Caught Between The Rock and Hollywood

According to this news item, the big issue at Cannes this year is how 70% of all European movie ticket sales are to American films.

If you read the item youíll see that thereís a great deal of both confusion and emotion involved. The French are so upset that theyíre claiming that any picture funded by American studios is a US movie, and so ineligible to compete in French film festivals. This includes the Harry Potter films, movies that have nothing to do with America except that dollars were used to produce it.

Itís understandable that the Europeans are interested in this issue. American culture, particularly US popular culture, is incredibly appealing. The appeal seems to cross many cultural lines, something that is very puzzling to the cultural elites in Europe.

Canada has long been aware that they had to preserve their cultural identity. Since 1932 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has striven to insure that radio programming had content produced by Canadians. Theyíve done this with a quota system, requiring that a certain percentage of aired content be domestically produced. The same rules were applied to television when it became widespread in the 1950ís.

The Europeans are facing a double threat, and Iím rather sympathetic to their plight. Not only is the US entertainment industry an 800 pound gorilla that appears unstoppable, but in forming the European Union theyíre also breaking down many of the trade and travel barriers that protected their unique cultural identities. If theyíre truly interested in speaking with one voice then itís inevitable that the accents will start to fade over time.

So far the Europeans havenít made a firm decision on any course of action. Thereís some talk of promoting the distribution of European films over the Internet, the idea being that people would enjoy movies from their own country if it was easier to watch them. I donít think thatís the problem, and I think the concept that the European movie-watching public will flock to domestically produced entertainment if they just knew that it was out there to be deeply flawed. Companies that are willing to rent DVDís and movies through the mail already exist, after all, so itís tough to imagine that a lack of access is causing a lack of interest.

So whatís the answer? I donít have one. But I can make a prediction. Considering how enamored the Europeans are over runaway bureaucracy, expect to see some sort of EU Commission to Ensure Cultural Identity being formed in the next few years.

15 thoughts on “Caught Between The Rock and Hollywood”

  1. I haven’t paid to see a German movie for almost twenty years, and only have done so for two French ones in the period of time. There simply wasn’t more I was prepared to pay for.

    I hope that you are wrong about the new bureaucracy, but I expect that American movies are going to be increasingly tailored for foreign audiences. American audiences aren’t willing to be paying enough to make movies successes by that revenue alone.

  2. Well, it always seems to me we are defined by what we like and we like what we are defined by. That’s pop culture. If we want to talk about high brow, well, if you get very far away from that liking thing then art loses its power.

    Are all you guys too young to remember the Clark Theater? (double bill, changed daily, 1.25 or 75 cents, 50 cents for women – who pretty much needed to stick to the balcony if they didn’t want to get mauled – on special days.) Open 24-hours a day. It was a couple blocks from the civic center plaza? That’s where I became immersed in Bergman and Antonioni. It was pretty wonderful, made more wonderful, perhaps, by its cheapness and the fact that bag ladies would commandeer a few seats and set themselves in for the night. I heard it closed in the seventies.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I like a strong sense of place in my culture. (Hemingway’s good but his ambivalence about his own identity doesn’t come near Faulkner’s sure sense of place and ambivalence about the values it embodies.) My sense is that the universals are a given; they are deep. And so an artist who deeply examines his own (or perhaps some other quite specific) culture is likely to say someothing that is at once a sensitive depiction of that place & that time but also a stronger statement on what underlies that culture.

    But then, I’m a sucker for realism and old movies.

  3. Ultimately, this is a “pull” market, not a “push” market. You can’t force people to watch what you want them to watch. You have to tailor your product to the tastes of the audience, and for the most part it seems European filmmakers aren’t doing so any longer.

    They could learn a lesson from filmmakers in India, and Taiwan, and Japan. They’re doing a lot better, and you don’t hear any of them whining about competition from the US.

  4. The American film industry should show its solidarity by making an all-star, “We Are The World”-type video, sung in French, in which well-known actors and industry figures assure the Europeans that Hollywood loathes and despises America, too. This obvious from their entertainment products, but coming out and saying it would lend clarity.

  5. One of the reasons why I don’t watch much TV or see many movies is that I have a strong sense that a lot of the actors and writers have contempt for traditional American values, and often for the audience as well. I doubt that I’m alone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rank cynicism and political foolishness displayed by American entertainment-industry people lose them business on balance.

  6. “The French are so upset that theyíre claiming that any picture funded by American studios is a US movie, and so ineligible to compete in French film festivals.”

    An even better example than the Harry Potter films is: “A Very Long Engagement.” The spoken language of the film is French, it has French actors, French crew, a French director, was filmed in France, and is about French characters living in France. But, since the majority of its funding came from an American studio, the courts have ruled it’s not a French film.

  7. I suspect that the American movies foreigners love to watch are action-adventure flicks in which visuals are more important than dialogue, even if the dialogue is delivered in Spanish with an Austrian accent – “Hasta la vista, baby”. Once upon a time Americans flocked to Japanese movies – monster movies with really dumb dubbed English, but exciting footage of giant moths and gorillas trampling scale models of Tokyo. I know it is a TV program and not a movie, but is “The Simpsons” American or Korean?

  8. I can’t remember the last time I paid to watch a movie in the theater. 90% of the movies put out are crap nowadays.

    “EU Commission to Ensure Cultural Identity being formed in the next few years.”

    I believe they have something along those lines called “fund to promote European films” or similar. I saw it in the credits a few times on TV movies while in Europe. Crap films nonetheless.

  9. The networks seem to be in some bizarre circling the wagons mode. This is a country of three hundred million people; there may not be a Shakespeare out there but surely someone has guts and someone else creativity. Shakespeare and Sophocles were popular. Don’t give me this crap about the “general public want bread and circuses.” I suspect that Jonathan is right. This comes from a contempt for us as well as an unwillingness to respect what they are doing themselves. (If they respected themselves or their audiences would they have come up with these bizarre survivor series?)

    I think one of the tragic and depressing facts about today is far too many people don’t respect what they do – and so they don’t respect themselves or their “customers”.

    CBS is hunkering down with CSI and merely setting them in different locales; NBC is circling the wagons with Law & Order. This does mean no cast member can hold them over a barrel and extract a large salary – producers just replace actors. Well, as a business trick, that isn’t bad. And in the past trends dominated (I can even remember when Desilu had a strong hold on programming, westerns, doctor programs, etc. all had their day), but I can’t remember when they were all from the same group doing precisely (not figurtively – sure they did that in the past) the same thing. This seems either absurd cowardice on the network’s part or an absence of any creative class.

  10. The problem with European arts in general is that they have to much government involvement. Government does not do creativity. Government funded art must play it safe in long run.

    In the end, your customers are the people who give you the money. To many European artist concentrate on trying to please the State in order to get funding instead of following their muse. European art is increasingly confirmatory and dull. They wallow in elitism, proud of their inability to touch the hearts of the great mass of world’s population. There only customers are the agents of the State.

    American art, at least the free-market supported parts of it, is alive and growing. Artist prosper by producing art that seems real and significant to huge numbers of people.

    Its not just America. Asian artist (outside of China) have virtually no state support yet their impact on world pop culture is enormous. Japanese and Korean manga, animie, computer games and even food are huge worldwide and growing.

    In turning to the state to protect and nurture their arts Europeans are feeding the monster that wounded them in first place.

  11. This is no business of the government. The dominance of US TV series in Germany lasted exactly as long as there was a public TV monopoly. We didnīt have much of an an entertainment industry 25 years ago. But after private channels proliferated in Germany, much of the content became local. The film industry has also benefited immensely from this. Of course, we now get the same old soap operas but with German actors, so it is debatable whether this constitutes a victory for German culture. For me, the real scandal is that some excellent US series now get buried after 11 p.m. or are not shown at all.

    The question of who finances a movie is in any case irrelevant. Due to a exemption in the German tax code (recently abolished), a lot of German money was invested in Hollywood, where it helped to finance movies like “Gangs of New York” or “Mission Impossible”. Does that make them sufficiently German to be shown in France?

    Finally, there is nothing particulary American about much of the Hollywood product we get to see. It is generic entertainment for an international audience – true world cinema.

  12. The problem with European arts in general is that they have to much government involvement.

    The problem with European art is that there is no European art, only art from individuals living in different states with slightly different cultures, not necessarily interested in what’s going on at their neighbours.

    There is no such thing as a European anything, except when it comes to geography, or EU-treaties, and slogans politicians use to create the illusion of a fully functioning internal market.

    The only truly pan-European media seem to be American inventions, like CNN or MTV and its local branches.

    And, to protect the movie industries in the 25 member industries, if there are any, the EU until has always opted for the impossible split. Firstly they want each country to do its protect and emphasize its own unique culture. But secondly, out of those national protection schemes something must arise that has sufficient schale to compeed with what US culture ships over, and is acknowledged in other EU member states as well.

  13. As I screwed up that last paragraph, here it is again:

    And, to protect the movie industries in the 25 member states, if there are any, the EU has always opted for the impossible split. Firstly, they want each country to protect and emphasize its own unique culture. But secondly, out of those national protection schemes something must arise that have sufficient scale to compete with what US culture ships over, and is acknowledged in other EU member states as well.

  14. As you note, the Canadian government requires that shows produced in Canada contain a certain amount of “canadian content.” Second City Television (SCTV) fulfilled this requirement by creating Bob and Doug MacKenzie, one of their most hilarious running skits.


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