Film Fund-amentals: If You Can Make It Here…

The traditional relationship between American movies and the foreign market has entered a murky stage. The long standing rule is that American movies (OK, mainly Hollywood flicks) would dominate the foreign market. Movies made by other countries were either “art films” or cheaply made knock-offs of American movies. The “art films” would make the rounds of the “art theaters” (where people took the time to read subtitles), while the knock-offs would get poor dubbing and pop up on TV around 3am.

But that was about it. The business relationship was primarily a one-way street based upon the general notion that everybody loves American movies. Certainly the influence of Hollywood is undeniable. All you have to do is look at the early films of the French New Wave. When the German director Wim Wenders later commented that “the Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” he was merely describing the contemporary reality.

Which may help to explain why the good citizens of Bratislava, Slovakia, want to name a bridge after Chuck Norris. Also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity in China. That’s also why Johnny Depp is doing ads for the Kiddy Land company in Japan. For better or worse, American movies and TV are the lingua franca of mass entertainment.

OK, a lot of foreign filmmakers have spent years complaining about this fact. I don’t even blame them. As a born and bred American, I have never been able to truly fathom why we Yanks are so capable of dominating this field (I mean, aside from the obvious issue of heavy-handed economic domination). Let’s be honest, no one is forcing people in Slovakia to watch Walker, Texas Ranger. Despite some initial hesitation, the Chinese government embraced Avatar with a giddy enthusiasm.

However, the one-way street of Hollywood’s global strategy may be getting a few lane changes. A growing list of other countries want a cut of the American market. The French were sizing up the possibilities several years before The Artist appeared. The Chinese are anxious to create their own version of a tent-pole blockbuster. Various players from Bollywood keep hoping to make moves into Hollywood either by buying a studio or working through Disney. Even the Turks have dreams, especially as the Turkish cinema moves toward their own brand of epic.

Can any of this work? The basic answer is no. There is absolutely no way to overstate the American movie audience resistance to anything, and I mean positively anything that is “fur-in.” Even The Artist has only made about $36 million at the US box office. Not really too bad for a film with a budget of $16 million (until you add in the estimated $30 million spent for the US marketing campaign). But this isn’t major, especially since it has been playing for over three months. The average American horror movie makes this amount in three days.

It isn’t simply the fact that most Americans dislike reading subtitles (though this is part of the problem). Even if the movie was dubbed (though the standard commercial quality of dubbing in the States run way behind the European approach), it would still go nowhere. America is basically a culturally mixed society with no clue, and many people in the States live in deep denial about virtually any and every other culture. The reason has little to do with xenophobia or political hostility. It just doesn’t seem relevant to most people’s lives here in the States. Sure, this attitude is misguided but it is deeply ingrained.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon, but the basic fact is that the average American leads an existence that is singularly removed from the rest of the global field. Oh sure, we are a world power whose current everyday existence is thoroughly intertwined with a global economy (that we were instrumental in creating) in which even a simple potato farmer in Idaho works with money loaned from China in order to import products to Europe. But the day-to-day reality of the average American is largely closed off from any real sense of this global system (despite the fact that virtually every item of clothing they have on is from a list of countries longer than the roster at the UN).

In turn, Hollywood has created an artificial sense of reality that is mostly bogus but ironically reassuring. Most Americans are extremely comfortable with it. They don’t always like it, but they are comfortable . Anything else is different and they do not adjust well to “different.” I don’t actually mean this as a critical dig at my fellow Americans. To be honest, we are all like this (with just a few minor variations). In many respects, American society is in a period of deep cultural entrenchment.

Which is perhaps the biggest reason why the current hopes of various foreign companies to penetrate the American media market are doomed to failure. Oh sure, there will be the usual four to ten screens available in New York (and a few more in Chicago), but that is about as far as it will go. With luck, a few of these movies will be picked up for a Hollywood redo.

Mostly, they will be an item for a festival at the IFC Center. But that potato farmer in Idaho will tell you that New York City is a different country.