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.

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