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David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are two of America’s preeminent film scholars. You would be hard pressed to find a serious student of the cinema who hasn’t spent at least a few hours huddled with their seminal introduction to the field—Film Art, now in its ninth edition—or a cable television junkie unaware that the Independent Film Channel sagely christened them the “Critics of the Naughts.” Since launching their blog Observations on Film Art in 2006, the two have added web virtuosos to their growing list of ...
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are two of America’s preeminent film scholars. You would be hard pressed to find a serious student of the cinema who hasn’t spent at least a few hours huddled with their seminal introduction to the field—Film Art, now in its ninth edition—or a cable television junkie unaware that the Independent Film Channel sagely christened them the “Critics of the Naughts.” Since launching their blog Observations on Film Art in 2006, the two have added web virtuosos to their growing list of accolades, pitching unconventional long-form pieces engaged with film artistry that have helped to redefine cinematic storytelling for a new age and audience.
Minding Movies presents a selection from over three hundred essays on genre movies, art films, animation, and the business of Hollywood that have graced Bordwell and Thompson’s blog. Informal pieces, conversational in tone but grounded in three decades of authoritative research, the essays gathered here range from in-depth analyses of individual films such as Slumdog Millionaire and Inglourious Basterds to adjustments of Hollywood media claims and forays into cinematic humor. For Bordwell and Thompson, the most fruitful place to begin is how movies are made, how they work, and how they work on us. Written for film lovers, these essays—on topics ranging from Borat to blockbusters and back again—will delight current fans and gain new enthusiasts.
Serious but not solemn, vibrantly informative without condescension, and above all illuminating reading, Minding Movies offers ideas sure to set film lovers thinking—and keep them returning to the silver screen.
— Roger Ebert
I've just returned from two weeks in Egypt, and on the ten-hour flight from Cairo to New York, I had plenty of time to absorb the contents of the February 24–25 edition of the International Herald Tribune. One of its articles, "Hollywood Rides Off into the Setting Sun," proclaimed the imminent decline of Hollywood.
The coauthors of this article are Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly (NPQ) and Global Viewpoint, and Michael Medavoy, CEO of Phoenix Pictures and producer of, among many others, Miss Potter. These two men are, according to the biographical blurb accompanying the article, writing "a book about the role of Hollywood in the rise and fall of America's image in the world."
The Tribune piece is a slightly abridged version of an essay that appeared on the Huffington Post on February 21, 2007, under the title "Hearts and Minds vs. Shock and Awe at the Oscars" (http://www.huff ingtonpost.com/nathan-gardels-and-mike-medavoy/hearts-and-minds -vs-shock_b_41748.html). The subject is not really the Oscars, though, but the supposed decline in interest in American blockbusters, both in the United States and abroad. The authors make a series of claims to suggest that Hollywood is about to lose its "century-long" status as the center of world filmmaking. (Actually, American films didn't gain dominance in world markets until early 1916, but that's a quibble in the face of the other shaky claims made here.)
1. Foreign films are getting all the awards and prestige this year. "Films by foreigners such as 'Babel,' 'The Queen' and 'Volver' that make little at the box office are winning the top awards while the big Hollywood blockbusters, which make all the money, much of it abroad, are being virtually ignored." Gardels and Medavoy point out that even veteran director Clint Eastwood figured prominently in the nominations by making a Japanese-language film.
Several objections can be made to this. Technically The Queen is foreign, but it's not foreign-language. British films have figured in the Oscars since Charles Laughton won as Best Actor by playing a king in The Private Life of Henry VIII back in 1933. Let's factor out British films, shall we?
Of course Gardels and Medavoy couldn't know this when they wrote the piece, but none of those "foreign" films won. The Departed, an American genre film, did, and its much-respected Hollywood director finally got an Oscar as best director. He remade a Hong Kong film, secure in the knowledge that most Americans won't watch a foreign-language import like Infernal Affairs.
Plenty of nonforeign films get awards and prestige. There have been years—like 2005—when most of the Best Picture nominees were English- language art-house films like Crash and Brokeback Mountain. If The Departed hadn't been crowned Best Picture this year, one other good contender would have been Little Miss Sunshine. Think back over how many indies have won Best Picture in the last decade or so. The English Patient and Chicago (both Miramax) come to mind. (Gardels and Medavoy never make mention of independent American films, since their argument presumes that nonformulaic films come only from abroad.)
2. Foreign films show "the world in transition as we are living it." That is, they reflect the real world and hence are more admired and more admirable. In contrast, "American filmmakers too often grind out formulaic, shock and awe blockbusters."
Again, there are plenty of American films that don't fall into the "blockbuster" category. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers, and Christopher Nolan are admired internationally for their unconventional films. Conversely, most films made in foreign countries are no less formulaic than ours. Other countries' popular comedies, crime films, and horror pics are almost never imported into the United States. Nowadays they're remade in English with Hollywood stars.
3. Hollywood's blockbusters "may be winning the battle of Monday morning grosses, but are losing the war for hearts and minds." Whose hearts and minds are the authors talking about? Doesn't a film win hearts and minds by drawing people into theaters? So if blockbusters are popular, aren't they, at least in some sense, winning hearts and minds? Obtaining Oscar nominations means these films have won the Academy members' hearts and minds, or in the case of the many critics' awards, the hearts and minds of journalists.
4. "Audience trends for American blockbusters are beginning to show a decline as well, both at home and abroad." According to Gardels and Medavoy, the fact that films now gross more abroad than at home suggests that the American public is tired of these big pictures.
This claim is self- contradictory. If blockbusters make more in foreign countries than in the United States, then there would not appear to be evidence for a decline of audiences for such films abroad—unless, of course, there has been an overall decline in box-office income worldwide. That's not true. In the past four years, two films, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, have made over a billion dollars each internationally. They now stand at, respectively, second and third on the all-time box-office chart (in unadjusted dollars).
Even if we assume that just Americans are getting tired of their own formulaic films, the authors' argument doesn't work. Gardels and Medavoy lump Titanic, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace together with Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon as having earned large percentages of their worldwide box-office income outside the United States. Clearly, though, the cases are not comparable. The first three were enormously successful in the United States as well as abroad. Similarly, the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series have brought in around two- thirds of their income from outside the United States, but one would hardly claim that Americans didn't like them. The Da Vinci Code earned over 71 percent of its total gross abroad, but in 2006 it was also the fifth-highest-grossing film in the American market.
The authors have chosen two films, Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon, to support their case. Yet in general big action films that perform poorly or even fl op in the American market tend to do better in foreign countries, especially if they have auteur directors and big stars. Other examples of recent years have been Oliver Stone's Alexander and Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, the importance of stars in selling Hollywood films can hardly be overemphasized. For instance, Tom Cruise is enormously popular in Japan, where Mission: Impossible III grossed $44 million of its $398 million worldwide income. There are few comparable international stars working in foreign-language films.
The rising proportion of receipts abroad results largely from reasons other than any putative decline in the popularity of American cinema. For one thing, rising prosperity in developing countries has made movie-going more affordable, and hence there are more moviegoers. The fall of Communism in the Eastern bloc and the new profit orientation in China have opened large new markets for American films. Most crucially, a huge boom in the construction of multiplexes in South America, Europe, and much of Asia during the 1990s and early 2000s raised the number and cost of tickets sold outside the United States. It isn't the American market that has shrunk. It's the foreign market that has expanded.
Moreover, comparisons between the total box-office incomes of films within the American market and in foreign ones are often misleading due to currency fluctuations. The recent weakness of the American dollar against many other currencies has made it considerably easier for those in other countries to see Hollywood's products. Theatrical income does not necessarily reflect the number of tickets sold or the price of those tickets in local currencies. Hence raw statistics may not accurately indicate the actual popularity of any given title. Unfortunately, figures on numbers of tickets sold are not available for many countries.
5. Countries increasingly are favoring their domestically produced films. "Even long-time American cultural colonies like Japan and Germany are beginning to turn to the home screen."
This isn't a new and consistent trend. Some countries have been doing quite well in their own markets for years, partly due to government subsidies for the film industry. France is one such market. Germany had a good year in 2006, but 2005 was a bad one. Many such successes are cyclical. Recently, films made in Denmark and South Korea have gained remarkable portions of their domestic film markets, and if they decline, other countries will take their places for a period of relative prosperity.
We should also keep in mind that some countries have exhibition quotas for domestic films. South Korea, which provides government subsidies for filmmaking, in recent years has also required that 40 percent of exhibition days be given over to domestic films. That quota was halved to 20 percent last July 1, with filmmakers fearing a surge in competition from Hollywood. In fact, September saw the Korean share of the domestic market rise to 83 percent, but this was largely due to two big hits: The Host and Tazza: The High Rollers. Such success can be ephemeral, however, and the government has recently imposed a tax on movie tickets designed to generate a fund for supporting local filmmaking. Variety has recently predicted a slump in South Korea for 2007 ("Biz Adapts to Uncertain 2007," http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117959030.html).
Moreover, German or Danish films doing well in their own markets doesn't mean that they're beating Hollywood at its own game. American films are truly international products, and blockbusters play in most foreign markets. A non-English-language market like Denmark may produce films that gain considerable screen time at home, but they do not circulate outside the country on nearly the scale of the American product.
Take, for example, the most successful German filmmaker of recent years, actor-director Michael "Bully" Herbig (on the left in the frame above). Within Germany his wildly popular comedy Der Schuh des Manitu (2001) sold almost as many tickets as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and his over-the-top gay Star Trek/Star Wars parody (T)Raumschiff Surprise–Periode 1 (2004) grossed more than twice as much as Spider-Man 2. Most people outside of Germany have never heard of him or his films. There are comic stars like him in many countries. In general, popular local comedies—many of them as formulaic as any Hollywood product—don't travel well.
More evidence for my claims that successful foreign-language films often don't circulate widely outside their countries of origin comes in the February 23 issue of Screen International. In an essay entitled "Calling on the Neighbours," Michael Gubbins discusses new funding that the European Union is putting into cinema specifically to promote the wider distribution of films. "The performance of European films outside their home markets remains one of the thorniest issues for the EU's policy-makers," Gubbins writes. "Last year's box-office recovery in many European territories was largely built on the success of local films in local markets and a number of Hollywood blockbusters."
In 1995, production within Europe totaled 600 films, and it rose to 800 films in 2005. Yet "that rise in production has not been matched by admissions, which have fluctuated strongly over the last five years. There has been little to suggest that increased production has helped European films travel beyond their borders."
6. The competition from increasingly successful national cinemas "suggests that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the century-long honeymoon of Hollywood, at least in its American incarnation, with the world."
I don't know what the authors mean by "Hollywood, at least in its American incarnation." Has Hollywood existed elsewhere?
Hollywood may well be geographically in decline, at least as a center for planning, shooting, and post-producing a movie. That isn't happening, however, for the reasons that Gardels and Medavoy offer in their article.
One factor is the globalization of film financing. Many films these days are coproductions between companies in different countries. It's sometimes hard to determine the nationality of a film, given its several participants. The English language, however, remains central to most internationally successful films, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The most popular stars still tend to come from English-speaking countries or to be able to speak English well, as actors like Juliette Binoche and Penélope Cruz can.
Another factor in globalization is the increasing tendency to make American-based productions partly or entirely abroad. Off shore production has actually been fairly common since World War II. In the postwar austerity, many countries restricted how much currency could be taken out, and Hollywood firms spent their income by covering the production costs of films made abroad.
Even with the easing of such restrictions, the trend continued. These days, the most common reason is simply cost-cutting through inexpensive labor and other expenses—advantages that have long been found in Eastern European countries. More recently, countries have seen the economic advantages of filmmaking as an environmentally friendly enterprise. More and more of them have put tax and other financial benefits into place in an effort to be competitive in the search for off shore productions. For example, the February 2–8, 2007, issue of Screen International contains an ad placed by the Puerto Rico Film Commission (p. 40) declaring that "Puerto Rico is Ready for Action" and offering a remarkable 40 percent rebate on local expenditures. It also touts the country's "experienced bilingual local crews" and its "infrastructure."
One important cause for the off shore trend that I deal with in the closing section of The Frodo Franchise is the fact that technological change now offers the possibility of making films entirely abroad, from planning to post-production. Ten years ago it would have been almost unthinkable to have sophisticated special effects created by anyone other than the big American specialty firms like Rhythm & Hues or Industrial Light & Magic. Now world- class digital effects houses are springing up around the globe, and one of the top firms, Weta Digital, is located in a small suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. When a huge, complex production like The Lord of the Rings can be almost entirely made in a country with a minuscule production history, there is far less reason for American producers to confine any phase of their projects to the traditional capital of filmmaking.
There may indeed be an ongoing decline in Hollywood's importance in world cinema, but it isn't happening quickly. For one thing, there is no reason to think that U.S. firms will soon cease to be the main sources of financing and organization of filmmaking. Even if Hollywood stopped making films and just distributed the most popular American indies and overseas imports, it would remain the most important locale for the film industry. As anyone who studies or works in that industry knows, distribution is the financial core of the whole process.
Finally, we shouldn't forget that since early in the history of the cinema, the United States has been far and away the largest exhibition market for films. No other single country can match it, and Europe's attempts to create a united multinational market to rival it have so far made slow progress. With such a firm basis, the Hollywood industry can simply afford to spend more on its films than can firms in most countries. Expensive production values help create movies that have international appeal, in part precisely because they are blockbusters of a type that are rarely made anywhere else.
Excerpted from Minding Movies by David Bordwell Kristin Thompson Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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