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August 20, 2009

Bull in the China Shop

red cliff poster.jpg

One of the news articles that caught my eye concerned rulings regarding China's limits of imported movies. China currently limits the number of imported films to twenty, and those twenty films are distributed by one company. Members of the World Trade Organization, which includes China, found this to go against the spirit and letter of WTO membership. Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America has never been shy about fighting with other countries that limit imported films. But what angered me is this opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor that displayed willful ignorance about several interlocking issues.

"Democratic norms and fair practices"? While doing a little bit of research, I discovered a book, excerpted in Google, American Films Abroad: Hollywood's Domination of the World's Movie Screens from the 1890s to the Present by Kerry Segrave. From just scanning a few pages, among the bits of information gleaned is that Hollywood had a global presence of 85 percent of the world's movie theaters for over eighty years. And as Al Jolson once famously said, you ain't heard nothing yet. Hollywood versus the rest of the world seems to be a story almost as old as the debate over who invented the movies. Even during the days when silent films were giving way to talkies, countries such as France and Italy were limiting the number of Hollywood films that would receive theatrical runs. It was pointed out that in a year when 250 Hollywood films were shown in Germany, the number of German films that played in U.S. theaters was five. Year after year, whomever had the job to lobby on behalf of Hollywood would complain about how unfair it was that a country would limit the number of imported films could be shown, while also coming up with reasons why U.S. audiences would not want to see a foreign film.

Currently, the number of imported films allowed in China is twenty. Yes, it is a small number especially when one considers the hundreds of films produced just in the United States. Then again, does one seriously think that allowing more imports means that the Chinese people might more likely see the hot new release from Gaumont, a major French company, or RAI of Italy? Does anyone think that a smaller U.S. production such as Wendy and Lucy or Beeswax will appear at a multiplex in Shanghai or Beijing? When it comes to discussing the restricted number of Hollywood films on foreign screens, we are really talking about Transformers or G.I. Joe. And what the editorial from the Christian Science Monitor does not mention is how much money just a few imported films earn in proportion to the local product.

if you are the one poster.jpg

One problem not addressed is that the major studios have set themselves up for an eventual financial bankruptcy. It isn't just that most new films have their origins in juvenilia, be they comic books, games or old television shows. The other problem is one of basic film economics. In my first year as a film production student, I learned that the standard gauge of for considering a break even point for most movies was at least two times the production cost. With more films produced with unconscionable budgets approaching 200 million dollars, it's no wonder that the Hollywood lobby wants as much of the film going pie as possible.

What is also ignored is that Hollywood has been dependent on foreign films for an increasing number of their own productions. Korea, for example, saw a renaissance in their film production as well as an increased presence in world cinema following their own acts of providing funds for film production and establishing quotas giving preference to the screening of their own films. Hollywood, in turn, has produced a remake of A Tale of Two Sisters while pre-production is underway for remakes of Oldboy and A Bittersweet Life. Hong Kong films continue to influence Hollywood action films even though locally they make up less than half of the box office.

As for foreign films shown in the U.S., it's complicated. An article about the shrinking number of foreign language films in the U.S. is less than encouraging. That the few films that make it to the U.S. are shown in only a few theaters in a select number of cities makes the existence of anything outside of the mainstream Hollywood production virtually invisible to most filmgoers. Not helping is that when a film breaks out in a big way, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, what comes to the U.S. are more films that attempt to cash in on the popularity of Ang Lee's homage to King Hu. Which brings up another point, of attempting to guess what the audience wants to see. Did anyone foresee that there would be interest in anything produced in Hong Kong beyond the Chinatown audiences, when Bruce Lee films appeared at neighborhood theaters? It took a French filmmaker, Luc Besson, to make an international star out of Tony Jaa, at a time when the few Thai films to be seen in the U.S. were those in the festival circuit. At the very least, martial arts films have occasionally opened the door for other films from Asia.

And do I need to talk about fairness? I will concede that Hollywood movies, no matter what I, or anyone else might think of individual films, are popular around the world. When I lived in Thailand, the first movie I saw was Casino Royale. At least half of the films playing in Chiang Mai were Hollywood productions, with only Curse of the Golden Flower and I'm a Cyborg, But That's O.K. being the only two imports to play outside of Bangkok during my time there. If one was serious about being fair, then there would be more imported films playing in U.S. theaters. And before scolding China, consider how many Chinese films even get a theatrical run in the U.S. Even the two most successful Chinese productions will not be seen in the U.S. as intended by their respective filmmakers. As I have noted previously, John Woo's Red Cliff films are to be condensed from five hours to about half the running time for an "international version". If You are the One, the most popular Chinese language production to date, will be seen by U.S. audiences only on DVD. Hollywood has bullied audiences and governments around the world in the belief that their films are the only ones that matter or are deserving of an audience. In an ideal situation, there would be a larger proportion of imported movies at the neighborhood multiplex. Xenophobic filmgoers might grumble and complain at such a notion. But if more were aware of how many Hollywood films are seen around the world, then perhaps they might grudgingly agree that seeing the latest film from Johnny To as easily as a film by Michael Bay or Brett Ratner would be a concession truly being fair.


Posted by peter at August 20, 2009 12:03 AM


Agree with your sentiments Peter. I have often felt this freedom of cinema is a way street as far as Hollywood is concerned. The big studios want to push their product freely but restrict imports the other way. A few years ago, someone in one of the studios expressed frustration that Asian DVDs reached North American shores rapidly, thereby denying the chance for Hollywood to release the Asian film in North American theaters. But that excuse didn't take into account the fact that Hollywood is months or even a year behind in releasing a few selected Asian titles on American screens.

Hollywood adopted a different strategy in India when they realized that they couldn't weaken Bollywood's hold on the movie screens. They started co-productions or straight out productions of Bollywood films by using local Indian crew. The financial results have been mixed so far but this is another way of Hollywood trying to extract money from other ventures.

I remember reading once that only the big Hollywood studios could produce multiple prints to ensure all the theaters are booked. But that does not mean more multiplex owners can use even a single screen to book foreign films. Locally, we have a multiplex that books an indie or foreign film every week. Why can't others follow that trend? Ofcourse, in Canada, it is rare to find a Canadian film playing at a multiplex. In fact, Canadian theaters cater solely to Hollywood products.

At times it is frustrating. It is 2009 but the American (and indirectly Canadian) cinematic taps remain tightly controlled. There is a rich cinematic world out there but if one does not live in the few American cities or Toronto, then one has to depend on film festivals/DVDs/internet for quenching that cinematic thirst.

Posted by: sachin at August 26, 2009 03:13 PM

Excellent piece, Peter! I agree with many of your sentiments. This is a fascinating topic that deserves more discussion.

Posted by: Kimberly Lindbergs at August 27, 2009 08:57 AM

China is WAY over any kind of quota system when you consider ALL trade. funny how they like to restrict areas where they can not compete, movies, and go against the WTO. and selectively comply when it suits them. if China would comply on Film trade the market would show what people want to see in china, they fear it will be the US films. 95% of the top earning films in China are US films. A play book taken directly from France, when you can not compete, make it illegal!:)

Posted by: bud at December 17, 2009 10:52 PM