Film Fund-amentals: Journey to a Foreign Country

This is the magical week when everyone is supposed to be writing about the Oscars. But the urge to guess who will win is somewhat muted by the sheer predictably of the process (for example, if The Artist is nominated in a category, it will probably win).

Instead, this year’s Academy Award show will be defined by its desperate quest for a nostalgic recreation of the past. Inspired by such nominees as The Artist, Midnight in Paris, and Hugo, the Oscar show is slated to blast to the past faster than Rod Taylor in The Time Machine. Even Cirque du Soleil will be on hand to provide an acrobatic jump into movie history.

So the Oscars this year will celebrate a French silent movie in a theater named after a bankrupt company (though Kodak may or may not keep the name on the joint for the ceremony) in honor of the Hollywood film industry, which is hoping to score big in the Chinese market. The result promises to play less as Hooray for Hollywood and more as a tribute to irony. Add in the recent Los Angeles Times story in which the demographic breakdown of the average Academy member is a white guy in his mid to upper 60s, and you begin to understand why they think Billy Crystal will attract a young viewer ship. Heck, Billy doesn’t turn 64 till a few weeks after the show. So he’s a young guy in this crowd.

The past may be a foreign country (according to L. P. Hartley), but Hollywood is pretty sure that they have the proper passport. After all, they’re remaking everything imaginable (I can’t even joke about this any more — not after the announcement of the Mr. Ed movie). They have looted the remains of film history with the ghoulish thoroughness of Burke and Hare. OK, the results are not too pretty, and these films are increasingly less than successful, but that has convinced Hollywood that they have to dig deeper (which isn’t quite as horrible as the supply/demand solution Burke and Hare came up with).

But the emphasis on Hollywood’s past is mostly an attempt to promote itself as the world’s single source for movies. This Hollywood űber alles theme has been the predominant belief since the end of the silent era (which was about the last time that Hollywood was aggressively challenged on the international market) and American control of the foreign box office has certainly been a done deal since World War Two (with a few exceptions such as India). Of course, this was partly rooted in a process in which the US box office was incredibly strong and the overseas market was mostly a pick-up zone for found money.

Times have changed. In 2011, the US box office went into a slump and the current forecast for 2012 is even worse. On the other hand, the foreign box office has gone up, way up. For example, last year in France the box office rose by 4.2 percent. Alors, this is good news. Among the ten highest grossing films in France were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and The Adventures of Tintin. All solid American titles (well, actually the Harry Potter movies are more Anglo/Yank, and the Tintin flick — along with War Horse — is part of Steven Spielberg’s effort to position himself as a mid-Atlantic filmmaker).

The bad news for Hollywood is that the three biggest films last year in France were — drum roll, please — French movies! Intouchables, and Rien à déclarer. French movies with French actors, all made in French. Mon Dieu! What are the French thinking?

More interesting is the fact that 40 percent of the French box office went toward viewing French films. Sure, this still leaves the American operators in a hefty position, but the Hollywood hold is getting a tad tricky. The foreign market is becoming increasingly vital to Hollywood, and Hollywood’s heavy-handed control of the foreign market is slipping. British director Mike Leigh’s opening speech at the Berlin Film Festival overstates this point, but he also has a point no matter what. To be honest, about the only advantage Hollywood has in this situation is the stubborn refusal of American viewers to watch foreign movies.

The official Hollywood response has been to send Chris Dodd out to make completely stupid, dismissive comments about the end of cinema in Spain (and Sweden and various other foreign places). At the same time, Hollywood has become obsessed with China. Hollywood wants China to open up the mainland market to a wild glut of Hollywood imports. China wants the Chinese cinema to learn and develop a Chinese cinema that can compete against Hollywood. Publicly, I am not sure who will get the better of whom in these deals. Privately, I suspect that the Chinese will hold their own and then some.

The European scene is a tad murkier. The Euro economic crisis is proving to be the world’s biggest monkey wrench. Of course, the same can be said about the American economic crisis. I sometimes suspect that the Europeans are in better shape for dealing with these issues than we are (especially as the political silly season here in the States seems determined to reduce the debate to the lowest level). Regardless of the outcome, it is certain that the old economic relationships between the US and other countries are in the process of a major shift, and the US is not necessarily in an advantageous position.

Which winds us back to the impending weird spectacle of Sunday night’s celebration of old Hollywood. Gee, if they really want the Asian market, they should have gotten the Muppets. At least they have a following over there.