The List

Celluloid Superpowers

The world's biggest film producers and how they've fared on Oscar night.

 

The Academy Awards may be Hollywood's biggest night, but from Kurosawa to Fellini to Almodovar, major figures of world cinema have often made their mark. But as globalization has transformed the global film market, the world's biggest cinematic players aren't necessarily the ones bringing home the statues. Here's a look at the world's 10 biggest film-producing countries (other than the United States, which would be third after Nigeria with 554.6 films produced per year) and how they've fared historically on Oscar night.

INDIA

Films produced per year: 1,178.2 (According to the latest report by UNESCO's Institute for Statistics)

Best foreign language film nominations: 3

Wins: 0

Hollywood aside, Bollywood is the world's undisputed leader in both the number of films produced per year and average ticket sales. And it's going global as well, taking in more than $1 billion in worldwide revenue per year and producing international superstars like Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai.

But Bollywood films, often extremely long and heavier on dance sequences and melodrama than plot, have yet to have a major impact in the United States, either with critics or at the box office. The country has earned a paltry three Best Foreign Language Oscar nominations, most recently for the 2001 cricket epic Lagaan. (The late Indian-born producer Ismail Merchant, of Merchant-Ivory fame, received four nominations for films made primarily in Britain.)

India did have something of a coming out party at the 2009 Oscars, when the Mumbai-set, Bollywood-influenced, British-directed film Slumdog Millionaire took home eight awards including Best Picture. Composer and Bollywood stalwart A.R. Rahman took home two statuettes for his work on the film.

Not everyone in the Indian film industry appreciated the film's sometimes whimsical depiction of Mumbai's urban poverty, but perhaps its success, combined with a growing Indian diaspora community, can finally open up the United States to Bollywood's charms.

NIGERIA

Films produced per year: 1,093.5

Best foreign language film nominations: 0

Wins: 0

In 2006, UNESCO announced that Nigeria had overtaken the United States as the world's second-largest film producer. Generally shot on a shoestring budget and distributed by videotape, Nollywood films have become a staple form of entertainment throughout Africa. Because Nollywood films make nearly 90 percent of their revenue from video sales, rather than distribution licensing or theater screenings, piracy has significantly hampered the industry's revenues and growth.

With low production values and over-the-top, often religiously themed subject matter, Nollywood films -- mostly filmed in Yoruba or other local languages -- haven't traveled well outside of Africa, though video stores selling the latest Nollywood titles are now a common sight in many immigrant neighborhoods in the United States.

The only sub-Saharan African films to take home statuettes at the Oscars are the Ivory Coast/France co-production Black and White in Color in 1976 and South Africa's Tsotsi  in 2005.

CHINA

Films produced per year (Including Hong Kong and Macau): 436.8

Best foreign language film nominations: 4

Wins: 0

If you include the semi-autonomous film powerhouse Hong Kong, China leapfrogs Japan on UNESCO list to take its spot as the world's fourth most prolific film producer after the United States. Chinese films -- particularly Hong Kong's brand of highly choreographed action cinema, known as wuxia -- has had a major impact at the U.S. box office -- 4 of America 10 highest-grossing foreign-language films ever are Chinese, all of them martial arts epics. Hong Kong stars from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan have enjoyed enormous success in Hollywood, and Hong Kong directors ranging from shoot-em-up king John Woo to arthouse favorite Wong Kar-Wai have earned international acclaim. (While the mainland produces far more films per year, Chinese productions have rarely rivaled the success of their Hong Kong counterparts.)

Despite its growing stature in the film world, China hasn't had much success on Oscar night. Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou has seen two films nominated, the 1991 period piece Raise the Red Lantern and the 2002 wuxia epic Hero. Neither has taken home the statuette. Perhaps adding insult to injury, the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was filmed in the wuxia style and featured Hong Kong superstars Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, but was directed by Taiwanese-born Hollywood director Ang Lee, racked up 10 nominations including Best Picture and took home three, including best foreign-language film. Taiwan got credit for the awards.

China's Oscar campaign was rocked by controversy this year. Its official entry for the award, the Zhang Yimou-directed World War II drama Flowers of War, became a public-relations nightmare after star Christian Bale visited a detained democracy activist while in China promoting the film.

JAPAN

Films produced per year: 409.2

Best foreign language film nominations: 12

Wins: 4

Japan may have been overtaken by China in total films produced, but it has a pretty strong lead in Oscar hardware. Akira Kurosawa's classic, multiple-perspective Samurai drama Rashoman took home the country's first statuette in 1951, the fifth year the foreign-language Oscar was handed out.  Since then, it's had an impressive run of winners, most recently the 2008 dark comedy Departures.

Japan has enjoyed nominations in other categories, including actors Sessue Hayakawa (Bridge on the River Kwai), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) and Rinko Kikuchi (Babel). The Japanese-born actress Miyoshi Umeki won a 1957 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in the Marlon Brando film Sayonara. She was the first, and to date only, actress of East Asian descent to win an Academy Award.

At the 1990 Oscars, Kurosawa, the highly influential director of such films as Seven Samurai and Ran, was presented with a lifetime achievement award by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

FRANCE

Films produced per year: 228.2

Best foreign language film nominations: 36

Wins: 12

As you might expect from the birthplace of cinema, France has had a pretty impressive run at the Oscars. Of the 55 films it has submitted for the foreign-language category, 36 have received nominations -- the most of any country. Its first win was for the now largely forgotten 1947 film Monsieur Vincent. Its most recent win was for 1992's Indochine, a Vietnam-set period piece starring Catherine Deneuve, who also picked up a Best Actress nomination that year.

The French actresses Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) and Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) have picked up Oscars, though only Cotillard has won for a French-language performance. Acclaimed directors Jean Renoir and Francois Truffaut have also received nominations. Avante-guard Jean-Luc Godard received a lifetime achievement award in 2010.

No French films are nominated in the foreign-language category this year, but France's Oscar hopes are riding on The Artist, a French-made silent film nominated for 10 awards including best picture. Vegas oddsmakers are currently favoring The Artist, which would make it France's first ever Best Picture winner.

Rounding out the Gallic flavor of this year's Oscars, Martin Scorcese's Best Picture-nominated Hugo celebrates the career of early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, played in the film by Ben Kingsley.

RUSSIA

Films produced per year: 227.2

Best foreign language film nominations (including the Soviet Union): 14

Wins: 4

This year's nomination of an Iranian film, A Separation, has gotten more attention than normal thanks to increased tension between Washington and Tehran. But it's worth keeping in mind that Soviet nominees were relatively common, even at the height of the Cold War. Nine Soviet films were nominated from 1968 and 1984. Winners included Sergey Bordanchuk's eight-hour adaptation of War and Peace and the Russo-Japanese co-production Dersu Uzala, directed by Kurosawa.

Five Russian films have been nominated since the fall of the Soviet Union, but so far the only winner has been the Stalin-era drama Burnt By the Sun in 1994. Controversy broke out this year when Russia's 10-person Oscar committee chose Burnt By the Sun-2: Citadel, as the country's official award submission. The film was a flop with both critics and audiences, and many suspected the sequel had been chosen mainly because its director Nikita Mikhalkov is a close friend of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The chairman of the Russian Oscar board resigned in protest over the vote.

GERMANY

Films produced per year: 179

Best foreign language film nominations (including East and West Germany): 18

Wins: 3

West Germany received eight nominations between 1956 and 1985, but won only once, for the 1979 adaptation of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum. East Germany only received one nomination, for the 1975 Holocaust film Jacob the Liar. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany has had nine nominations and two wins, for 2001's Nowhere in Africa and 2006's The Lives of Others. Germany has had an impressive decade in the foreign-language category, picking up six nominations since 2002, more than any other country. Films documenting Germany's turbulent history, such as Downfall, Sophie Scholl: End of Days, and The Baader-Meinhoff Complex, have tended to impress the academy.

Germany got off to a good start at the Oscars. At the very first ceremony in 1929, actor Emil Jannings took home the award for Best Actor and the film Sunrise, directed by German transplant F.W. Murnau, took home the award for "Unique and artistic production." It's been somewhat slimmer pickings since then. German-born Luise Rainer -- the "Viennese teardrop" -- took home consecutive Best Actress statuettes in 1936 and 1937. German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz won in 2009 for his portrayal of a Nazi "Jew-hunter" in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

This year, Wim Wenders' 3-D dance film Pina is nominated for Best Documentary.

SPAIN

Films produced per year: 164.6

Best foreign language film nominations: 19

Wins: 4

While not quite in France or Italy's category, Spain's exports have fared pretty well on Oscar night. Legendary surrealist director Luis Bunuel earned three nominations for Best Foreign Film and two for Best Screenplay, though his only win -- for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1973 -- was produced in France. Pedro Almodovar has had two films nominated, with 1999's All About My Mother taking home the statue. In 2003, he was nominated for best director, and won best original screenplay for Talk to Her.

The last few years have been good ones for Spanish actors at the Oscars, with assists from some of Hollywood's biggest directors. Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem have each received three nominations. Bardem took home a 2008 Oscar for his role in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men and Cruz won the following year for Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona.

ITALY

Films produced per year: 124.0

Best foreign language film nominations: 27

Wins: 13

It may not make the most movies per year, but the home of the legendary Cinecittà is an Oscar powerhouse. Italy has taken home more statuettes in the Best Foreign Language category than any other country since 1947, when Vittorio de Sica's neo-realist Shoe-Shine won the award the first year it was given out. Italy owes a large part of its success to its best-known director, Federico Fellini, whose films won the award four times -- more than any other director. Fellini also received 12 nominations for writing and directing, and won a lifetime achievement award in 1993.

Actress Sophia Loren won for best actress for De Sica's 1960 film Two Women. She also received a lifetime achievement award in 1991. At the 1996 awards, Il Postino was nominated for Best Picture, losing out to Bravehart. Interestingly, despite its global acclaim, Il Postino wasn't Italy's submission for Best Foreign Language Film that year. That was the moviemaking drama The Star Maker, which received a nomination but didn't win. At the 1999 awards, the Holocaust comedy Life Is Beautiful received nine nominations and won three, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Roberto Benigni. Benigni's exuberant reaction to his award has become something of a classic Oscar moment.

SOUTH KOREA

Films produced per year: 118.4

Best foreign language film nominations: 0

Wins: 0

Despite its increasing commercial success, the Korean film industry has yet to crack the Oscar code. It's not for lack of trying -- South Korea has been submitting movies for the Best Foreign Language category since 1962. (Four of its earliest submissions were directed by Shin Sang-ok, later best known for being kidnapped by North Korea to direct the Dear Leader's cheesy Godzilla knockoffs.)

Several South Korean films have enjoyed international commercial success in recent years, including the blood-soaked revenge thriller Oldboy, monster movie The Host, and the gritty drama Mother. Hopefully, Korea's Oscar drought will be ending soon.

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The List

Where Have All the George Washingtons Gone?

Five reasons why America doesn’t have great presidents anymore.

Happy Presidents Day, a holiday that ranks somewhere between Groundhog Day and Opening Day at the ballpark in the list of Americans' priorities. It's easy to see why. Even though Americans admire their great presidents, they've been frustrated for quite a while now by their Disappointers in Chief. Those presidents seem to have become experts in taking Americans to the Mount Everest of hope and expectations and then letting them down in the valley of executive despair. Americans' own expectations, of course, have always been too high. Still, of late, Americans haven't had what presidential scholars would describe as a parade of great presidents occupying the White House.

Indeed, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America's last undeniably great president, the history of the presidency has resembled much more a bumpy and often wild ride than a consistent tale of top performers. It has been a story of scandal, impeachment, assassination, and transitional presidencies -- and also one of dedicated, intelligent, and able presidents, some of whom were not actually great presidents but who were great at appearing presidential. But since FDR, the greatness of consistent and incomparable achievement has eluded all of his successors.

Why? Are Americans just in a bad patch -- like in the 19th century for a decade or so on either side of Abraham Lincoln, when faceless chief executives came and went without much of a trace of significant accomplishment? Are Americans just between great presidents, waiting for another FDR? Or is something else afoot?

I think it's the latter. And as Americans celebrate President's Day, more likely at the shopping mall than the National Mall, here are five reasons that presidential greatness has become harder now than ever.

1. Americans are ambivalent about greatness.

The American system, creed, and political culture works against greatness. There's an anti-greatness and anti-authority trope that courses throughout U.S. history. Unlike the European story (literally filled with Greats -- Catherine, Alexander, Peter, Charles, and a handful of English kings), American history was not peopled by the royal or the entitled. There was no real tradition of grandiosity (sorry Newt) and certainly few of the monarchial trappings of power. George Washington rode around in an ornate coach with a large GW embossed on its top, but he shunned the more elaborate titles of the office in favor of a simple Mr. President. Americans have always liked leaders with a common touch and a dose of humility, even just for show.

Indeed, much to the dismay of the British ambassador, Thomas Jefferson would regularly greet him in bedroom slippers, sometimes opening the White House door in his stocking feet. Grover Cleveland answered his own phone; and Harry Truman, after leaving the White House in the summer of 1953, packed up the wife and drove himself to New England without handlers or Secret Service protection. Not until 1906, after three U.S. presidents (Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley) had been assassinated, did Congress even authorize formal statutory authority for presidential protection.

2. FDR was a tough act to follow.

Let's face it. Following a four-term president who overcame polio to lead America through its greatest economic calamity and to victory in its greatest war sets a pretty high bar. None of his successors would measure up. Truman, who likely had the third-hardest job in American politics (following FDR -- No. 3 after John Adams, who followed Washington, and Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln), did pretty well, particularly in fashioning a wise set of Cold War policies. But the idea that any president would best Roosevelt in the achievement department died with him. That all of FDR's successors are still judged by his remarkable 100 Days is a testament to the reality that all would live in his shadow. In 1951, driven by Republicans and southern Democrats, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, restricting a president's tenure to two terms. FDR's enemies thought they were getting even, but what they really did in ensuring that there would be no more FDRs was to elevate the real one into presidential immortality.

3. America's modern crises make greatness very hard.

Greatness in the presidency is driven by severe crisis that encumbers the nation for a sustained period of time. Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were America's greatest presidents because they faced and overcame the three greatest challenges in America's history: the birth and consolidation of the republic; civil war; and the Great Depression and World War II. The Founders wanted a strong executive, but one who was accountable also, constrained by checks and balances as well as shared and separated powers. The American system moves only when it's shocked, and it allows a president to tame what is an inherently unruly political structure.

But crisis only opens the door. Unless a president also has the character and the capacity to know what to do and how to do it, they will fail. James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover weren't up to the challenges; Lincoln and FDR were. Since FDR, America hasn't had the kind of emergency that has offered the chance for both heroic crisis management and the fashioning of some transformational legacy that would change the country in a fundamental way.

America has had plenty of crises, to be sure, but none that have been inescapable, relentless, and nation-encumbering. In fact, America's modern challenges have become routinized. That's what happened with the Cold War, even with the 9/11 attacks. They became what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt called "inside government crises" rather than outside crises. Indeed, where presidents have had great moments -- John F. Kennedy over Cuba, Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of JFK's death pushing transformative change on civil rights and social programs -- they resulted from real crisis or trauma. The 9/11 attacks might have been such a moment, but it was wasted by a president who took the country into discretionary war and away from using the tragedy to promote a sense of sustained national identity or purpose. Obama had his economic crisis -- but without Depression-era 25 percent unemployment and bread lines, it wasn't sufficient to force Republicans to cooperate or allow for dramatic presidential action.

America's contemporary challenges are severe, but they're slower bleeds. Debt, deficits, and decaying infrastructure produce delay and division -- not consensus. And problems of this nature don't afford much space for heroic presidential action. Balancing the budget isn't quite defeating Hitler, but the structural polarization in modern politics makes even the former very hard to achieve.

4. Media trivializes.

Greatness in the presidency requires a certain amount of distance, detachment, even mystique. The media has been tough on presidents since George Washington -- but not nearly as intrusive as it is now. FDR could hide his affairs and the extent of his disability because a willing press allowed him to; Kennedy had the same free pass. Not today. America's 24/7, in-your-face media is relentless -- and presidents contribute to it by believing they need to keep ahead of the curve and project their presence constantly. Lincoln gave four major speeches during his presidency; FDR gave only four fireside chats during his first year. Barack Obama gave over 500 speeches and major remarks during his first 365 days in office.

Presidents today also succumb to the Oprah-style need to reveal and share things about themselves, a curious feature of our modern age. Eighteenth- and 19th-century politicians didn't share. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR were public men with impenetrable private interiors. Jefferson burned his letters to his late wife. Obama had written two bestselling autobiographies before he set foot in the White House. A presidential Twitter news conference (July 6, 2011) may be smart politics and communications, but somehow the notion of being the president in 140 characters just doesn't compute.

The media offer presidents great opportunities to get the message out. But the media also suck the mystery and aura out of the presidency. It's hard to imagine now, as presidential historian Michael Beschloss reminds us, but when JFK addressed the country during the Cuban missile crisis, the networks went back to normal programming. That meant there was no media mediation, no talking-head commentary interposing itself between the public and the president. Americans were left to come to terms with the president and his words, by themselves.

5. It's a big world out there.

Modern presidents face a world that's largely beyond their control. The new globalized, integrated world impinges significantly, directly, and often immediately on important domestic issues in a way their predecessors could never even imagine. As an expanding continental power, America faced troubles enough. Both Washington and Lincoln had to deal with galactic challenges of nation-building and civil war, and they even had to contend with the great powers of their day in North America and at sea. As monumental as these challenges were, they were still contained. They were continental problems that offered up at least the possibility of continental solutions. With largely nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and oceans and fish to its east and west ("our liquid assets," one historian once called them), U.S. presidents had more control and a better margin for success. The foreign-policy challenges -- crisis with Spain, intervention in Mexico, preventing European influence in Latin America, and World War I -- faced by the first three presidents to get America's feet wet in the world (McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) paled before the complexity of those that the second Roosevelt would encounter, let alone his successors.

Put aside for just a minute the gigantic size of America's economic, political, cultural, and security footprint in the world -- the latter, alone, which has the country deployed militarily to hundreds of bases around the world. Just think about the dependency and interconnectedness of the United States in the world today. Nineteen terrorists attacked the Twin Towers and the Pentagon; within a couple of years, America found itself bogged down in what would become the two longest wars in its history. Or what about Greece, a place the founders looked to as a source of philosophical and intellectual inspiration? It now exports bad debt that can roil U.S. financial markets with even a hint of possible default.

America doesn't control the world. And its presidents aren't action-adventure superheroes who can impose their will with words and deeds. The gap between expectations and delivery has always been a tough one to close, and the demand for great leaders has always exceeded the supply. Americans need to get a grip and dial down what they expect of the presidency and those who occupy it. Maybe then Americans can allow their presidents to be good without expecting them always to be great.

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