- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

If you’re looking for yet another sign that the emerging global market for movies presages a downward spiral toward the big, the bad and the dumb, look no further than the staggering $382 million worldwide opening weekend for the critically panned “Spider-Man 3.” It’s no secret that as Hollywood becomes more and more like the export industry it already is (with over half its revenues coming from overseas), it will ply product that, so to speak, travels well. This typically means slick production values, explosive action and caveman dialogue (to exaggerate only slightly).

There’s a pleasing irony in all of this. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, claimed in 2004 that America is responsible for a “generalized underculture in the world.” If that’s true — if Americans are dumbing culture down — then, at least in the case of cinema, we’re doing so largely for the enjoyment of those foreign markets — including the French — whose political representatives relish deploring the poverty of American pop culture.

For her part, film columnist Jennifer Hearne refuses to give Hollywood execs even the backhanded compliment of cynical market intelligence. She says, “I think we dumb things down for ourselves” — intoxicated as we are by testosterone-driven exploits, soap-opera notions of romance and superficial standards of beauty.

“If we are currently thriving overseas, it’s thanks to filmgoers who want to look at us, look like us and fantasize about becoming us,” she says. “In many ways, we’re conning them about who we really are.”

And yet, a closer look at Hollywood’s response to the imperatives of global cinema reveals a picture that’s far more complicated than the specter of vulgar hegemony raised by Mr. Chirac.

The globalization of film, it turns out, is not at all a one-way street — and has affected Hollywood far more profoundly than a scan of weekend box-office figures or annual revenue might suggest.

“There are other things going on that are somewhat less obvious,” says Boston College professor Christina Klein, who, as of our conversation, is set to give lectures at two Korean universities about global cinema. “Hollywood studios aren’t working in just one way. They’ve got multiple strategies going on at the same time.”

On the front burner of major Hollywood studios is what Ms. Klein calls the “Asia factor” — the race to capture the growing film markets of countries such as South Korea and, especially, China.

Last week, producer brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein tapped the investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to raise a $285 million fund to develop movies with Asian market appeal.

Such a strategy is reflected in movies like, yes, “Spider-Man 3,” but also, increasingly, joint productions that mingle Hollywood know-how with native languages and sensibilities. “Hollywood brings in money and high-level production expertise, but the film has local themes, content and actors,” says Ms. Klein, author of “Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961.”

Some are small-budget films that never leave their target countries; others are high-profile international efforts such as the literary adaptation “Memoirs of a Geisha” and Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” both of whose fates depended, in part, on America’s largest export film market — Japan.

The $128 million U.S. gross of 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” directed by Taiwanese master Ang Lee, “knocked everyone’s socks off and made everyone aware of the potential of these kinds of films,” Ms. Klein explains.

Another, more recent example is 2004’s “Kung Fu Hustle” (like “Crouching Tiger,” a Sony Pictures production). The highest-grossing film in Hong Kong history, “Kung Fu Hustle” grossed more than $100 million, $34 million of which came from outside Asia. Ms. Klein says the production dovetailed neatly the financial interests of its principals: “Hollywood wanted to make money in Asia; Stephen Chow wanted to make money in the U.S.”

The major studios’ local-language outreach is scarcely limited to Asia. Last week, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced it was consolidating its local-language productions into a single corporate division — called International Motion Picture Production — to oversee film productions not only in Asia, but in France, Spain, Mexico, Russia and India. A company statement said the “move reflects our commitment to artists and filmmakers who are telling stories in their own language for audiences in their own countries as well as around the world.”

The globalization of film is not simply a story of American studios going native. Ms. Klein says many Asian filmmakers are co-opting Hollywood genre conventions and making them their own (while, perhaps, enhancing their commercial viability). South Korean director Kim Ji-Woon is developing a film roughly translated as “Good Guy, Bad Guy, Strange Guy” — an obvious reverence to the classic spaghetti Western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Mr. Kim has said he hopes to spin the Western into “something authentically Korean.”

Andrew Horton, director of film studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of “Screenwriting for a Global Market: Selling Your Scripts From Hollywood to Hong Kong,” is hardly surprised that foreign filmmakers have an ear for American stories. One of his students, Gena Ellis, shopped a 40-page script called “Angela’s Decision,” about a girl longing for release from a dead-end Oklahoma town. An Australian company bought it, switched its setting and released it this year as a short feature.

Hollywood sees dollar signs in the global market, but Mr. Horton says, “You still need a good script and a story that folks care about.” He points to the international success of “little indies” such as “Whale Rider,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Borat.”

“The global cinema is in many ways a more encouraging and open world than the old days of five or six major distributors,” Mr. Horton says.

“Make the film you want to make,” he tells his students. “There are no rules anymore.”

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