Seeing the Big Picture

Global Hollywood

By Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell.
Indiana University Press, 240 pages, $27.95

Those who contend that Hollywood and Washington are two
branches of the same cultural conglomerate will find ample evidence in Global
Hollywood.
The relationship between these two company towns has been volatile
at times, but the so-called Washwood alliance has remained intact.

Even before Hollywood was dubbed the "little State Department" in the 1940s,
it was in league against Capitol Hill's bogeymen--whether they were communists,
fascists, Mafiosi, or superpredator gang members. And it has often advanced U.S.
products and industrial practices abroad. In return, policy makers have given
America's dream factory some dreamy advantages, from monopolistic camera,
projector, and film-stock patents early in the last century to more-recent
American-tilted intellectual-property mandates in trade negotiations. Such
clauses are no empty legalisms, either: A DVD bootlegging factory outside Bangkok
was raided in October by representatives not only of the Royal Thai Police but of
the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

Global Hollywood, written by four sharp New York academics--Toby
Miller, Nitin Govil, and John McMurria of New York University, and Richard
Maxwell of Queens College, City University of New York--is a well-researched
critique that is insightful in portraying the U.S. film industry as a sort of
Frankenstein that has high-concepted itself into a weird, ugly blandness while
stomping on fragile cinematic cultures worldwide even as it attempts to befriend,
co-opt, and sometimes imitate them. Previously published in the United Kingdom by
the British Film Institute and newly released in the United States by Indiana
University Press, the jargony and stylistically off-putting study is politically
predetermined along neo-Marxist lines, emphasizing the movie industry's labor
over its product in sometimes tunnelvisioned and simplistic ways. But the authors
justly lay waste to Hollywood's pretensions to free-market allegiance and shatter
the notion that America's cultural diversity has blessed Hollywood with a unique,
universal storytelling magic that the world finds simply irresistible. The
authors also slap down those film theorists who have been so suckered by
auteurist paradigms that they have lost sight of the mightiest auteurs of them
all: distributors, marketing firms, and banks.

To their credit, the authors don't just rehash cultural-hegemony arguments
that pit ugly Americans against the world. Their villain, rather, is "NICL," the
so-called new international division of cultural labor--a sociological buzz
phrase that describes the system of international co-production and rules
governing cultural labor markets, intellectual property, marketing, distribution,
and exhibition. They dismiss twentieth-century leftist notions of Hollywood as "a
floating signifier" of globalization, "a kind of cultural smoke rising from the
economic fires of a successful U.S.-led crusade to convert the world to
capitalism." That "thin description," they scold, "fails to acknowledge that
global Hollywood's imperatives are crucial to the contemporary political economy,
both animating and being animated by it." Hollywood is different from other
industries, the authors claim, in its masterful control over the international
system of cultural production. In this framework, Hollywood does not equal the
United States but instead represents international moneyed interests. With
Hollywood studios and--more important--distributors becoming multinationals, the
Burbank gaffer who loses his job to "runaway" production in Toronto receives as
much sympathy from the authors as does the exploited Prague set painter working
long days at under $3 an hour.

The authors offer, as an instructive example of NICL at work, the 1992 release
of 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Under British-born director Ridley Scott,
the Frenchman Gérard Depardieu plays the Italian-born Spanish explorer
Christopher Columbus. Co-produced by the venerable French company Gaumont,
distributed by the foreign-capitalized, U.S.-based company Paramount, the film
was shot in Spain and Costa Rica (the latter location boasting 170 Indians who
worked for $35 a day, plus six Waunanans brought in from Colombia who had acted
in Roland Joffé's film The Mission). The Costa Rican locale might
also have been pushed by the executive producer's husband, head of Costa Rica's
newly formed film commission. "The co-production protocols that brought 1492
to the screen are among more than 135 bilateral and multilateral treaties
between over eighty-five countries outside the US," the authors report. "Designed
to combat Hollywood's domination of screen culture, they frequently enable the
very NICL that ratifies it."

Clearly, foreigners are not simply innocents in this scenario;
increasingly, they are prime players. "Twenty integrated media conglomerates in
Japan and Europe have pushed foreign financing for big-budget Hollywood films to
70 percent," according to Global Hollywood. The most recent player,
Germany's Neuer Markt, a new-media stock exchange in Frankfurt, poured €1.9
billion into 13 German film-licensing companies in 1999 and 2000, €1.3 billion of
which went to Hollywood pictures. Moreover, the big screen is just the revenue
pump-primer for the small screen. Pay TV is the jackpot--and government-aided
giants like Canal Plus in France are scoring big, pouring some of the windfall
back into French film production, and making exclusive broadcast arrangements
with U.S. outfits like Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios.

The authors generally champion this regional backing of producer-conveyor
powerhouses like Canal Plus, arguing, in essence, that to fight Washwood's fire
with fire, the world's media corporations must band together in collective might.
But the book seems a little ambivalent on the point, noting that such efforts can
also produce European blockbusters like Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar, a
sort of Disneyesque film "event" in the Gaulish mode. If responding to Hollywood
means spawning a half dozen Hollywood counterparts as commercially fixated as the
archrival they're imitating, then cultural hegemony is only replaced by cultural
oligarchy--not much of an improvement.

Global Hollywood, the authors persuasively argue, has become pathologically
addicted, since the 1970s, to Orwellian marketing gurus like the National
Research Group (NRG)--which is not part of some American accounting giant, mind
you, but of a Dutch conglomerate, VNU, that owns several dozen U.S. subsidiaries,
products, and services. Savvy marketing strategists like NRG spy on consumers in
return for "free" or "discount" services such as phone film-directory services,
computer games, or gadgets that block out TV commercials. So pervasive are such
tactics, the authors contend--especially in the United States, where privacy
protections are weaker than in Europe--that one begins to reimagine Big Brother
not as the governmental thought-controlling bully of utopian fiction but as a
cagey suit who will know before you do what bikini style you want next
season's Survivor contestants to wear.

Hollywood is, no doubt then, on the rampage. Its proportion of the world film
market is "double what it was in 1990," the book tells us, and "the European film
industry is one-ninth the size it was in 1945." Together, trade muscle and
marketing costs have essentially excluded foreign pictures from screens in this
country. In the 1960s, foreign films constituted 10 percent of the U.S. market;
by 1986 they made up 7 percent, and today they are a sad three-quarters of 1
percent. But it's not clear exactly what we are to make of all this, since
Hollywood, through corporate conglomeration and co-production, has for almost a
generation been an ever more international concern. Cultural imperialism,
perhaps--but by whom?

While Miller and his coauthors conscientiously describe the
homogenization of big-budget filmmaking, they don't seem to know what to do about
it. "We can imagine," they write,

cultural workers seeking points of alliance with marketing,
for example, to amplify the presence of labor in public discourse, to help bring
attention to working conditions and the process of alienation, and to draw on
marketing expertise to revitalize the relation between filmmaking and
film-going. Such a policy converts the currently one-way surveillance of
filmgoers into a mode of sociality that raises awareness of the differences
between values invested by film workers in making movies and those values that
people derive from the film-going experience.

Well, it's good that the authors can imagine that, because this reader sure
can't. Film workers of the world unite: You have nothing to lose but your
grosses.

Similarly not quite of this planet is the authors' discussion of how
entertainment interests should waive copyrights in recognition of creative
"ownership" by film viewers. That seems like a truly laughable application of
cinema-studies jargon to a decidedly un-touchy-feely business. Sure, studio execs
might want to choose their copyright and trademark battles more carefully, and
they certainly look like idiots when they go after kids for posting unsanctioned
Harry Potter fan sites and the like on the Web. But when MPA producers, in 1997,
lost $66 million in revenues to movie piracy in India, should they really, as the
authors suggest, have taken solace in bootleg-viewers' "reception practices
recognised as forms of creative labour"? If we didn't know better, we might think
that Miller and his pals were just having a little fun with us.

In light of this book, it has been predictable but in some ways perplexing to
see Karl Rove and fellow Bush-administration emissaries huddle with Motion
Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti and other screen honchos to
devise pro-U.S. and antiterrorist messages. It also twists the brain to see
military brass consulting with screenwriters at the University of Southern
California in an effort to anticipate terrorist scenarios. Superficially, such
developments are understandable. But while Hollywood and Washington may still
walk hand in hand, we're a very long way, Global Hollywood makes clear,
from the Frank Capra Why We Fight era. It's hard to tell nowadays whether
film is a product that the U.S. government is helping to place or whether America
is just another entertainment brand name whose stock global backers are intent on
propping up.

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