Hollywood Still Seduces the World

Hollywood Still Seduces the World

Despite growing resentment of US foreign policy, Hollywood continues to experience record growth internationally, perpetuating both negative and favorable views of the US.
Photo Credit: Flickr, Rising uday
With successful blockbusters actually grossing more overseas than they do domestically, Hollywood studios are making a significant effort to expand abroad. Photo Credit: Flickr, Rising uday
President Bush's foreign policy is said to have unleashed an intense and potentially irreversible strain of anti-Americanism around the world, one in which the line between hating American leaders and culture is blurring.

And yet Hollywood, a symbol of US "hegemony" if ever there was one, is appreciating greater success abroad than at home. International ticket sales now account for 60 percent of overall box office receipts, up from 40 percent three years ago. Home-video sales are said to be the fastest-growing revenue sector in Tinseltown, and that doesn't include the millions watching pirated copies. Meanwhile American television shows attract a record number of foreign program buyers, even though licensing fees have increased sharply in most markets.



So what gives?

Hollywood's international ticket sales now account for 60 percent of overall box office receipts.
Part of the answer lies in trade liberalization. Part rests with shrewder, more global-minded marketing. Major studios are beefing up their overseas divisions and signing foreign partnerships. Warner Bros., for instance, recently penned a $2 billion deal with Abu Dhabi's largest real-estate firm, Aldar, to build a studio and produce films and videogames - thus targeting the Arab world, 60 percent of which is under 25 and regarded as entertainment hungry.

Lower labor costs and fewer regulations also inspire moves abroad. Major Hollywood studios set up production houses in China, to better tap growing interest in films. Hollywood's production costs decreased in 2005 by 4 percent while marketing costs jumped 5.2 percent.

The industry has always welcomed international talent, from Marlene Dietrich to Sean Connery, but as Hollywood pushes its product aggressively abroad, executives view international talent as ever more critical in promoting films abroad.

As Hollywood pushes its product aggressively abroad, executives view international talent as ever more critical in promoting films abroad.


In "The Kingdom" Jamie Foxx stars beside Palestinian actor Ashraf Barhom, who plays a brave Saudi Arabian police officer. "The Last Samurai" stars Tom Cruise and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, scoring well in Japan. Brazilian actress Alice Braga joins Will Smith in "I Am Legend." Hollywood tackles transnational hot topics like religion ("Kingdom of Heaven"), terrorism ("Munich"), deadly viruses ("I Am Legend") and the oil trade ("Syriana").

In short, Hollywood is thinking bigger and bigger - with no less than the world in mind.

But none of this sufficiently explains why Hollywood enjoys unprecedented success abroad in an era of rampant American-bashing. The common explanation for the contradiction has been that the world makes a distinction between American culture and its foreign policy; that the more sweeping variety of anti-Americanism is confined mostly to intellectuals and religious zealots.

But over the last few years in Europe and Asia I've encountered more ordinary citizens baldly denouncing America. It is not just America's politics, they carp, but "hypocritical" values, a "hollow" pop culture and disbelief about voters reelecting Bush. A poll from the Pew Global Attitudes Project supports such anecdotal evidence, finding that favorable opinions of American people among Indonesians dropped from 56 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2005, and also fell in Great Britain, Poland, Canada, Germany, France, Russia, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan. To be sure Bush's foreign policy and his successful reelection bid precipitated a broader disdain for America, and that makes Hollywood's growth abroad all the more noteworthy.

Bush's foreign policy and his successful reelection bid precipitated a broader disdain for America, and that makes Hollywood's growth abroad all the more noteworthy.


Still, typical "all-American" fare plays well in international theaters. "Spider-Man 3" was the biggest worldwide opener in history, raking in $375 million. "The Simpsons Movie," featuring "America's first family," grossed nearly $333 million abroad, double what it did stateside. Hollywood's most successful titles abroad tend to be special effect-heavy ("Titanic," "Harry Potter," "Pirates of the Caribbean" "Jurassic Park") and animation and digital wizardry ("Shrek" "The Lion King" and "The Incredibles"). Ironically perhaps these films tend to do better than those critical of the US, such as "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Syriana" and "American Beauty." Moo Hon Mei, marketing director for Twentieth Century Fox Malaysia, said this trend has remained largely undisturbed in Southeast Asia over the years and "doesn't look set to change anytime soon."

Either way, viewers of Hollywood pictures are hard pressed to ignore that they are invested in an American product - the American flag here, the country's natural splendor there. Hollywood tendentiously celebrates America's unique brand of dynamism, from its confidence and cool to its technological and creative preeminence.

And generally people like what they see, a fact reflected not only in the numbers Hollywood posts, but in official backlash and its impact. In December, China banned the release of US films for at least three months. The success of American films at the expense of local fare is said to have influenced the decision. South Korea relies on a quota that requires local films to play 146 days of the year, a number halved as part of the US-Korea bilateral trade agreement, yet to be ratified.

In a Pew poll more than 60 percent of Lebanese describe Americans as greedy, violent and immoral, yet Lebanon is one of Hollywood's hottest markets in the Middle East.


In March Javad Shangari, a cultural adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accused Hollywood of being "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological war aimed at Iranian culture," in response to the film "300," which some critics suggested was anti-Persian. A government spokesperson added "Cultural intrusion is among the tactics always used by the aliens."

In Malaysia, authorities barred moviegoers from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," to protect Muslim "sensitivities," but pirated versions were readily available at stalls around Kuala Lumpur. China's street corners are rife with pirated Hollywood movies, and young Iranians adore American films, often edited or banned.

Hollywood's portrayals of America as a den of iniquity may even feed some misconceptions. In the Pew poll more than 60 percent of Lebanese describe Americans as greedy, violent and immoral, yet Lebanon is one of Hollywood's hottest markets in the Middle East. The fact that Hollywood is a hit in such places signals, at the least, a healthy fascination with the "depravity" of America and, more likely, a gap between what people say and what they actually think about the country. A young Malaysian woman accounted for complexity in her relationship with the US when she articulated her affinity for Hollywood in broad terms, saying that it enabled her "to imagine doing things not practiced or accepted at home."

Hollywood doesn't specialize in just "sin," and audiences do not merely line up for a peek at sin."[Hollywood] allows people abroad to learn about American society and especially affluence, fashions, consumption patterns, etc., that people are interested in, never mind their anti-American attitudes," said Paul Hollander, editor of the essay collection "Understanding Anti-Americanism."

With anti-Americanism reaching record highs, Hollywood is not only a powerful ideological tool, but arguably a necessary one.




Edward Said lamented US power in this respect, that is, ideological power: "All cultures tend to make representations of foreign cultures… to master or in some way control them. Yet not all cultures make representations of foreign cultures and in fact master or control them." This representation is sometimes expressed dialectically, vis-à-vis depiction of the self.



With anti-Americanism reaching record highs, Hollywood is not only a powerful ideological tool, but arguably a necessary one. The success of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," for instance, reminded the world that, yes, some US politicians genuinely have the world's interest at heart.

Hollywood's "window" complicates the world's relationship with the US. It challenges the malicious simplifications of American politics and culture, inculcated through politically motivated critics, religious institutions, governments, schools and media.

In doing so, Hollywood challenges the impulse to dismiss and demonize, and in our polarizing world it could do much worse.






Contributed by Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native. He has been living and writing in Asia for most of the last eight years. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online.

To read a Global Envision article about India's version of Hollywood, see The Bollywood Invasion.



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