Chapter 3 of my ongoing book review of "The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood", by Edward Jay Epstein
SUMMARY: A behind-the-scenes odyssey into the world of the Hollywood motion picture industry examines the complex ways in which the major entertainment empires—Viacom, Time Warner, NBC/Universal, Fox, Sony, and Disney—make their money, profiling the individuals who created these vast conglomerates and the various ways in which Hollywood has evolved to survive financially (Taken from Amazon.co.uk)
The previous chapter spanned a few decades and was dedicated more or less to the infrastructure of the system. After all, as the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. But let’s talk about the content. At the beginning, the film industry had basically a universal product in silent movies. "Their highly visual action—brawls, chases, flirtations and slapstick humour—could be broadly understood" (p. 85). Epstein states that the political barrier, rather than the linguistic one, was stronger to U.S.A. films international success before the advent of sound.
It seems that the people in charge of the studios knew that movies could shape people’s perception and advance the U.S.A. image abroad. In 1917, president Woodrow Wilson, after declaring Hollywood an "essential industry" (p. 85), created the Foreign Film Service. He is quoted in David Puttnam’s book Movies and Money (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1998) as having said: "As [film] speaks a universal language, it lends itself importantly to the presentation of America’s plans and purposes" (pp. 85-86). Hollywood benefited that the First World War was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. The conflict severely damaged Europe’s film industry. And by entering the war and helping its allies, European import restrictions on U.S.A. films were lifted. "By 1926, American films accounted for nearly three quarters of the box office in Europe" (p. 86). That was all going to change when the talkies arrived.
In the 1930s, European studios began producing movies in their own languages. Hollywood’s response seems to have unfolded in stages. First, they produced 'foreign' versions of their own films. That meant, for instance, hiring different actors who could speak the native language and could re-use the same sets and costumes. Second, dubbing the audio track. And third, using subtitles. These measures seem to have failed one after the other. By using different actors, the worldwide appeal of Hollywood movie stars was lost. By dubbing the audio track, audiences could notice that dialogues and lips did not syncronise. And by using subtitles… well, many moviegoers were illiterate or had eyesight problems. Hollywood was at a disadvantage in foreign territory.
After many issues, including another World War, censorship on the basis of propaganda and restrictions on repatriating money, the U.S.A. studios backed down a bit and decided to concentrate on 'American' audiences. It was until the 1950s, when television came into the scene, that foreign markets became once again attractive (although the author does not delve into the structural reasons of that transition). Co-production deals, pre-sales, block-booking, improvements in sound technology; all were part of Hollywood’s arsenal to compete. Epstein claims: "They found that European audiences, as well as those in Japan and Latin America, could be fed the same diet of action, fantasy and event films that appealed to American audiences" (p. 87). To support his claim, he uses a quote from a Columbia Pictures executive in 1968: "Decisions on what films to make were motivated largely by American sensibilities" (pp. 87-88).
Some of the tactics of this 'americanisation' were the construction of Disney’s theme parks (Japan, Europe) and the well-known remakes of successful foreign films, but now with 'American' movie stars. The goal was not only to change the actors and locations, but to modify the plot and endings to convert it into a "transnational product". Because of 'American' movies’ popularity, business men in Europe (Leo Kirch in Germany, Jean-Marie Messier in France) began to license movie libraries to Hollywood studios to show them in local television, ultimately enhancing the 'americanisation' process in foreign markets. "By 2004, American movies had by and large conquered the globe—not vice versa" (p. 92), the author concludes.
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