Why Brad Pitt Was Once Banned in China and Was the Ban Ever Lifted?

Brad Pitt delivered a strong one-two punch this year with acclaimed performances in the space drama Ad Astra and in Quentin Tarantino’s hit Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Until very recently, however, Pitt was banned in one of the biggest movie-going markets in the world. 

Pitt’s 1997 movie Seven Years in Tibet isn’t talked about a lot today, but the movie had far-reaching impacts on Pitt’s overseas prospects. Today, the Chinese market has become more important than ever to the movie business, to the point that more and more Chinese money is used to fund American pictures.

Why was Brad Pitt banned from China?

Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt | Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Pitt became big in the early 1990s largely on the strength of his turn in 1991’s Thelma & Louise, in which Pitt turned heads as a man who has a dalliance that, shall we say, opens up a whole new world for Geena Davis’ Thelma. That wasn’t his first movie, but it was the one that put him on the map. 

From there, Pitt began racking up memorable roles in films like True Romance, Seven, and 12 Monkeys. It was during this early period that he made Seven Years in Tibet, in which he played Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber who befriends the Dalai Lama at the time of China’s takeover of Tibet. 

This did not sit well with China, which is hostile to any project that positively portrays the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has fought for Tibet’s independence, according to China Film Insider, China considers Tibet to be part of its sovereign territory.

Seven Years prompted an unofficial ban of Pitt, whose movies were not shown in the country. 

What prompted the Brad Pitt ban to end?

The ban remained in effect until 2016 when the spy thriller Allied came out. On these shores, the movie made only a minor ripple for the movie itself, while the tabloids were abuzz about whether Pitt was having an affair with co-star Marion Cotillard.

In China, however, the movie’s release effectively ended Pitt’s status as he whose movies shall not be shown. Why? Because the movie was partially financed by the Chinese company Huahua Media, which also contributed money to Star Trek Beyond and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

Increasingly, to offset huge costs, and reduce financial exposure, American movie companies often partner with international firms, largely because Hollywood increasingly depends on the foreign box office for its profits. 

Headlines this week noted that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker flopped in China, although Star Wars has not captured attention in China as it has in the rest of the world. This is partly why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the biggest box office hit for the United States, but internationally it’s Avengers: Endgame, which was a hit in China. 

Brad Pitt’s banner year

Pitt has not only rebounded in China but he has enjoyed two acclaimed performances this year. In Ad Astra, he got strong reviews for playing an astronaut searching for his long lost father, another astronaut played by Tommy Lee Jones, whose failed mission is wreaking havoc on earth. 

The greatest acclaim came via Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, in which he plays Cliff Booth, a stuntman and personal assistant for fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Controversy swirls around Cliff, who may or may not have killed his wife in a boating misadventure. What is for sure is that Cliff runs afoul of a family of hippies led by one Charles Manson. 

Ironically, Once Upon a Time ran afoul of China too, although this time the reason was not directly related to Pitt. The release of the movie was blocked in China because of the controversial portrayal of Bruce Lee, who loses a fight to Pitt’s character in the movie. Pitt has been nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for his work in that film.