How Hollywood Conquered the World (All Over Again)

For all the talk of American decline, there’s one thing we still make better than anyone on the planet: movies.

In the frenzied final weeks before the Feb. 26 Academy Awards, a curious behind-the-scenes battle was taking place to persuade Hollywood that the leading Oscar contender, The Artist, was an American film -- even though a Frenchman wrote and directed it, another Frenchman produced it with French money, and a Frenchman and Frenchwoman are the two leads. Harvey Weinstein, head of The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the acclaimed movie, even persuaded the City of Los Angeles to proclaim January 31 "The Artist Day," arguing that the movie was shot there. Indeed The Artist, a black-and-white tale about a silent star's fall from grace and subsequent return to fame, has a chance to become the first non-Anglo-Saxon film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, even though it has made just $29 million in the United States since it went into general release on January 20.

Foreign films simply don't play with American audiences. On average, foreign-language movies make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. box office, says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division of In fact, compared to Hollywood productions, foreign films don't even play that well in their home markets. Despite the relative decline of America and a huge spurt of filmmaking in countries such as Brazil, China, and South Korea, Hollywood still dominates in box offices across the world. James Cameron's Avatar remains the top-grossing film ever, and when Chinese authorities attempted to remove it from theaters, their actions caused protests. Although some of the world's top grossing films, like Rio, The Last Samurai, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, were shot outside the United States or focus on other countries, all of the world's top 100 grossing films were Hollywood productions.

Dire predictions about Hollywood's demise have cropped up almost as frequently as blockbusters. Ever since the silent era and then the advent of television, naysayers have spoken of its impending collapse. In the early 1980s, Chariots of Fire producer David Puttnam said he believed Hollywood's future would lie in small-budget films that could compete with the rest of the world -- only to find that the opposite happened. Despite globalization's deleterious effect on the U.S. textile, automotive, computer industries, for movies it's still very much America's world.

That's especially true in America itself, where a resistance to foreign film has been helped by Americans' dislike of subtitles and lack of familiarity with dubbing -- unlike such countries as Germany, where dubbing is routine, or France, where locals have a choice between watching a dubbed version or a "version originale." In the decades prior to 1947, when the Supreme Court told the studios they had to divest themselves of their theater chains, it was against their interests to do anything that might encourage foreign filmmaking -- hence sophisticated dubbing technology never caught on. "We've tried to dub, but then the critics kill you -- and these films play to audiences that pay a lot of attention to reviews," says Mark Gill, the former president of Warner Independent Pictures.

Because investors don't expect foreign films to play well in the United States, still by far the world's largest and most important film market (China and Japan are vying for second place, but each brings in about one-tenth the combined U.S. and Canada box office), they don't get the same production and advertising budgets that Americans do. At the same time, broadcast television networks refuse to buy foreign-language products, leaving a crucial player in film financing absent when it comes to assembling the kind of multi-source deals that get most non-studio pictures made these days.

"We have a Lebanese film opening in the spring, Where Do We Go Now?, and in Lebanon it's about to become the top-grossing film ever, beating Titanic," says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, one of the few companies that continue to back foreign releases in the U.S. Despite this, it will only open on 10 screens here, he says -- compared with 3,000-4,000 for major studio releases.

Production values for American films are vastly superior to foreign ones, helped by budgets that can exceed $200 million (100 times the price of many foreign films, and at least 30 times the estimated $6 million-plus budget of Where Do We Go Now?) And the marketing costs of movies have swollen so that even if a foreign film is less expensive than an American one, it is almost impossible to find a wide audience for it in the United States without spending millions of dollars.

There are exceptions, most notably 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which earned $128 million "domestically" -- as Hollywood executives like to describe North America -- but even that was written and produced by American James Schamus and directed by Taiwanese-American Ang Lee.

Most foreign films remain box-office busts. Schamus and Lee's subsequent Chinese-language Lust, Caution earned a paltry $4.6 million in the United States, compared to $62.4 million internationally. Iran's A Separation, the biggest earner so far among the films nominated for best foreign-language picture this year, has earned just $1.6 million domestically.

"For every Crouching Tiger, there are hundreds of foreign films that don't make any money here," says Dergarabedian. "In order to make films palatable to an American audience, they have to be in English. That's why you see American versions of films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Scandinavian version was perfectly good, but nobody saw it in the U.S."


There's a strange paradox at play here: While Hollywood films are losing audiences at home, where they're increasingly being siphoned away by social media, games, and the Internet, they're building them abroad. Revenues from American films outside North America constitute more than 60 percent of each year's take by the Hollywood studios, a number that's risen from under 40 percent several decades ago. Paramount Pictures, for instance, made $3.21 billion of its total $5.17 billion earnings in movie theaters for 2011 abroad. This is despite the fact that foreign-made films are gaining an increasing share of their own industries: Japanese are seeing more Japanese films than ever; so are Russians, Chinese, and Koreans. Box office is simply growing across the board in those countries.  

China, with a population of 1.3 billion and more than a thousand screens built each year, already has strict limits on the number of U.S. films that can be released there. And why should this change radically, when the U.S. remains so resistant to Chinese movies? Even China's biggest-budget film ever, Zhang Yimou's $90 million The Flowers of War, has made a mere $205,778 in the USA. "It was a complete flop," says Gill.

Without a strong export market, countries such as China are likely to resist American pressure to deal with the single biggest threat to studio revenue -- piracy -- which has grown rampant thanks to websites operated everywhere from Nigeria to Ukraine. One 2007 study estimated that the U.S. loses $58 billion per year to piracy of movies, television, music, and other intellectual property, and the studios are terrified this will kill their business if it increases. The newly signed deal between the United States and China, allowing more U.S. movies to be shown there, was hailed as revolutionary, adding 14 to the present 20 films that can be screened in that country each year. (The deal has the important caveat, however, that the films be in IMAX or 3D.)

Hollywood studios have started to invest in foreign films, and companies such as Sony and 20th Century Fox have established divisions that finance "indigenous" filmmaking (Hollywood parlance for foreign films), but these films are generally restricted to release in their own countries or ones with the same language, like Sony's co-financing of the Bollywood movie Saawariya and Warner Bros. with the Hindi film Chandni Chowk to China.

Way back at the dawn of film, the American dream was created by foreigners -- people like Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, who had left their native Minsk and Warsaw. That is the great lure of Hollywood. It continues to draw major names such as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who won an Oscar for The Lives of Others and then made the Johnny Depp vehicle The Tourist.

Philippe Falardeau, the French-Canadian director of Oscar nominee Monsieur Lazhar, admits, "I have tested the U.S. market -- I've been approached by agents and yes, I'd like to work in Hollywood." If Hollywood can continue to draw the best and brightest from abroad, no matter how far the rest of America declines, Hollywood will remain untouchable.



The League of Arab Societies

It’s high time for a new Arab League -- one that reflects and supports the rising (and struggling) wave of liberals across the Middle East and North Africa.

Amid disheartening news from across the Arab world, one of the few pleasant surprises has been the reinvigorated Arab League. Since the outbreak of revolution last year, the league has conferred legitimacy on the NATO-led campaign to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi, helped coax Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, and assisted Europe and the United States in applying pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. At a time when Egypt, mired in domestic strife, no longer plays a leadership role in the neighborhood, the Arab League has demonstrated that a pan-Arab coalition can serve a useful function.

But the region's defining challenge for years to come -- how to build the foundation for democracy over the fault lines of tribe, sect, ethnicity, and ideology -- requires a different form of transnational leadership. The Arab League remains largely an assembly of autocrats who exploit the divisions within their societies to cling to power. Even the fledgling democracies among its member states have begun to use the same old cynical tactics with their populations. Egypt's post-Mubarak junta is prosecuting foreign and local NGO workers on bogus conspiracy charges, and Arab heads of state have been silent. Despite having assisted the international community in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the League has not discussed the future of these states' political development. Nor will it: Arab leaders won't press for democratic reforms in other countries that they are unwilling to take on themselves.

While the league should continue to serve as a policy platform for Arab heads of state, the region also needs a transnational body that speaks for the aspirations of civil society activists and reformists -- and the tens of millions of people who stand to benefit from efforts to fight corruption, stem extremism, provide electoral transparency, and build institutions to serve women and the working class. Call it a "League of Arab Societies." This organization should draw inspiration from the region's most successful transnational institution in recent memory: The Muslim World League (MWL), an umbrella organization headquartered in Saudi Arabia that drew together the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi clerics, and jihadists to fight secular dictatorships.

Founded in 1962 and still active today, the MWL advanced the pan-Islamist ideal of a region organized by a framework of Islamic law. The venture represents an impressive marriage of pragmatism and idealism. The MWL's constituent groups used friendly Saudi terrain to plan and coordinate their activism, endowing mosques with funding and ideological literature and pumping resources into a network of charitable organizations. They fostered an agile political strategy: Where Arab leaders sought an ally in the struggle against communists and socialists, the MWL was there to help. When the United States sought an ally in its struggle against the Soviets, the MWL brought together the infamous team of Islamist groups that fought and flourished in Afghanistan.

It may seem strange to recommend that a liberally oriented "League of Arab Societies" model itself after an organization that nurtured Islamist groups -- including jihadists who violently turned on their backers and the West. But Islamist parties committed to nonviolent activism are now poised to shape the future of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and perhaps Syria and Yemen. These parties, which often share an agenda consonant with the MWL's founding principles, also owe a debt of gratitude to that group. This may not be good news from a liberal point of view -- but it is a validation of the Islamists' transnational model.

We should appropriate this model to serve a new, liberal agenda -- one that would stand in stark contrast to the situation region-wide only a few years ago. In 2003, many of the region's reformists and civil society activists hoped that a post-Saddam Iraq could serve as a home base for Arab liberalism, just like Saudi Arabia had long served the cause of Islamism. They did not look to the Arab League for support in this endeavor -- member states were sharply divided over how to engage postwar Iraq diplomatically and economically, let alone get involved in civil-society promotion. Instead of facilitating regional initiatives by Arab liberals on Iraqi soil, the United States adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward Iraq's domestic politics, enabling Arab liberalism's greatest foes to mold the country.

But Arab liberals then were more timid than they are today: Islamism had become the virtually undisputed language by which Arab masses expressed their frustration, and many liberals had made the crucial mistake of seeking common ground with dictators like Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Islamists, having achieved control of mosques from the Red Sea to Morocco's Atlantic shores, had consecrated a space for themselves to transmit their ideas and connect with followers. But in a dramatically changed Middle East, Islamism may come to represent authority and imposition rather than disaffection and aspiration. If this happens, the region's disaffected majorities will seek a new set of ideas by which to express their aspirations. Witness Tehran, a city of Islamist domination, where young people dream of liberalism and Islamic reform. As the pendulum swings in many Arab capitals, liberals will have the opportunity to inform this new agenda. A transnational umbrella could equip them with needed resources and create a network to protect them -- providing practical and logistical support and, where necessary, security.

The natural constituent groups for a League of Arab Societies are the liberal organizations, parties, and intellectual circles that have been struggling, in isolation, to gain ground in their home countries. Politicians like Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, together with the "Tomorrow" party he founded, have already been featured in the West. Arab NGOs devoted to women's issues, labor rights, human rights, rule of law promotion, and civics education have long been on the radar screens of American and European foundations. There are also dozens of liberal voices that deserve institutional backing and a regional network. In Tunisia, Ulfa Yusuf, a charismatic female scholar of Islamic studies, has developed a liberal interpretation of Islamic history that radically diverges from the views of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. Lebanese scholar and activist Chibli Mallat has built a following around a new political philosophy, dubbed "White Arabism," that marries liberal democracy to Arab nationalism. And even in Saudi Arabia, "Saudi Liberals" -- a virtual, online consortium of thousands of college students, young professionals, and journalists -- envision a cultural and political alternative to Wahhabism. Most of these figures and groups did not rise to prominence during last year's revolutions because they concern themselves with long-term, and not immediate, transformation.

A League of Arab Societies could nurture these groups in valuable ways -- allying with foreign and local powers as needed to win advantages for them and confronting such powers when necessary to protect their interests. Moreover, Saudi-backed precedent demonstrates that a provisional partnership with the United States need not be the kiss of death for such an organization.

Who would back and host such an organization? Some oil-rich states, such as Qatar, have begun to support liberal causes that diverge politically from ideas about governance that have long held sway in the Gulf. Wealthy financial institutions such as Jordan's Arab Bank and billionaire investors such as Saudi Arabia's Waleed bin Talal have become more active in backing Arab political figures. American and European foundations have poured billions into Arab reform initiatives in cooperation with regimes that no longer exist -- and now seek a more effective strategy, less reliant on Arab governments, to advance their values in the region. In all likelihood, the best financial base for a League of Arab Societies is no one party, power, or petro-endowment, but an investor coalition that includes all of the above. As for a suitable location, a country such as Morocco could offer stability and continuity, as well as a social environment in which civil society groups have been steadily growing in strength.

For all its faults, the Muslim World League taught us that meaningful change is both transnational and multigenerational. The Arab League has taught us that transnational cooperation can provide vital support to Arab populations struggling internally against oppression. But it's time for a new, liberal regional grouping that can embrace and foster the dynamic changes across the Middle East and North Africa. Yes, progress will be gradual, but we must take whatever steps we can to accelerate that progress.