Nowhere is this more evident than in the high-stakes movie industry, where U.S. distributors took in $5.85 billion at the foreign box office last year, and where experts estimate that growth will continue to climb at a rate of about 6 percent to 7 percent annually about three times as fast as the national benchmark of gross domestic product.
"This is a huge, huge pace, and it's being fueled by the various platforms for American product, whether it's the newest one, DVD, or basic cable, or pay-per-view," said Jonathan Wolf, executive vice president of the American Film Market Association, which holds an annual trade fair in Santa Monica, Calif. He added, "English-language product really has the lion's share of the market."
Leonardo DiCaprio is a magnet for film financiers because the young actor is a guaranteed draw for audiences from Rockville to Rotterdam to Rio de Janeiro. Nowadays exportable movies are estimated to bring in 1‚½ times the revenues of the domestic box office. But "Titanic" topped even that. While the epic disaster film starring DiCaprio earned more than $600 million in the United States, breaking the domestic gross record, it has earned nearly twice that sum abroad $1.2 billion. And "Titanic" continues to play in many countries.
Numbers like these increasingly affect Hollywood's decision-making process, as well as the content of its products. The global market is the engine behind Hollywood's assembly-line production of violent action films with marquee names such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, and special-effects blowouts such as "Godzilla," "Deep Impact" and "Twister" or combinations of the two, such as this summer's critically panned "Armageddon."
Two months before the opening of "Armageddon," the story of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth, Disney decided to add not only $3 million more in explosions, but also reaction-to-the-asteroid shots from Morocco and Paris. Said Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth, "It was to make sure the movie had more of an international feel to it."
Some critics fear that the effect is an overall cheapening of social discourse. "Insofar as American-based studios are making stuff for the global market, the stuff is dumbed down," said Todd Gitlin, sociology professor at New York University and a cultural critic. "It's not conscious, it's just that the James Camerons ["Titanic's" writer-director] who write the garbage dialogue are the successes. The relative crudity of the language is far from an impediment to exports. It's a benefit."
Said Roth: "There's no reason to think that the economics of movie business won't turn out to be the same as Coca-Cola. It's a product that's uniformly imported. People will go see the ninth version of 'The Bad News Bears.' And I make them because people are going to see them."
The only problem with that logic is that movies are not really the same as Coca-Cola. They reflect ideas and values and offer powerful images of U.S. society. Which is why some African American actors and directors were dismayed to learn that a major Hollywood producer said the following, under oath:
"Unfortunately," said Andrew Vajna, the producer of "Crimson Tide" and "Evita," "there are no black actors today [who] mean anything to the foreign marketplace."
Vajna made the statement during a deposition in 1995 when his company was sued by actor Laurence Fishburne for breach of contract. Fishburne was dropped from the cast of "Die Hard With a Vengeance" because Vajna was able to cast the lesser-known Samuel L. Jackson for a smaller fee; Vajna's lawyer argued that there had been no formal agreement.
The remark was tantamount to saying that black actors are doomed to second-class status, since there is no particular reason to cast them in movies that will play abroad which is to say, movies with substantial budgets.
Vajna's deposition shed light on what many minority actors see as entrenched racial bias at Hollywood's major studios. Vajna said that the Fishburne/Jackson role could have been played by "Joe Blow. . . . As long as Bruce Willis was in it, it didn't matter who else was in it."
The perception that "ethnic movies" don't play overseas is certainly the rule in Hollywood, as several studio executives interviewed for this article confirmed. "We're cognizant of what doesn't work internationally," said Duncan Clark, head of the international theatrical department at Sony. "Black baseball movies, period dramas about football, rap, inner-city films most countries can't relate to that. Americana seems to be desired by international markets, but there comes a point where even they will resist and say, 'We don't get it,' and it's generally in that ethnic, inner-city, sports-driven region." He paused. "We can't give 'em what they don't want."
This attitude infuriates minorities in Hollywood. "The foreign market is often used as an excuse for not casting blacks," said director Reginald Hudlin, who has frequently spoken out on the subject. "One of the lazy traps is to say that black actors only appeal to black audiences. But you look at the success of everyone from Eddie Murphy to Sam Jackson and you can see it's just not true. . . . There are certain presumptions being made that have to be tested."
Those presumptions prevailed when Warner Bros. passed on the foreign distribution rights to the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg film "Sister Act," a domestic hit that the studio decided was too difficult to market abroad. Instead Disney bought the rights, promoted the film aggressively and was rewarded with international success. The overseas box office totaled $143 million.
Studio heads deny that racism is involved in what they call an essentially economic decision. "Studios don't give a damn how they make their money," said Casey Silver, chairman of Universal Pictures. "It's business. History has said that African American movies don't translate. They have on occasion, but it's the exception rather than the rule."
To Hudlin and others, this attitude is a constant frustration, leading to an unquantifiable loss for black artists. "For people of color, it is a crucial issue," he said. "Not just in the way a film makes a lot of money, but in winning the hearts and minds of the world."
The A-List Equation
By now, most U.S. audiences have figured out why Hollywood continues to fire up the old "Die Hard" and "Batman" and "Lethal Weapon" franchises, even after the concepts seem to have run out of gas. But they may wonder why anyone bothers to make another Dolph Lundgren film, or why Patrick Swayze, Christopher Lambert or Charlie Sheen keep getting work.
The answer is that these B-grade stars still have fans overseas. The last Sheen movie "The Arrival" bombed in the United States, but did great business overseas. And the same is true for A-list stars who are losing their luster at the domestic box office. Bruce Willis's recent films "Mercury Rising" and "The Jackal" performed poorly here but fared respectably abroad. Thus Willis was cast as the essential international element in the upcoming fall movie "The Siege," starring Denzel Washington an A-list actor with little perceived international appeal and Annette Bening, all but unknown to foreign markets.
It's a question, largely, of mathematics. In Hollywood, cold calculations are made based on the projected international box office revenues that "X" star with "Y" director with "Z" story line will generate, allowing a studio to spend, say, $120‚million on "Batman and Robin," including the $20 million to have Schwarzenegger play a supporting role, Mr. Freeze. At least one studio, New Line Cinema, charts every movie it develops on a financial grid, making each department assign an approximate value to the project before giving the green light.
The mainstay of this process, of course, is the movie star, and Hollywood goes so far as to grade the international box office value each actor provides in a "Star Power" list compiled by a trade newspaper, the Hollywood Reporter.
Few surprises here: Tom Cruise (score: a perfect 100) is first, followed by Harrison Ford (99), Mel Gibson (98), Tom Hanks (97), Brad Pitt (96) and Schwarzenegger (96). Jodie Foster (94) and Julia Roberts (92) are the only women in the top 20 names labeled in the "Maximum Star Power" category.
The labels descend to "Moderate Star Power" and "No Star Power," including such apparently nonsalable actors as Don Cheadle, last seen in "Bulworth," and Lela Rochon, of "Waiting to Exhale."
As the report baldly observes of the A-list actors: "Their dominance underscores that the majority of the biggest films, those that perform across all geographic and cultural lines, are funneled through the Hollywood pipeline especially those in which the lead is a white male."
Said Lynda Obst, producer of "The Siege": "There are plenty of movies that are put together around models. You say, 'Okay. it's this genre. I need to spend $3 million above the line [on production costs]. It needs to perform foreign, so we need to cast a star who can guarantee certain territories. Here's a list of five actors who can do that.'‚"
But even in Hollywood some feel that this approach guarantees only the production of more schlock. Said producer Rob Fried: "Films are put together backwards the cast first, the money last. There are price lists; with this list of actors, the bank will give you this much money. I don't want to be part of this process, because it takes artistic talent and turns it into a commodity. This has a direct impact on the quality of a film."
This is particularly the case, he said, with movies that are financed outside the studios through advance sales of foreign distribution rights, including recent films such as "G.I. Jane" and "Air Force One."
"It has a significant impact on non-studios because it causes a general emphasis away from the script and toward the actor," Fried said, adding, "The idea that 'Casablanca' would have been made because it was a foreign pre-sale is laughable."
Fried, an executive producer on "Godzilla" (which was wholly financed by Sony), is now producing a low-budget film that started shooting in August, "The Boondock Saints." The film by novice writer-director Troy Duffy is a gritty, violent tale of two vigilante brothers being pursued by an FBI agent. Miramax wanted Swayze as the pursuer: The talent agents working on the deal said Swayze was worth $8 million in foreign pre-sales.
Duffy was unhappy. "The choices that were being made for the cast were handed to me by financial people 'You can't use this guy because his foreign numbers don't jibe.' I hadn't been able to make creative choices in my casting," he said. Miramax bowed out of the project, and the director and producers finally agreed on Willem Dafoe as the FBI agent and two relative unknowns as the brothers and a lower budget.
Luckily in this project, nothing central about the story changed because of the financial imperatives. But that's not always the case. Said Mark Urman of Lion's Gate: "You'd be surprised at how quickly a man becomes a woman, a black becomes an Asian, a woman becomes a man that often happens. Sometimes it's a success, and sometimes you sit there and say, 'What were they thinking of?'‚"
The rise in influence of the foreign movie market does not uniformly result in squelched diversity or limited creativity. In many cases, foreign investors can provide an alternative source of financing for movies that Hollywood's major studios decline. An abundance of the small, niche movies that are produced in the so-called independent film world have found partial or full funding from European and other outside sources from "Shine" to "The English Patient" to everything that director Woody Allen has done for more than a decade. The New York-based director whose movies are still critically acclaimed but no longer profitable domestically is revered in Europe as a genius; his films are now financed by an independent company of mostly European investors called Sweetland Films.
There is also evidence that the global audience is evolving in its tastes, growing much as American audiences have increasingly sophisticated in the sorts of films they will go to see. Among the movies that have turned out to be unexpected international hits were last year's "As Good as It Gets" and "My Best Friend's Wedding." Although these are comedies with mass domestic appeal, they are also the sort of dialogue-heavy fare that is presumed to be over the heads of foreign audiences. Similarly, the schmaltzy "Bridges of Madison County" made nearly twice as much money overseas as it did in the United States.
"It goes beyond the cynical view that 'they only want to see action movies,'" said Sony Pictures Entertainment President John Calley. "I think foreign moviegoers want to see anything that's good. They're like us. We have in some way Americanized much of the world; they've assimilated a lot of stuff."
Still, Calley noted, "we are hopelessly Hollywood-centric, and that should change."
A World of Multiplexes
The global box office is poised to grow dramatically in the near future. While there are only 63,000 movie screens overseas (compared with about 32,000 in the United States) that number will rise as soon as multiplexes are completed in movie-hungry countries such as Russia and the young democracies of Central Europe, and later in China and India. Most analysts see the economic downturn in Southeast Asia as a blip in the race to put moviegoers in ever more theaters.
Said Disney's Joe Roth: "Ten years ago 70 percent of our revenue came from the American marketplace. The foreign marketplace didn't have a lot of theaters. But when England went multiplex, it became clear that this was simply about building more theaters."
This construction process can only heighten the U.S. domination of world culture and give Hollywood all the more reason to continue to cater to the widest possible audience with well-worn formulas.
Still, said Sony's Calley, "Nobody says, 'This movie is crummy enough for foreign, so let's make it.' People do the best they can, mostly."
Calley, who produced movies with European directors in the 1970s when he headed production at Warner Bros., is now pursuing local movie production in Germany, Spain and Japan. Sony said it will be starting co-productions in those countries with local partners over the next 18 months in an attempt to break out of the creative mold imposed by the Hollywood system.
But even Calley finds it hard to resist the industry's tried-and-true methods. A few months ago Sony-owned Columbia Pictures set out to make a film of the book "Memoirs of a Geisha" in Japan, in Japanese, with plans to distribute a subtitled version around the world. When director Steven Spielberg expressed interest, all that went out the window. The film, the director's next project, will now be made in Hollywood, in English.
Said Calley, somewhat sheepishly: "That proves the point that if Steven Spielberg wants to do something, you do it."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company