By LYNN HIRSCHBERG
New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2004
I. Is the Face of America That of a Green Ogre?
This year's Cannes International Film Festival epitomized the extraordinary global reach of American films -- sometimes to the point of absurdity. There were thrilling movies at Cannes -- movies that told original, compelling stories about life in Senegal and upper-middle-class Paris and the jungles of Thailand. But those movies (and many others) contrasted sharply with the American films spotlighted at the festival, whose chief purpose, it seemed, was to please the widest possible audience.
Along with weapons, movies are among our most lucrative exports to a waiting world, and in the last seven years or so, it has become clear that the expected audience for nearly all American-made studio movies, the audience they are designed and created for, has shifted from the 50 states to the global marketplace. This change in perspective has, naturally, resulted in a change in content: nuances of language or the subtleties of comedy do not translate easily between cultures, but action or fantasy or animation is immediately comprehensible, even if you live in, say, Japan, which is the country that most big studios long to reach. Films like this year's "Troy" (which was shown at Cannes), "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Van Helsing," which are not dependent on dialogue, did not play as well as expected in America but became huge hits in many other countries, making several times what they made in the U.S. box office. Thankfully, the so-called specialty divisions of the big studios still try to depict the prevailing mood of the country. But consider a specialty film like "Sideways," which is the best American movie I have seen this year: it has no international stars and no action, and because the film shifts in tone from comedy to drama in nearly every scene, it is not likely to be easily comprehended by a worldwide audience. As far as the big studios go, "Sideways" is essentially a foreign film made in America.
But "Shrek 2" is not. An American entry in this year's Cannes competition, "Shrek 2" continues the animated saga of the lovable, irascible green creature (whose voice is that of the international star Mike Myers doing a Scottish brogue); his bride, the princess; and his faithful donkey (voice by the very funny Eddie Murphy). "Shrek 2" has the added bonus of Antonio Banderas, who gives the growing Latin market a chance to cheer for his Puss in Boots. As charming as "Shrek 2" is, I found it an unsettling example of how big studios represent the United States to the world. While other countries have interpreted globalism as a chance to reveal their national psyches and circumstances through film, America is more interested in attracting the biggest possible international audience. At Cannes, war-torn Croatia was shown through the eye of the director Emir Kusturica, the French elite was exposed in "Look at Me," the fear of female genital mutilation was depicted in Senegal's "Moolaade." And so on. America had a green fantasy creature and Michael Moore, who went on to win the festival's top prize with his documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11."
Wandering through Cannes and fighting my way into screenings, I felt a growing frustration that what I loved about American movies (and, by extension, about America) was in short supply, and when I mentioned this to Walter F. Parkes, head of motion pictures at DreamWorks SKG, he said: "I know what you're talking about." Parkes, like most of the big studio heads, is in a bind: corporate finances dictate that they cast the widest net possible. That has become the mandate of the studio president. DreamWorks, for instance, made "Shrek 2" and is trying to parlay the $436 million success of the film (it is currently the third-highest-grossing movie of all time) into a profitable I.P.O. for its animation division. "Films are the one product that we have that's the first choice around the world," Parkes continued. "So, then, the questions to ask are: Is this the one place that people's fears about globalization are coming to fruition? Is America dominating world culture through the movies it produces? And if so, does that come with certain responsibilities beyond economic ones? These are questions that we have to ask ourselves. And they are different questions than we asked even five years ago."
The day before "Shrek 2" was set to have its premiere at Cannes, DreamWorks's representatives placed large plastic bags full of green Shrek ears along the Croisette, the bustling beachfront walkway that dominates the action in Cannes. Even before the festival began, it was feared that protesting French workers would shut it down over a labor dispute. On this day, a group of hundreds gathered outside the Carlton Hotel to denounce the war in Iraq. They were chanting in French for about 45 minutes, until the police broke up the demonstration. Then, as the protesters dissipated into the throng on the Croisette, I watched them, one by one, put on the free Shrek ears. They were attracted, it seemed, by the ears' goofiness and sheer recognizability. Immediately, the crowd, once filled with political fervor, was transformed into a sea of cartoon characters.
I felt embarrassed: America seemed, at best, an absurd, vaguely comic place.
When you look at the big international hits of the year, it is easy to understand why the world views America with a certain disgust. Shrek may be a lovable (and Scottish) ogre, but nearly every other global hero in American movies is bellicose, intellectually limited, stuck in ancient times or locked in a sci-fi fantasy. American films used to be an advertisement for life in the states -- there was sophistication, depth, the allure of a cool, complex manner. Now most big studio films aren't interested in America, preferring to depict an invented, imagined world, or one filled with easily recognizable plot devices. "Our movies no longer reflect our culture," said a top studio executive who did not wish to be identified. "They have become gross, distorted exaggerations. And I think America is growing into those exaggerated images.
My fear is that it's the tail wagging the dog -- we write the part, and then we play the part."
II. Sorry, We Don't Film Here Anymore
Several months after I returned from Cannes, I phoned nearly every big studio chief and queried them about the wages of globalization. Not surprisingly, they all maintained that they chose movies on the basis of whether a script or story grabbed them, and not according to the dictates of a global audience. And yet they also acknowledged that they typically build their slate around the so-called event films, like another "Harry Potter" or "Star Wars" or "Matrix" installment. Event films are big and expensive and conceived for the largest audience imaginable. To keep costs down, most of them are shot in other countries. "It used to be Canada," said Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Brothers Pictures, the industry leader in the global film business. "But the Canadian tax-incentive laws were redefined. London has instituted rebates that have lured production there."
Between mid-October and the end of the year, Robinov will travel to Australia and Rome and twice visit London, Paris and Canada. He's checking on all of his films. He's accustomed to this: the "Matrix" movies were shot completely in Australia (except for a freeway scene shot outside San Francisco). Shooting overseas saves money and adds to the universal appeal of the films -- the films are set in a movie world with no distinct sense of place; they could happen anywhere.
Sherry Lansing, Paramount's chairwoman, who just announced her plans to step down, noted that the world marketplace has only recently become an important factor. "I think CNN brought the world together," she told me. "When I worked as a producer and we made 'Fatal Attraction' in the mid-80's, we never even thought of the global audience. Back then, we thought, If it does well in America, it will do well over there."
But the international success of "Titanic" in 1997 helped to change everything. "When 'Titanic' opened at only $28 million in the U.S.," recalled Nina Jacobson, president of the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group at Disney, "everyone called 20th Century Fox and offered their condolences. But 'Titanic' turned out to be the ultimate international movie. It played very well in America, but in Japan they loved it, loved it, loved it. It eventually made $900 million in rentals worldwide. That movie is so big internationally that no one can touch it, but everyone tries."
"Titanic" was a rarity: a special-effects marvel that helped create two stars (Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet) and won a hoard of Oscars. (The success of "Titanic" is daunting even for its creator -- James Cameron has not made a film since.) In 2003, another global milestone was established by the second "Matrix" film: at the suggestion of its producer, Joel Silver, the movie was released simultaneously all over the world. "Day and date" releases are increasingly necessary to capitalize on audience interest and, more important, to limit piracy. "If you don't release your movie at roughly the same time all over the world, the video of your movie will be sold on the streets of Singapore within days of its first release," Jacobson explained. "I don't want to be the one to say this, but the song is correct: it's a small world, after all. The audience has merged."
Like other studio heads, she said this matter-of-factly, a statement of fact. But clearly her decision-making has been affected by her observations. Of course, it's not all blockbusters at the big studios these days. Warner Brothers, for example, is currently making "Syriana" with George Clooney. Described by many as one of the best scripts in Hollywood, it is a dark tale about the global oil business that intertwines Middle Eastern politics and a story line involving the C.I.A. Meanwhile, Sony, more than most studios, is diversified, green-lighting "Spider-Man" and "Closer," a $30 million drama, directed by Mike Nichols, about two couples who are undone by an affair. Perhaps wisely, the studio is hedging its bet by stocking "Closer" with the international stars Julia Roberts and Jude Law. "It's always a decision," Jacobson told me. "You might make a choice, for instance, to put John Travolta in 'Ladder 49,' as we did, to heighten the national and international profile of a film. And you have to realize that if you put a sports movie into production, it will do disastrously internationally. It won't travel no matter how good it is, so you adjust the budget accordingly. The world just doesn't care about other people's sports."
III. Who Is the Bad Guy Now?
Part of the reason I find the globalization of American movies unsettling is that I can't remember a time when the dialogue at cocktail parties or between friends or in office meetings has been so lively and political. The shift in the national conversation is missing in our global film identity. For the most part, present-day politics may be too complicated a subject for Hollywood to handle -- at least in ambitious feature films.
"You have to make different decisions now," said Lansing, whose company, Paramount, made "Team America," the puppet comedy in which Kim Jong Il is the archenemy. "It's hard, for instance, to pick a villain with a global audience in mind. If we're in a global market, it's going to be a challenge to find credible villains." The movie "Pearl Harbor" played well in Japan, but generally the studio heads agreed: countries (with the possible exception of North Korea, which is not a big movie market) can no longer be demonized.
Strangely, politics, especially anti-American politics, just might have global appeal. Insiders predict that "The Manchurian Candidate," with its vague Halliburton-esque conspiracy plot line, will play better to an anti-American international audience than it did here. Warner Brothers has high hopes for the ambiguous villain in "Syriana." "The enemy is a combination of global business and politics," Jeff Robinov said. "We think that will play well to international markets."
For the most part, however, studios are more comfortable with plots and characters from a parallel universe that does not mirror ours or, really, anyone's. If you want to find anything like the voice of America, you have to see a documentary or a smaller film from one of the specialty divisions of a studio. Jacobson told me: "The chitchat that precedes every pitch meeting has changed. But the pitches haven't. In the movie business, it's hard to be in the moment or of the moment -- the economics are too great. That's why there are smaller divisions. They have a different audience."
IV. Why Small American Movies Don't Travel
Unfortunately, the much-admired mini-majors are not always content with a small domestic audience. While I have an enormous weakness for Harvey Weinstein's passion for films, the truth is that he has radically departed from the original idea behind his company, Miramax. Initially, Miramax embraced challenging movies like "My Left Foot," "The Crying Game" and "Pulp Fiction." Weinstein was brilliant at marketing these films, and he developed a brand: a Miramax movie was aimed at certain members of the audience (me, for instance) who wanted an alternative to what the major studios were producing.
After "Pulp Fiction," which was rejected by major studios, Weinstein himself started thinking big. Suddenly, small films about fascinating characters were not as appealing as large-scale epics like "Cold Mountain" or "The Aviator," directed by Martin Scorsese and coming soon from Miramax. "Selling a small movie takes an amazing amount of work," explained one longtime Hollywood observer. "And then you make 8 or 10 million dollars. Harvey saw what the big studios had always seen: if you go big, your presence is larger and your profit is larger. A mediocre film released in thousands of theaters will usually be more successful than a small movie, without stars, that requires clever marketing. Harvey got tired of working that hard. It's easier to put in a big star."
At the moment, the old Miramax model has been adopted by Fox Searchlight, headed by Peter Rice. Searchlight largely concentrates on reaching a small North American audience, and this mandate allowed a director like Alexander Payne to cast four relative unknowns in "Sideways." Because of its casting, Universal rejected the movie. Actually, George Clooney had sought a part in the film, but Payne said that because of his superstar status he was wrong for the role. "To ask the audience to believe one of the world's most handsome and successful movie stars is now playing one of the world's biggest loser actors is too much," Payne has said. (Clooney agreed: "Alexander was right. I am too famous for what he had in mind. But isn't that part of the problem? As an actor, you don't want to be locked in to big action films. Alexander found the two best actors for the job, but we're all attracted to interesting stories, even so-called stars.")
Other studios are paying attention to Fox Searchlight. Tom Freston, co-president of Viacom, has plans to reinvigorate his own specialty division, Paramount Classics. Still, the specialty division is not a panacea. Payne's stubborn (and correct) belief in his casting choices is unusual enough to be noted in virtually every mention of "Sideways." In America, most directors have begun to think strategically, like businessmen, and their films have suffered. The studios long for stars, global stars, and the filmmakers, who want to get their movies made, comply.
V. Why Small American Movies Don't Play Well at Home Either
In 1980, Pauline Kael wrote an essay in The New Yorker titled "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers." After taking a sabbatical from film criticism and working in Hollywood for about a year, she came to believe that television was ruining the movies. She said that TV watching reduced the attention span of viewers and that the need to sell films to reach these TV-saturated viewers had led to truncated plot lines and worse. Kael longed for the days of the moguls, who, she said, had courage and a respect for quality. She was also a believer in the filmmakers of the 70's. Among her favorites were Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci and Warren Beatty, who lured her out to Hollywood to work in the business. "In the 70's, audiences were willing to be surprised," Beatty told me recently. "Now people want to know what they're going to get. The studios want to make whatever successful movie is in their rear-view mirror. Now there are two ways of trying to make money on a movie.
You either need to have a brand or you need a sound bite on TV to get audiences into the theater. If those are the rules, then the movies have to conform. And the hallmark of the 70's, the hallmark of any artistic endeavor, was nonconformity."
Oddly, television itself -- or cable television, anyway -- may have become a refuge of nonconformity. HBO's film division, which is run by Colin Callender, has the luxury of a built-in sophisticated audience. Last year at Cannes, it won the Palme d'Or for "Elephant," Gus Van Sant's personal meditation on the Columbine massacre. And this year, it presented "The Holy Girl," a moody story about a teenage girl's emerging sexuality. "In the U.K., where I am from, they believe that you can travel easily between TV and films," Callender explained over lunch in Cannes. "And when you're thinking of HBO, the old paradigms do not apply. We feel we have to offer our subscribers something they can't find anywhere else, not even in movie theaters." HBO Films flexibly adapts its projects to both the big and the small screens. The award-winning film "Maria Full of Grace" plays in the multiplex, and the award-winning "Angels in America" spilled over two nights on TV and is sold on DVD. "Our audience is, first and foremost, the domestic audience," Callender continued. "That helps dictate the focus of the work."
VI. The End of American Movie Influence (or Where Are the Men?)
Today's global audience, it seems, has little interest in the next generation of American leading men. As a rule, international stars, a field dominated by men (only Julia Roberts is truly an international female star), are not American if they are newly emerging. Sure, Tobey Maguire was a great Spider-Man, but he doesn't have a global reach without the red hood. Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt may still draw crowds, but the world's newest stars come from other English-language-speaking countries, like Ireland (Colin Farrell), England (Jude Law, Clive Owen), Scotland (Ewan McGregor) or Australia (Russell Crowe). "What is that?" said Amy Pascal, chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, who just cast Heath Ledger (Australia) as a Los Angeles skateboarder in "Lords of Dogtown." "I guess all the American men became comedians. They all wanted to be funny. The next generation of stars seem to be a more international bunch, which is great: your access, as a studio, is not limited to the boy or girl next door."
Actually, American movies used to concern themselves with the boy or girl next door. I liked that -- those characters had real complications and possibilities, and still do. But the arrival of globalization is not complicating the American stories being told; it is simplifying them. And that has consequences. If you think about your life, you may find that films have been extraordinarily influential. The way you dress, act, talk or walk often follows what you saw in the movies. And now, instead of being known for our sense of conversation or style, we are known for our blood and gore. "I noticed a few years ago," Walter Parkes said, "that gangstas in urban movies all carried their guns sideways, and wondered if this created a style for the real world as opposed to being a reflection of the real world."
But what else? I am back to "Shrek." In that movie, the dialogue is intentionally spoofish. The movie is a long riff on pop culture. It is funny, but it does not inspire, or stir up any large emotions. In the end, it has no resonance, nor does it aspire to any.
In the past, cultures would influence one another through film. The sensibility of the French New Wave and the Hong Kong action picture affected countless young Americans. But that sort of broad foreign influence seems to be waning. As I write, the biggest hit in America is "The Grudge," which is a remake of a Tokyo horror film directed by Takashi Shimizu. He has already directed the original and three sequels in Japanese. Although it received poor reviews, "The Grudge" made nearly $40 million on its first weekend and will probably become a global sensation. In the late 60's and 70's, horror films had the scope of "Rosemary's Baby," which raised the genre to a meditation on urban anxiety and rampant ambition. It is doubtful that anyone harbors similar hopes for "The Grudge." If this is the new global cinema, it could give the term "horror film" new meaning.
Lynn Hirschberg is editor at large for the New York Times Magazine.
Copyright (c) 2004 New York Times Company