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 Hollywood.com. 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.