It has become an article of faith for those in the movie industry that American films won’t sell overseas unless foreign audiences are sure the pictures have been cleansed of pro-American boosterism. Foreign moviegoers, they are convinced, are so disgusted with the America of George W. Bush that they can’t stand the thought of cheering on a band of Yankees waging indiscriminate war.
This perception causes a problem for movie studios, as a great portion of their revenue from tent-pole releases comes from overseas markets.
Think of the pre-Bush sci-fi action hit “Independence Day”: Though set on a Fourth of July weekend and prominently featuring American military and political institutions, this big-budget popcorn picture’s foreign take ($511 million) dwarfed its domestic haul ($306 million).
Movies like “Independence Day” and the star-driven action vehicles populated by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone were unapologetic in their pro-American stances, and foreign audiences ate them up. John Milius, the writer of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Clear and Present Danger” (1994) as well as the director-writer of “Red Dawn” (1984), thinks this is no coincidence.
“The only thing they like about us is that we used to be innocent butt-kickers,” Mr. Milius said of European moviegoers during a phone interview earlier this week. “It was a part of American society that was just pure energy.”
Stricken by a post-Iraq guilt syndrome, American filmmakers, he fears, are misreading the mood of the overseas market. “There’s a sense that we must be apologetic for ourselves, we must be kind of more modern and understanding of the world situation, stuff like that,” he says. “I maintain we’re not very good at that. … Gunfighting is something Americans do. We’ve done that always.”
Mr. Milius’ view is not widely shared among the Hollywood elite.
Warner Bros. famously altered the Big Blue Boy Scout’s catchphrase in the 2006 reboot “Superman Returns.” Once upon a time, Superman stood for “Truth, justice, and the American way.” But in Bryan Singer’s tale, the red-and-blue-clad superhero fights for “Truth, justice, and all that stuff.”
“All that stuff” is a phrase so broad as to be meaningless. As Mr. Singer admitted at the time, it was a clear play for the international markets. But the squishiness backfired: “Superman Returns” performed even more anemically overseas than it did domestically.
Enter this weekend’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”
When the children’s action figure originally appeared on store shelves in 1964, G.I. Joe was just your average soldier, fighting for America against the forces of tyranny. The 1980s cartoon that is most responsible for this year’s big-screen adaptation was similarly steeped in American pride. That show’s catchphrase? “G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero.”
Now, however, Joe’s no longer a GI. “GI JOE” isn’t a man, but an acronym in 2009: Global Integrated Joint Operations Entity. Though led by the square-jawed Dennis Quaid, the team is no longer an American unit combating the forces of evil, represented by the vaguely communist Cobra. Like “all that stuff,” “Global Integrated Joint Operations Entity” is a phrase so vague as to be meaningless. This was intentional.
“Right from the writing stage, we said to ourselves, this can’t be about beefy guys who all met each other in the Vietnam War, but an elite organization that’s made up of the best of the best from around the world,” “G.I. Joe” director Stephen Sommers, the mind behind big-budget, focus-tested clunkers including “The Mummy” and “Van Helsing,” told the Los Angeles Times.
While the Paramount marketing team has downplayed the global aspects of the film at home — premiering the movie last week at Andrews Air Force Base and focusing its marketing campaign on the Midwest instead of the coasts — the studio has employed different rhetoric for foreign markets.
“This is not a George Bush movie — it’s an Obama world,” Mr. Sommers said to the Los Angeles Times.
Needless to say, you’re not likely to see that quote on too many billboards in the heartland. Nor will you see this one, from star Channing Tatum:
“‘G.I. Joe,’ I was originally opposed to it. Especially coming off of ‘Stop-Loss,’ playing a soldier about a really sensitive topic? I had no interest in going to play a fake soldier in a hyperreal kind of fantasy war,” he told the Web site Collider.
In other words, antiwar flicks that portray American fighting men and women as AWOL criminals and wife-beating post-traumatic-stress-disordered basket cases are fine. Movies that portray Americans as honorable men fighting against a cabal of international terrorists are beyond the pale.
But a movie about neutral troops fighting for an amorphous ideal of internationalism? That’s just right.