At opposite ends of Eurasia, France and South Korea share a cultural problem: Their citizens prefer American to homegrown movies. In 2000, the share of the domestic market that went to the domestic product dropped to 30% in France [Telegraph] and to 33% in Korea [Korea Times]. In both countries, Hollywood movies claim the largest share of the box office. But just how serious a problem this really is and just what should be done about it depends on which Frenchman or Korean is speaking.
French film critic Michel Ciment sees a serious problem: "The American cinema has imposed its rhythm and subject matter on the young [French] audience. When they see different films," meaning even films in the classic French manner, "they have difficulty adapting" [Telegraph]. Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong agrees. At the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, he called for an international coalition to stop "the United States' attempts to use free trade treaties to expand the reach of American movies."
But if Ciment or Lee want to protect their respective national film industries, they must first plan on doing battle at home. The free trade that has motivated creation of the European Union inevitably undermines each constituent nation’s cultural uniqueness, sometimes to the secondary benefit of the Americans, and many of the French are enthusiastic Eurocrats.
"The problem is Europe," complains Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the president of UniFrance, a state-funded body promoting French film. "Can we keep rules which protect France’s film industry? Rules are more important than money, but we are looking at a Europe of bankers, not cultural people" [Telegraph].
Korea has bankers too, of course, and Korea’s equivalent of Toscan du Plantier’s EU problem is free trade between Korea and Japan. In the latest phase of a trade liberalization that began in 1998, the Korean market is open to unrestricted competition by Japanese pop music and animated movies ("Japanimation"). Korean Culture Minister Park Jie-won, a free marketeer, proclaims a rising tide that will lift all boats [Korea Times]. Lee Chang-Dong presumably disagrees.
WHO IS THE ENEMY?
So is the battle then between the United States and the bankers of the world, on one side, and the endangered national cultures, on the other? This, again, depends on whose national culture you’re talking about.
Just as the end of the international Cold War has fostered the eruption of smaller national wars, so the emergence of supra-national polities like the European Union has fostered the resurgence of older ethnic identities that some thought dead.
These newly energized minority cultures are oftenmore comfortable with the remote anonymity of the EU or even the USA than with the more immediately intrusive nationalism of an erstwhile great power like Britain or France.
Thus, the biggest and the smallest make common cause against the middle-sized. "As part of their efforts to downgrade the nation state, EU federalists are led into…backing Welsh, Catalan or Bavarian minority cultures—but not national cultures," writes Nick Fraser, who sees European cultural policy as the quest for "a supranational sense of identity [that] will ultimately emerge as the secular religion of Europe" [Telegraph].
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has built support for his EU federalism by fostering the "devolution" that has created parliaments in Scotland and Wales. For Blair’s Euroskeptic Tory opponents, one parliament was enough, thank you, and the key identity was not English, Scottish, or Welsh but British. But the Scots and the Welsh are happy, and Labor, for all its recent tribulations, is still in power.
As for the Irish, they have thrived within the EU as they never could have if Ireland had remained (economically even if no longer politically) John Bull’s Other Island. The EU has by now replaced the United States in Ireland as the counterweight to British cultural and economic domination.
Like the Irish, the Australians, who live in a not-quite-former colony where the British governor can still fire the prime minister (and did so in 1975), "tend to like Americans more than most nations do, although we do not have the least desire to be like them" [Guardian].
Granting that globalization may pay paradoxical dividends to cultural diversity, the case of cinema is still not a happy one. If major national schools of film-making like the French, the British, and the Italian go into terminal decline and this art is left to Hollywood and to the market-liberated little nations and minority cultures, then Hollywood will be more dominant than ever.
Yet if that dreary prospect is to be avoided, it may be less because the endangered national schools have protected themselves from competition than because the most talented within those schools have mobilized to compete. And the first step in this mobilization may be conceding that Hollywood does not succeed by money alone.
A MATTER OF QUALITY?
According to one British critic, the reason why British film has been in decline for thirty years is poor screenwriting. Andrew O’Hagan writes: "There may be more cynicism in Hollywood, and…zero tolerance of what used to be called social responsibility, but even their most appalling movies are better written than ours"[Telegraph].
Filice Laudadio, the head of Cinecittá, Italy’s most important commercial studio, sees poor screenwriting as the besetting fault of Italian cinema as well [NYTimes]. Laudadio went so far as to establish a screenwriting prize in 1985 to stimulate better scripts, but the problem continues. Not a single Italian film made it to the main competition at Cannes in 2000.
A part of the problem, of course, is that top talent tends to gravitate towards Hollywood. Two admired younger French directors, Eric Zonca and Bruno Dumont, neither of whom speaks English, intend to make their next films in the United States [Telegraph].
But when top talent stays home, and perhaps particularly when it pays attention to screenwriting, it can still compete with Hollywood, particularly for markets outside the United States itself. For years, "Bollywood"—the Indian film industry centered in Bombay — produced musical extravaganzas with mythological or otherwise improbable plots that were popular in India and nowhere else.
"Bollywood" continues to prosper in India, but more recently Indian films with serious storylines, breaking with the "Bollywood" formula, have found a crossover audience in Britain [The Age].
Other highly distinct film cultures may be difficult for Hollywood to dominate. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was greeted with a yawn in Hong Kong, where the genre originated. Hong Kong has been there and done that [China Times].
Finally, if money can lure overseas talent to Hollywood, money can also lure Hollywood talent overseas. Canada’s strikingly successful strategy has been to be to fight American imports by counter-importing actual Americans. A combination of tax breaks, government subsidies, and favorable currency exchange rates has made Canada the most serious competition Hollywood has ever faced.
Vancouver is the third-largest film-making city in the world, after Los Angeles and New York [Ottawa Citizen], and Toronto, where the film industry is worth $1.2 billion, [CBC] is talking about building an enormous new "film city" to help attract and host more. Such plans are aimed at a similar transfer of technology and personnel from the United States to Canada. If the resulting product, so far, is neither culturally Canadian nor, as to its quality, even top-drawer Hollywood, the moment may yet come.
Though protectionism will continue, it may no longer be the strategy of choice even for those who most cherish the traditional protectionist goal of cultural diversity. The most talented people in the strongest cultures will always want to take their national product international just as Fellini and Godard and Bergman did in the golden years of international cinema.
There are those who would argue that that kind of internationalism isn’t possible today, given evidence of declining national film industries in Europe and elsewhere. On the other hand, World Music has become a thriving global phenomenon that does very well next to an American pop industry no less slick and market savvy than the movie industry. American movies might dominate for now, but there is reason to believe that in the longer run, film diversity might be better served by giving audiences what they want.