help to have fresh eyes on a beat,” Schwartzel says.
His beat includes covering the major studios and issues such as distribution, and how streaming and Netflix have disrupted the film industry.
Three years ago, Schwartzel says, a lot of Chinese investment was coming to Hollywood, with Chinese companies attempting to buy studios and investing in films.
Back home, the Chinese government was carrying on a decade-long effort to build up its theaters.
The box office was growing rapidly in China to accommodate demand from an increasingly urban population.
“It became a huge market overnight. It’s the second largest market in the world,” Schwartzel says.
He began reporting on the country’s ambitions and efforts to expand its presence abroad in 2017, traveling to China for research.
The logistics for an American reporter in a foreign land are “huge,” he says; Schwartzel is now studying Mandarin in an effort to more easily communicate on future trips.
Despite its explosion, China’s film industry is still in its early days, similar to Hollywood’s heyday, Schwartzel says.
Embracing technology and celebrity
Of a June trip to Shanghai, he says the technology available makes one feel as if he is stepping into the future.
“Everywhere you look, someone is watching something (on a device),” he says.
While China has not yet produced a “crossover star,” the population clearly embraces celebrity culture, Schwartzel says.
“People will move to cities in hopes of getting discovered,” he says.
Sometimes, they don’t even need to move.
Schwartzel recalls being on a movie set in 2017 in China with a young former flight attendant.
“Someone took a photo of him and it went viral. A couple months later he was starring in a movie. A photograph launched a career. It can be very, very surreal,” he says.
Schwartzel compares it to a “21st century, Chinese version of Lana Turner being discovered at the soda fountain.”
Crafting a book
Getting movies made in China is a very different process from in the U.S., Schwartzel says.
Government censors oversee their own country’s films and edit certain things from international, including American, movies.
“Politics, religion, portrayals of homosexuality, all are very sensitive. And of course, anything that makes China look bad,” he says.
After starting work on a book proposal, he hired an agent in 2018.
A proposal was sent to publishing houses and Schwartzel flew to New York to meet with prospective publishers in December.
“It was a mix of blind date and defending your thesis,” he says, laughing.
With the luxury of several bids, he and his agent went with Penguin Press, which is dedicated to publishing quality nonfiction and literary fiction.
Schwartzel’s editor, Emily Cunningham, says she already was aware of the “terrific work” he was doing for The Wall Street Journal before Aevitas Creative Management agents submitted his book proposal.
“I didn’t know I was looking for a proposal about the Chinese film industry or the increasing influence that China has had on the American film industry in recent years, but Erich’s proposal — and his body of work as a whole — was so convincing in its argument that Chinese investment in movies both at home and abroad is a significant piece of the country’s broader geopolitical strategy that it struck me right away as important work that deserved a book-length treatment and a big readership,” she says.
Schwartzel, Cunningham says, is an engaging, marketable writer, “with total authority in this subject area.”
“In other hands, this material could prove not much fun to read for any number of reasons: too dry, too complicated, too alarmist,” she says.
“Erich, though, strikes an ideal balance between the seriousness of the geopolitical state of play and the undeniably fun narrative opportunities it presents, which is not easy to do.”
Far East travel, West Coast home
The book is due for editing in July 2020, with a tentative release date of 2021.
Schwartzel plans more travel to China to better understand its cultural nuances while writing.
His mother, Romayne Schwartzel, still lives in the local area, and his two sisters are on the East Coast. His father, Paul Schwartzel, is deceased.
After six years, Los Angeles is now home for him. “I have to say I totally drank the Kool-Aid. It’s such an endlessly fascinating city,” Schwartzel says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, [email protected] or via Twitter .