Hollywood's Global Box Office Dominance


   Mr. Derek Malcolm, the President of the International Film Critics Association, recently visited City University and delivered a speech in which he warned of a grave danger lurking like an incipient virus in countries around the world, threatening to infect and ultimately destroy filmmaking traditions worldwide. That danger, as he explained it, was the Hollywood film. By way of example, he described movie going habits on a typical London evening. If you see long lines wrapped around the corner, most assuredly those people are waiting to see an American film. On the other hand, if patrons are walking right in, they are going to see a British film or some other non-Hollywood movie. As if that were not insult enough, Malcolm suggested, the UK is losing top film students to American schools like NYU, USC, UCLA, the American Film Institute, and Columbia University in spite of sky-high tuition fees and no guaranteed jobs upon graduation.

            And, of course, this cinematic brain drain is not limited to Europe these days. Talented filmmakers are also arriving to Hollywood especially from guess where? Hong Kong and China and Taiwan.

Attempted Sanctions

            Malcolm's fear is not unfounded. The problem has an economic as well as a cultural dimension. In Europe, 80% of the movie box-office these days is generated by American films. In Japan, 21 of the 25 top-grossing movies last year were American. In 1994, American companies - for the first time ever - received over 50% of their box office receipts from overseas sales, and this is a trend that is only accelerating.

            In fact, the issue of Hollywood's global box office dominance first arose almost at the very beginning of the Hollywood film industry. According to film historian Robert Sklar, between the two World Wars, 75 to 90 percent of the films screened in most countries were made in the United States. Moreover, as early as the 1920s a number of European governments, including Germany, Italy, Britain, Portugal, France, Hungary, and Austria, enacted some form of legislation to establish quotas regulating the number of Hollywood film imports.

            Those early economics sanctions had little effect, although as a by-product of their quest for world domination the Nazis and the Japanese managed to keep U.S. films out of their homelands and occupied areas for a while. But in the latter part of World War II, Hollywood marched back into liberated areas of Europe and Asia hot on the heels of advancing troops and tanks, and as of the late 1940s European countries once more attempted to regulate the flow of Hollywood films into their countries. In that instance, as the historian Richard Pells notes, the Truman administration stipulated that acceptance of the Marshall Plan required acceptance of American movies. After a brief golden age of Italian, British, French, and Swedish films in the late 1950s and early 60s, Hollywood films once again reasserted their dominance. And this fact has continued to irritate ministers of culture and industry all over the world. In one recent example, the U.S. stranglehold over the global movie marketplace led ticked-off French officials to lead a renewed push for import quotas on Hollywood product that almost stopped dead the 1993 round of GATT negotiations.

            Objections to American hegemony arose outside of the GATT negotiations as well. Ireland's film industry, for example, has been invigorated in recent years by a robust outpouring of locally made films, a trend encouraged by the Irish ministry of cultural affairs. In order to preserve a relatively level playing field, the Irish have discussed legislation designed to limit the import of American films. Perhaps the most politically charged response to a specific Hollywood film has come from China, which recently threatened to prohibit the development of a Disney theme park in China because of the content of a Disney film, Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," a sympathetic portrayal of the Dalai Lama. While none of these measures have had much effect on the Hollywood's domination of the global box office, these attempts at trade sanctions nonetheless confirm the perceived threat Hollywood films pose to a wide range of national film industries.

Cultural Imperialism

            If the economic threat looms large, for some the cultural threat seems even more ominous. Like the ubiquitous golden arches, the ever-present Coca Cola, and the voice of CNN, the tenacity of American film images appears to be just one aspect of a creeping Americanism, an infectious stylistic and cultural homogeneity that finds citizens in Sao Paulo as susceptible as those in Paris or Beijing.

            As early as 1945, the term "cultural imperialism" was associated with this process of Americanization. Richard Pells describes the fear of Americanization from the European perspective as follows: "Deeply imbedded in these concepts was the fear that each country in Europe was losing its cultural identity and distinctiveness. Throughout the 20th century but especially after the end of World War II when the United States became truly dominant, Europeans worried about the disappearance of national languages, customs, tastes and attitudes. They were also disturbed by what seemed to be the decline of traditional family relationships, neighborhoods, work habits, the manner in which people courted their spouses and raised their children and the ways they had once entertained themselves at nights and on weekends. Presumably, everything familiar and cherished was being obliterated under the onslaught of American merchandise and American culture".

            As a one character says to another in Wim Wenders' 1976 German film Kings of the Road , the Americans "have colonized our subconscious."

            Why has the Hollywood film been so dominant worldwide for more than seven decades? What is it about the style, artistic design, and cultural coding of these films that is so universally appealing? Through the miracle strategies of ancillary marketing, these screen images create cravings in audiences for spin-off toys, clothes, games, theme parks, and breakfast cereals. Does this represent a new, Godzilla monster version of cultural imperialism? (Godzilla, remember, was a movie monster created by in Japan; the most recent version was sold back to Japan by Hollywood.)

            The term cultural imperialism was coined to describe hundreds of years of colonial empire-building. As for the Hollywood version, which doesn't employ standing armies and live warheads (yet), why has it been so successful? It's the Hollywood style . What all these films share, regardless of subject, is a certain visual style - a look of polish, production proficiency and opulence. Even when the scene or subject portrayed is one of poverty, as in Boyz n' the Hood , the film itself looks well-heeled. Hollywood movies tend to be filled with people who are almost abnormally good-looking and fit, and their clothes, while at times calculatedly simple in design, nonetheless manage to show off lean athletic physiques that suggest an aura of overall good health and well-being.

Representation of Space

            Perhaps one of the most distinctive qualities of the globally successful Hollywood film is the design and representation of space - both interiors and exteriors. Take, for example, the representation of domestic space, the home. Homes in movies are unusually appealing. Even when characters aren't rich, houses in these films are not just neat, well-designed, orderly, and comfortable, but downright attractive. They are usually located on a hill with a great view, or they have a big lawn, or they're near some drop-dead gorgeous body of water. The homes of movies like Sleepless in Seattle and Home Alone convey a strong sense of a wished-fulfillment life style.

The design and representation of space is one of the most distinctive qualities of Hollywood films.

            As with interior spaces, the exterior space of the Hollywood film is similarly expansive and allows a kind of abandoned mobility. Recall, for example, the image of Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves , his hair flying as he gallops over the American plains , or Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise , their hair flying as they ride in their vintage American-built convertible across several southern states and into the Wild West.

            Often these interior and exterior spaces are part of an imagined landscape set in a non-specific time. Consider examples such as Jurassic Park , the Star Wars trilogy , Batman , recent animated features including The Lion King , Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast , as well as what looms as the next worldwide blockbuster, George Lucas's Star Wars , Episole I - The Phantom Menace. All of these films are similar in that they all take place in an indeterminate place at an indeterminate time in history. In some cases, such as the Star Wars movies, the Mutant Ninja Turtles series, or the title character of E.T., they feature creatures of indeterminate species. The success of the design of the landscape, both interior and exterior, depends not so much on replicating something with historical realism but on creating a canvas with its own internal logic, with a consistency of imagery, much like a painting by De Chirico or Magritte. In fact, these films function in much the same way as modernist paintings of the late 19th and 20th century in that they don't require much knowledge of history, literature, religion, or politics in order to be entirely comprehensible.

            Though imagined landscapes often have no reference outside of themselves, they do contain clearly defined, unambiguous moral stances. In the overwhelming majority of these films, much of this is calculated to support an intense, heroic individualism( think True Lies, Back to the Future, Armageddon ). In some cases, it may mean breaking out of conventional gender expectations, as in Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire, but not because it is a sexually satisfying or politically progressive thing to do but because it fulfills some deeply held individual principle. Good and evil are easily identifiable and uncomplicated by moral relativism. Heroic individualism reaches its zenith, of course, in action films where preposterously impossible obstacles are overcome with skill, wit, intelligence, and a certain moral fortitude. Again, it is not the reality but the idealized values of a hypothetical American culture that have become part of the design of the successful film commodity.

Permeable Boundaries

            In the end, we should caution ourselves not to confuse an economic phenomenon with a cultural one. For those who feel that Hollywood's economic tyranny is ipso facto an imperium, it's useful to remember that although in the aggregate Hollywood films dominate the world's box offices, some countries have developed and maintained remarkably resistant cinematic traditions. Here in Hong Kong, resistance to Hollywood is evident in the resurgence of independent production, even as the fortunes of Hong Kong's mainstream commercial movie industry has declined in recent years. Independent production even has more than a commercial toehold in the U.S. these days. And, while blockbuster films have dominated world markets, a number of important Asian filmmakers, such as Wayne Wang, Stanley Kwan, Wong Kar Wai, Ann Hui, Zhang Yuan, Tsai Ming-liang, Johnnie To, Imamura Shohei, and Min Boung-hun, among others, have created culturally specific images and remarkably resilient visual and cultural alternatives, in spite of chronic difficulties with financing.

            Another cautionary observation is the fact that movie audiences are not passive receptors. They tend to pick and choose and make sense of imagery based on their own needs and their own understanding of the world. Remember, for example, that when Bruce Lee conquered the world box office in the early 1970s, the core audience for his movies in the U.S. was young, male African-Americans and Latinos. Most of these viewers knew absolutely nothing about the Hong Kong culture that informed Lee's work, but they responded to Lee's version of machismo, his physical grace, his sense of justice and loyalty, and the way he tended to beat the stuffing out of big white guys and other authority figures.

            Filmmakers cross cultural, linguistic, and other kinds of boundaries all the time, and this isn't a new thing; many critics have noted, for example, that the great Kurosawa borrowed liberally from the American western to structure his great film epics. The exchange is less a matter of dominion and more of a transactional exchange. As the Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has noted, the average person's experience of the world today is simultaneously more global and local than ever before. This phenomenon is both marked and caused by the large-scale movement of immigrant populations across national and regional boundaries, by the continuous and often instantaneous transnational flow of media images, and by the seismic cultural and political shifts in countries as varied as Hong Kong and China, Poland, South Africa and Iran. This means that the Hollywood Film finds itself in an exceedingly protean environment in which its cultural boundaries and assumptions will become increasingly permeable. The development of new communication technologies will only escalate this permeability.

             Many films are put together today with multinational financing packages and creative collaborations. Approaching the millennium, if there is the threat of an imperium as Mr. Malcolm suggested, there is also the possibility of what the Mexican American artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena calls "border piracy" and all the transgressive possibilities that come with that notion.

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