Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 25, 2002

World film industry is globalization at its best

By Tom Plate

Consider the concern around the world that globalization in all its forms is Americanization (if not U.S. cultural imperialism) in disguise, and that its most powerful exemplar is the Hollywood export.

But when the curtain drops on this century, suggests a major new West Coast study, Hollywood may no longer be the biggest star on the worldwide silver screen — or at least, may no longer have the lead role all to itself.

As of the moment, of course, its global standing is epic. A huge share of the world entertainment market is Hollywood's. More than half of the audiences for many of blockbusters hail from outside the United States.

This very success has bred enemies as well as imitators. Authoritarians left and right, religious fundamentalists and cultural conservatives — whether in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or France — look warily at American film imports as conveyors of value disease.

But over the long run — suggests a provocative study by the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California-Los Angeles — the world need not fret too much. Should dynamic globalization indeed prove a two-way export-import street, other stars eventually will shine just as brightly.

The most likely candidate to challenge Hollywood for the lead is Asia. India and China together boast not only one-third of the world's population (the United States has 4 percent) but have thriving film and television industries.

Whereas Hollywood releases about 250 commercial films a year, India alone cranks out 800 to 900, though not many of the big-ticket variety which is the U.S. forte. Cinematic output and creativity also are rising in the Philippines, Iran, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and of course, Hong Kong. The Chinese film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" has grossed more than $100 million in the United States alone — the first foreign-language film to take in that kind of cash.

Consider surprising Iran, which many in the West dismiss as little more than a closed-minded Mars. Indeed, almost all of the cinematic products of our Hollywood infidels are banned there. But the unintended consequence of the mullahs' megalomania — or narrow-mindedness — has been to nurture an indigenous film industry that has people everywhere buzzing. Suddenly, Iranian films are hot. "The White Balloon," "The Apple" and "Children of Heaven" stir audiences everywhere. A few years ago, the Iran-made tragedy 'The Taste of Cherries" copped Cannes' coveted Palm d'Or.

Should such trends worry the United States, where the film industry is such a pivotal portion of the economy? On the contrary, argues the UCLA study, "The Potential Role of the Media in Preventing Deadly Conflicts":

The increasing Asianization of the film business could represent globalization at its most desirable. Exposing a broader sector of the U.S. audience to divergent cultural and political perspectives could prove of enormous value. Rather than experiencing a fearsome and reductive "clash of civilizations," we would get a truly cosmopolitan world entertainment media (e.g., more movies might even show serious problems being solved without guns or bombs).

Mass entertainment, concludes the study, "will not in itself be adequate to overcome inclinations toward hatred and violence. But it can help."

For Americans, the de-Hollywoodization of the worldwide film business may compel a measure of attitude adjustment. Grieving Americans who were shocked after Sept. 11 to discover that not everyone reacted to the World Trade Center massacre the same way might want to catch an unusual new movie titled "11'09'01 September 11." It's an anthology, of sorts, strung together from directors in 11 countries.

The Egyptian contribution, by director Youssef Chahine, contains dialogue making the case for terrorist attacks against the United States and Israel. The segment from Iran shows countrymen building bomb shelters in preparation for expected U.S. air attacks. India's Mira Nair tells the story of a Pakistani American who died while courageously helping firefighters at the World Trade Center and who, posthumously, became the target of an anti-terrorist probe simply because, as his mother puts it, his name wasn't "Jesus" — or "David" or "Cary."

Curtains go up on the controversial pic in France on Sept. 11 — and at several international film festivals soon in Toronto and Venice.

Americans who want to see it, at this point, will have to go there. It has yet to find a U.S. distributor. Might this be a foretaste of U.S. cultural protectionism? What an unwanted surprise ending that would prove.

Tom Plate, a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser and the South China Morning Post, is a professor at UCLA. Reach him at tplate@ucla.edu. He also has a spot on the Web.