Books June 2004

Offshoring the Audience

If France makes movies for the French, and America makes movies for the world, who's left to make movies for America?
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This country's getting to where it can't hear its own voice. —Woody Guthrie

CEOs of the seven major movie studios routinely top lists of the hardest bosses to work for in corporate America. Fox's Rupert Murdoch and Paramount's Jonathan Dolgen didn't get where they are by fixing their own paper jams. Imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to report to any of them.

Okay, now imagine what it would be like to work for all of them. That will be the fundamental job description of the Motion Picture Association of America's new chair: somehow keeping these seven demanding people happy, or, absent that, minimizing their apoplexy. As this essay went to press, no one knew who would win this dubious prize, or why anybody in his right mind would want to. The retiring Congressman Billy Tauzin, of Louisiana, even considered flacking for the pharmaceutical industry rather than take the MPAA job, but he discovered that his erstwhile position overseeing drug legislation may have left him both over- and disqualified. The old MPAA head, Jack Valenti, kept his own snowy one attached to his shoulders only by tirelessly lobbying before the two bodies that most affect his minders: the World Trade Organization (and its precursors) and the U.S. government, from which Valenti sprang thirty-eight years ago as a young LBJ apparatchik.

In the course of his slow-motion fadeaway at the National Association of Theater Owners convention, in March, Valenti cited two intriguing statistics: first, that domestic theatrical admissions had declined by four percent in 2003; then, as a silver lining, that the international box office was up by five percent. But at no time did he appear to entertain the possibility that these two statistics might be in some way connected.

The reason these two percentages resemble each other so closely is that they reflect the exact same phenomenon as seen from opposite directions. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. The movie business is booming abroad precisely because Hollywood is making pictures for the world market —at the expense of customers in America, where, not surprisingly, business is tanking. It's that hoariest of economic clichés, a zero-sum game. Lately the film industry has been wringing its hands over "runaway production," which is understood to mean forsaking good old union shoots in Culver City or Burbank to film on the cheap in Vancouver or Romania or New Zealand. This is a legitimate problem, but far from the most serious one facing the industry. A far graver threat is runaway consumption: looking abroad not just for the workers who make the movies but for the customers who watch them.

None of which especially troubles all the screenwriting gurus who can't make a living writing movies themselves but keep coming out with books like Andrew Horton's Screenwriting for a Global Market. This volume starts with fifty pages or so of the author's war stories from his days not only as an Oklahoma film professor and convener of screenwriting seminars but also as a co-writer on various international co-productions—all either anemically distributed or unproduced. There follow forty pages of Horton's frankly feeble attempts at film criticism, interspersed with numerous quotations from the films' customer reviews on, embarrassingly, the Internet Movie Database. For the rest of the book Horton surrenders the writing duties almost entirely, handing them off to friends, some of whom visited his campus in November of 2000 for a "global screenwriting conference." Leaders of such script seminars resemble nothing so much as the California shopkeepers of 150 years ago who made a mint off the Gold Rush without ever finding a nugget of their own. Why prospect for pennies a day when you can get rich selling prospectors five-dollar hardboiled eggs instead? Horton himself seems a good enough egg. He hands out encouragement and exclamation points like candy corn. "Vive la différence!" he enthuses, on his perennial subject of cross-cultural collaboration. Later, as the 200-page mark heaves into view, it's "Write and enjoy!" In the face of such cheerleading eagerness to please, dogpiling onto Screenwriting for a Global Market feels almost unsporting. But for people who watch movies, Horton's choice to focus on the international market—which imparts the book's only lasting interest—is a dispiriting sign of the times.

Inevitably, the pervasive Hollywood question "Is there an international end to this?" has consequences for what sorts of pictures get made in America. Many countries, France most loudly, have condemned incursions by American culture, lamenting all the film and TV bookings lost by indigenous creations. Probably they're right. Every bit as alarming, though, is what this tendency is doing to Hollywood films. If France makes movies for the French, and America makes movies for the world, who's left to make movies for America? Would masterpieces like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, played against a background of Washington senatorial skulduggery, and His Girl Friday, with its muzzle-loading, too-fast-to-translate comic dialogue, even get produced nowadays?

Here, alas, is the virus laying waste to modern Hollywood movies. What do, say, the Batman and Matrix pictures have in common, besides banality? Just for openers, insipid, infrequent dialogue. Why take the trouble to bang out good lines—supposing one can—if they'll only be mistranslated for their real target markets, abroad? Both these movies could have been silents if they weren't so loud. They're overbearing, carelessly told, and gang-written into incomprehensibility. Small wonder they were tepidly welcomed in the United States. Americans at the movies are guilty of the same mistake in the early twenty-first century that grown-ups made at the movies in the 1980s: supposing that the pictures are made for them.

From this perspective one can see global movie distribution as a species of product-dumping—except that movie-making may be the only business that generates more revenue by dumping shoddy widgets overseas than by selling first-rate ones at home. Today's bad movies are made to be dumped. This neatly inverts what's happened in the tobacco business. Rather than drum up a world full of buyers to compensate for disappearing customers and inimical lawmaking stateside, as cigarette makers do, movie moguls are writing off a vigorous niche at home in favor of burgeoning theatrical and satellite opportunities abroad. American film studios have done what most other industries only dream about, however shortsightedly: they've offshored their customers.

By now the American moviegoer may only dimly remember the type of movie that used to address him not just as a customer but as a countryman. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—the only picture ever named to both National Review's list of the "best conservative movies" of all time and the recommended-films list of the Democratic Socialists of America—occupies a genre historically dismissed as box-office poison abroad. Movies with plenty of rapid-fire banter, movies with more than one African-American character, movies about athletics (especially baseball)—all these vie for the title of "most notorious international box-office jinx"; but movies about politics have them all skunked.

The conventional wisdom says that the world's moviegoers don't appreciate the niceties of U.S. politics. Who wants to see a film about something he or she doesn't understand? (This may help clarify why hardly any political pictures since All the President's Men have raked it in with domestic moviegoers.) Somehow, though, Mr. Smith got produced, and in the same glory year—1939—that yielded easily a dozen other classics, including Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both directed by Victor Fleming, whose impending biography from the Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow can't come out soon enough). These classics got made because in 1939 pictures didn't cost an average of $100 million apiece to make and market, and so could find their way into the black without pandering to international audiences. Ultimately, they got made because in 1939 the world market was still just a nice bonus, a modest hedge against a fickle industry's occasional reverses.

Now, in contrast, the hedge has outgrown the castle. International film box-office revenues regularly surpass domestic ones. If expectations for a movie are high enough, it will open in major markets around the world concurrently with its American release, largely to avert the threat of piracy. In our lifetimes instantaneous worldwide satellite-to-theater distribution is expected to render all but obsolete the cumbersome process of striking thousands of prints and mailing them around in heavy metal cans. Put all this together with the found money of still-booming DVD sales both here and abroad (which has helped disguise fundamental long-term weaknesses in the industry), and North American box-office returns don't look like the main attraction anymore. In less than thirty years, roughly since the premiere of Star Wars, domestic grosses—once the industry's bread and butter—have become a virtual loss leader.

The 1970s, according to received wisdom, represented the last great flowering of American film. We're regularly assured that Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch inaugurated a golden age to rival the 1930s, and it's a tenable case. A book published last year, the British film critic Ryan Gilbey's It Don't Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies, parrots the party line about seventies filmmaking with craven auteurist loyalty. The studio system collapsed under its own weight, the thesis goes, and into the breach rode a generation of young directors who first rescued and then ruined Hollywood—or were ruined by it. Gilbey even devotes each of his ten chapters to a different seventies auteur: Altman, Scorsese, Spielberg, and the rest.

One could, however, imagine a very different book about 1970s filmmaking that profiled none of these men. Instead it would devote a chapter apiece to the less erratic, more thematically unified work of each of the men and women who merely wrote all those illustrious directors' movies for them. Rather than draw tortured auteurist parallels between The French Connection and The Exorcist simply because William Friedkin directed them both, such a book might more profitably examine the career of, say, Robert Getchell. In the 1970s Getchell received sole screen credit for both Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Bound for Glory. In the years since, he's written, among others, Sweet Dreams and This Boy's Life. Yet no film scholars think to study Getchell's career—whatever its inevitable contingencies at the whim of studio fortune or favor—as an organic whole. Add to Getchell's body of work those of the similarly anonymous Buck Henry, Nancy Dowd, Waldo Salt, and any number of others, and it becomes apparent that the 1970s represented not the decade of the director but a golden age of screenwriting.

To read most director-centric film criticism, of course, one wouldn't suspect anything of the kind. With the exceptions of Pauline Kael (Raising Kane) and Richard Corliss (Talking Pictures), most American critics have bought into auteurist orthodoxy without thinking twice. For decades the tacit transatlantic understanding about film has gone roughly like this: America sends France movies, and France sends America theory. French movies, brilliant though they can be, tend not to make much impact at American theaters, but French theory —like a proliferating non-native plant—has driven out any domestic attempt at a poetics of American film.

This one-sidedness all but ignores the possibility that auteurism has historically worked much better as a way of discussing French movies than American ones. Without getting all bollixed up in Platonist categories, it's not too farfetched to suggest that what used to make American films recognizably American was not how they looked but how their screenwriters made them sound. Through the work of journalists like Herman Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht and playwrights like Robert Sherwood, the American talkie came to value word over image, persiflage over mise-en-scène, verbal swagger over visual sweep. Nor is this priority merely a relic of the 1930s and 1940s. One has only to cock an ear at the magnificent byplay in Peter Stone's script for Charade, or the tongue-and-groove carpentry of Paddy Chayefsky's The Americanization of Emily (that rare movie whose hero ultimately makes a choice with which the audience is invited to disagree), to hear the voice of Hollywood film at its most thrillingly American.

Most of the breast-beating about American film overseas usually accompanies more or less the same song: poor Gilles, he'd like to take Odile to a new French filme, but those Yanqui cowboys are tying up all the theaters. Well, what about Phil, who just wants to see a good Hollywood picture like the ones he used to know, only it so happens the kitchen ran out of that dish around 1975?

Before anybody makes free with charges of cultural imperialism, we ought to spell out just who that imperialism's victims are. Foreign film and television industries, up to a point. Foreign audiences, to be sure. But the biggest loser when the American entertainment industry anoints itself culture-maker to the world is, inescapably, the American audience. Good foreign films just aren't getting American distribution the way they used to, and that's deplorable. But even worse, from our perspective, is that nobody's making movies just for us anymore.

Unlike the French film industry, Hollywood posts a trade deficit but once a year. That's at the Oscars, where British, Australian, and foreign-language films increasingly dominate in key categories. Consider this year's nominees for best original screenplay: The Barbarian Invasions, by Denys Arcand; Dirty Pretty Things, by Steven Knight; Finding Nemo, by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds, from a story by Stanton; In America, by Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, and Kirsten Sheridan; and Lost in Translation, by Sofia Coppola, which won.

Take away the victorious independent film (set in Japan) and the cartoon (set off the coast of Australia), and we're left with a Canadian, an Englishman, and three members of the same Irish family. The previous two years' winning scribes, Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her) and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), weren't American either. The former's film wasn't even written in English; nor was its fellow nominee Y Tu Mamá También. Effectively, the major American studios and their writers are out of the originality business. As the savvy film columnist Patrick Goldstein wrote earlier this year, "In today's Hollywood, if you're talking about serious drama, the original script is almost as extinct as a woolly mammoth."

American writers fare better in the adaptation category, where some audience familiarity with the source material tends to make production chiefs less nervous about green-lighting movies. But adaptation is an interpretive art, like criticism or symphony conducting—or, for that matter, film directing. The artist in one of these fields can't really start his work until the original artist finishes his. For this reason the health of the original-script market is more reliable than the market for adaptations as a bellwether of the industry's health. And by that standard, if by few financial ones (yet, anyway), American film is in a world of hurt.

The reasons for this, like the names of the devil, are legion. Corporate studio ownership doesn't help. The concomitant tyranny of opening-weekend box-office performance, which favors blockbuster adaptations over gradual, word-of-mouth hits, helps even less. But these and other factors are as nothing compared with the globalization of Hollywood.

None of which should be construed as an argument against cultural exchange, or for xenophobia. In theory, film as the universal language is a laudable goal. In practice, it'll have to wait for a world less divided by linguistic, social, and religious barriers than this one. Maybe someday, as it was when movies were young, the world's lowest common denominator will be a Charlie Chaplin comedy. For now it's still The Matrix: Revolutions.

Can American film be saved from the multinationals who are heedlessly globalizing it into gruel? Probably not. Hollywood persists in offshoring its audience, with the direst consequences for which movies get made and how. It grows ever harder to believe that the Writers Guild actually used to give an annual award for the "screenplay dealing most ably with problems of the American scene." It was the Robert Meltzer Award, named after a promising screenwriter who died following the Normandy invasion. In 1949 there were eleven nominees for the Meltzer Award. In 1951 the award was suspended—perhaps because, by then, even admitting that the American scene might have its problems was a great way to get yourself subpoenaed. But in the 1970s (regardless of who gets the credit) movies dealt more ably with problems of the American scene than they ever had before, or have since. And today? Today the American film landscape increasingly resembles a decrepit city, ringed by lucrative international markets like so many prosperous suburbs, but burnt out and hollow at its core.

David Kipen is the book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR's Day to Day. He was formerly an editor at Daily Variety and Buzz magazine.
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