The Case for Splitting Hollywood

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Image by photoNiki via Flickr

In the Hutong
1558 hrs.

While I was absorbing caffeine and beta carotene at a sunny Beverly Hills espresso spigot earlier this month, I came across a superb article in the Wall Street Journal explaining how the U.S. motion picture business is starting to make films that are aimed at an international market. The phenomenon has reached such a stage, in fact, that movies ONLY likely to appeal to a domestic U.S. audience are not getting the green light, and those films deemed promising but too US centric are being given script and casting makeovers to make themselves more appealing to international audience.

Darn those Foreigners Paying to See Our Movies!

About time Hollywood woke up to the rest of the planet, I say, but writing in The City Journal, New York’s local Neoconservative periodical, author Andrew Klavan apparently thinks otherwise. He suggests that the reason there is such poor fare in the theaters this summer is because Hollywood is spending too much time making movies for the rest of the world, and not spending enough time making American Movies.

“…perhaps the economic necessity of appealing to countries other than America has sapped American movies of their quality. For surely, the thing that once made American movies so great was the greatness of unique American values: individualism, self-reliance, a healthy disrespect for the powerful, and the romance of infinite territory.”

And it gets better (or worse:)

“American movies will not be great again until they’re made by artists who comprehend America’s unique greatness. Let the rest of the world make its own movies.”

Klavan’s xenophobia-suffused, evidence-free rant is unbecoming of a journal that one would think advocates the competitiveness of American enterprise abroad, in particular an industry as important to U.S. export numbers as film and entertainment. Let us take a look at why.

This Year’s Movies Are The Worst…Again

First, the summer is not without some fine examples of filmmaking. I saw four films while I was in the US, all dictated by the tastes and sensitivities of my eight-year old: “Toy Story 3,” “The Last Airbender,” “Despicable Me,” and “Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.” The first was superb, the second tolerable, the third excellent, and the fourth…well, let’s just say the kid really enjoyed it. It is a limited sample, I will grant, but it does not seem to imply that the US industry is incapable of making great films.

And the stream of complaints about the “garbage” coming out of Hollywood predates the establishment of the Motion Picture Production code of 1930. Hollywood turns out its share of dreck (as does Mr. Klavan’s own industry, publishing), but suggesting that somehow that Hollywood’s Crap Coefficient has increased of late without providing anything more than a single anecdote is a failure of logic. To go even further and offer a reason for such an unproven phenomenon is plain nonsense.

I think Hollywood actually goes through cycles, and is not on one-way elevator to Hell. Just as soon as people lose their tolerance for big-screen sludge, corrective action will be taken. It is worth noting, however, that usually the people decrying most loudly the poverty of what gets produced in Hollywood are those who either see themselves as artists rather than makers of commercial films, and those whose pictures get overlooked by The Dream Factories. It is hard, therefore, not to sniff the vintage of sour grapes in Mr. Klavan’s dismissal of recently released motion pictures.

America Alone Makes No Blockbusters, And That’s Good for America

Second, the lurch overseas is a good thing, both for Hollywood and America. As Mr. Klavan implied, the reason Hollywood makes the movies that it does (and by this I mean Big Hollywood: Columbia, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Universal) is because the town has become addicted making their major bets on “tentpole” films. These large- and super-sized-budget films are believed to be necessary in order to get American viewers out from behind their small screens and over to a multiplex. That, in turn, has led to budgets so large that even a decent US showing with tickets selling for upwards of $10 a pop is no longer enough to deliver profits to the studios. With DVD sales flat or shrinking, there is only one place for a healthy American industry to go: overseas. Mr. Klavan and I both understand this “economic necessity.”

But here is where Mr. Klavan and I part ways: this trend is unlikely to cease, and I don’t think it should. From a purely American/Hollywood point of view, is it in fact better to let the world make their own movies? National motion picture industries around the world have followed similar patterns, but the result for most has been to surrender a lucrative chunk of their markets to American filmmakers. Those that have succeeded in making movies for themselves – like China and India – seek now to create global audiences for their own fare, reaching into Hollywood’s own back yard, much in the way that Britain’s better filmmakers have done.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler for many years focused their efforts on building American cars for American drivers, cars that expressed values believed to be uniquely American. The result not only clear on the roads of the world, but on America’s roads. Does Mr. Klavan wish the same outcome upon Hollywood as upon Detroit?

Time to Really Split Hollywood

As with the writings of Karl Marx, I don’t disagree quite as much with the writer’s observations as I do with his diagnosis and perscription. The real solution to Mr. Klavan’s conundrum is to recognize that there should really be two Hollywoods: one that makes movies for the world (including Americans), and one that makes movies for Americans.

The former would continue in the industry’s proven ways, spending heavily on films aimed at a worldwide audience, including (one presumes) the United States. This is where I suspect the Big Six studios, the membership of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to focus most of their efforts, endowed as they are not only with the financing and production resources, but also highly developed global marketing and distribution networks.

The other Hollywood would make movies for Americans, but because it was addressing the specialized needs of the U.S. market (and the remainder of the moviegoing dollar after Americans had enjoyed the global flicks). The budgets would be much more modest, the marketing more guerrilla and less major media. The MPAA members might make some of these films, but most of them would come from independent filmmakers.

One could argue that Hollywood is actually already moving in this direction now. What it is going to take to complete that migration into two parallel industries is much more vocal support for independent filmmaking from influential voices in the industry and from the movie-going public. With more public support for independent film, financing and distribution could give what Mr. Klavan would call The American Film a fighting chance in an increasingly global industry.

However the present trend shakes out, one brutal fact must be acknowledged: the films of the sort that Mr. Klavan once made cannot be delivered with eight-figure budgets. If the heyday of The American Film is to return, then the makers of those films must rediscover a treasured but nearly lost American virtue: thrift. As a fellow conservative, I find it disturbing that Mr. Klavan is silent on Hollywood’s budgetary profligacy even as he skewers the Administration for the same failing. I would argue that the sheer cost of making a movie has already done more lasting damage to the industry than catering to global audiences ever could.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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2 Responses to The Case for Splitting Hollywood

  1. Michiel V says:

    Perhaps a dumb question, but exactly what kind of ‘American’ movies are we talking about here? The WSJ article talks mostly about films that were either canned or haven’t come out yet, and I’m still somewhat fuzzy as to what makes a film ‘American’, apart from aliens blowing up only Americans instead of also zapping some Europeans or Asians.
    As far as I know, all movies made by Americans, by ‘Hollywood’ or others are ‘American’ movies. Some are crap, some are brilliant and lots are just ‘entertaining’.
    So which ones are ‘American’ as opposed to ‘World minus America’? The American Pie series? Adaptations? Terminator? Shrek? Independence Day? Sideways?

    • David Wolf says:

      That’s actually a superb question: What IS an American Movie, especially given the internationalization of production?

      Do the Lord of the Rings Trilogy count as American movies? Sure, they were distributed by an American studio, but they were made in New Zealand by a Kiwi director using an international cast and based on a British literary work.

      For purposes of discussion (since this line of questioning is a big one), I’d go with what appears to be Hollywood’s definition: a movie unlikely to do at least 40% of its business outside of the US because of subject matter, script, stars, or some other factor.

      I have to agree – Anchorman II would probably not have gone over well in Germany, much less in, say, China.

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