Film Fund-amentals: On the Crazy Train

There is an important lesson to be learned from the lackluster opening weekend for Men in Black III (depending upon who is doing the counting, it took in $55 to $70 million — best real figures tend toward $55 million — which wouldn’t be too bad except the movie cost over $250 million to make). OK, personally I think the real lesson is that you shouldn’t be spending $200 plus million on making any dang film in the first place. But that simply tells you why I don’t work in Hollywood.

The core lesson is that when you are distributing a bloated tent-pole movie, you’ve got to open it first in the international market. Good grief, even before Battleship sank in the US, it managed to score a little over $230 million overseas. Heck, even The Avengers opened first on the international market and practically scored its first billion outside of the US.

For all practical purposes, the US has become a secondary marketplace to its own cinema. Sort of a curious pit stop before cable release. About the only national film market that is lower is in Swaziland, and these days I’m not even sure about that. So basically the modern Hollywood blockbuster epic is a movie with a completely out of control budget, packed full of American pop cultural attitudes and designed to play somewhere else. I suppose you could call this the Victory of the American Way, though I find the current system to be quite bizarre.

Granted, American pop culture has long been the common global language. As an American, I must confess that in many ways I don’t even have a major problem with our pop cultural dominance. Heck, I’m the kind of Yank who could easily spend part of a week in Paris seeking out the nearest McDonald’s (especially now that they have free wifi). But sometimes I have to wonder what is up with the rest of the planet. It’s proof positive of the comment near the end of the old Wim Wenders’ film Im Lauf der Zeit: “The Americans have colonized our subconscious.”

But these days, the issue has gotten stranger. That’s why I was especially intrigued by a recent article in The Guardian by Tom Shone. In “Memorial Day is a Time to Reflect on US Conquests and Failures — in Film,” Shone zeros in on how such an ubër-American exercise as Battleship did so well everywhere except in the US. In fact, even that flop of the year, John Carter, took in over $200 million in the foreign market. Not a bad haul for a nineteenth century patriotic Confederate hero on Mars.

What Shone discovers is the really wild contradictions of the current international market. Almost every single movie he deals with is strongly rooted in a very idealized presentation of American motives and desires. Sort of Norman Rockwell on steroids. This stuff is playing like gangbusters overseas, even in some countries that officially hate our guts (no, I am not referring to the French). But a lot of it just ain’t breaking any records with the mass American audience. The Avengers has been one of the few recent exceptions. Ironically, the decisively dystopian view of futuristic America in The Hunger Games practically blew the box office away in this country but is doing merely OK overseas.

Several things are going on at once. For the past few years, a type of trade imbalance has developed involving major Hollywood movies. The American box office has become extremely secondary to the international market, and Hollywood companies are increasingly having to shift their commercial focus to the overseas viewer. But this globalization of Hollywood has not resulted in a globalized cinema. The overseas market is currently displaying an appetite for big budget and extremely jingoistic American productions. Arguably, the overseas market for that type of material is way bigger than anything you can find here in the States. It’s almost as if Hollywood is having to outsource jingoism.

From a political/sociological viewpoint, this contradiction is damn near incoherent. From an economic perspective, it is already producing a series of increasingly ironic developments. Hollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry. But due to the massive cost overruns at virtually every level of the film industry, it is a business that works very hard to simply break even. Like sharks in the ocean, studio executives are constantly moving in search of fresh cash supplies.

Which is why so many studio execs are thrilled that the Chinese have arrived. The Dalian Wanda Group has slapped down $2.6 billion for the AMC chain of movie theaters as a beachhead for their intended move into Europe (notice that they are primarily focused on Europe). Meanwhile, Iron Man 3 will be a co-production of Walt Disney Studios and China’s DMG Entertainment company.

What does this mean? Who the heck knows. Though AMC is the second largest movie theater chain in America, it has been running deficits for the past couple of years. It is doubtful that the new owners will really be able to reverse the notable decline in American film-going habits. As for Iron Man 3, this sucker is turning into a full blown model of everything Shone discusses in his Guardian article. Most likely, the primary villain will be the Mandarin, sort of a cross between Fu Manchu and Doctor Doom and played by that well known Chinese actor Ben Kingsley (note to Birthers: though Kingsley is English born, his Indian father was actually born in Kenya).

Helping Iron Man as he flies to China will be the Iron Patriot, a chap whose own armored costume makes Captain America look subtle. The only way this could get any more bizarre would be if they stage a 4th of July Celebration in Mao’s Mausoleum.

Which gets back to what I said about Hollywood outsourcing its own brand of jingoism. Almost every aspect of these emerging deals is largely nonsensical. It’s as if a pack of executives who couldn’t find the Clue Bus have now hopped a ride on the Crazy Train.