Saturday, 5 June 2010

Globalization of Hollywood - Part 1

Looking at the kitschy Oriental Pearl Tower from across the Huangpu in Shanghai led me to think about Hollywood.

Nothing can alter, popularise and capture the imagination of a city than having it appeared in a pop movie. In the 50's, King Kong is clinging to the side of the Empire State Building in NY. This is one Hollywood icon embracing a city icon in the financial centre of the world in that era. Fast forward to the 2010's, we have Godzila fighting scene at the site of the Oriental Tower in Shanghai. This is one Japanese film icon embracing a city icon of the financial centre of China. Coincidentally - maybe not - these 2 movie icons also share many things: 'monster', gargantuan size, etc.

Godzilla is, I suspect, Japanese way of dealing with the tragedy of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. In a sense, US created Godzilla.

Movies in general, and Hollywood exports in particular always reflect zeitgeist of the world. Before the 1970's where globalisation hadn't quite taken hold the extent it does now, most Hollywood films looked into its navel for materials (and there's only so much you can get out of your navel). As globalisation starts, Hollywood studios looked into other navels for inspirations, and grapple with more and more global themes.

Globalisation had occurred a long time ago, to different degrees. The first globalisation grew with the Silk Road that connects the Roman Empire in the West and Chinese Han Empire in the East.

Globalisation got a further boost with the discovery of Americas. In modern time, before the Fall of Berlin Wall, the process couldn't truly be called globalisation when the sizable Communist Bloc wasn't part of it. It should better be called, semi-globalisation. We're now living in a TRULY globalised world with virtually no countries are untouched by it. All the old enemies of Cold War are turning into gay buddies and trade partners. Even Taiwan's KMT and PRC are getting along. With the signing of ECFA, the cross-straits ties are closer than ever. I think this ECFA is PRC's tool for the eventual unification of Taiwan (in political terms, not in CCP party rhetoric). The detente of PRC and KMT is more amazing than those of USA and Russia, because with the collapse of USSR, we're dealing with a 'democractic' Russia. Taiwanese government had realised that even their major political backer of USA is now hobnobbing with China, they'd better kowtowing too. In short, Uncle Sam had switched sides, and recognised PRC (instead of ROC as it did before). USA is one of the last country to switch their recognition from ROC to PRC in a domino effect. Taiwan has never been more isolated. In fact, became none-existence as a country in the eyes of the world governments. As a sign of respect, let's bow our heads for a 3 minutes silence (no peeking please).

The wars between major powers nowadays are trade wars, which is far preferably than military wars. Making money (and love), is so much better than making war.

Ok, back to Hollywood. James Bonds movies is one franchise where the enemy is usually a country. You can find out about the twin goals of Hollywood market, and US enemy by watching James Bonds movies. It's true that James Bond is a British secret agent, but can you think of a single major enemy that isn't shared by these 2 countries post WW2? These 2 countries are so similar in cultures, political ideologies, and history (at least since WW2), they're even united by their first names 'United' that UK might as well be a state of USA (as far as foreign policy us concerned). Uh oh, hope I don't step on some British toes. I think you Pommies agree, if not grudgingly.

Let's put it another way, Bond franchise shows the most important geopolitical concern of the West/UK/USA of the day. It's a English spy franchise produced by US Hollywood studio. Especially in the Cold War era, it has to express the hopes, fears, and the geopolitical concerns of USA, and Bond films delivered exactly that.

Here are a few more examples where marketing are far more important than reflecting reality. In Star Trek's franchise, there are a number of senior Japanese crew members (e.g. Mr. Sulu) serving on the USS Enterprise, and even Koreans are present in Star Trek Enterprise. There's not a Chinese in sight. In reality (of an imaginary world of The Federation), logically the chances of a Chinese serving on the Enterprise would be much higher than either Japanese or Koreans going by the proportion of Chinese in the population of the planet earth. Never mind that China is the 3rd country in history to have space walk[1] carried out by their taikonaut (first it was USSR's cosmonaut, followed by USA's astronaut. What about the ESA's Mars 500 Project (stage 3) that consists of 3 Russians, 1 French, 1 Italian, and 1 Chinese? And Chinese is launching it first space station in 2020). But the movie producers of Star Trek didn't foresee any opportunity of selling their wonderful creations into China, especially during the filming of the original Star Trek series when China was viewed as non-existent at best, and the ideological enemy as worst during the Cold War. Japan, at the time, however, is a rising industrial power like China today. Translation, big market for its films.

Lost - TV seriesFor that reason, movies with international cast like the TV drama series "Lost" (2004 - 2010) now includes Chinese as well as Koreans. No Japanese[2], but "Heroes" (2006 - 2010) more than take up that slack. Last time when I was in Japan, the TV commercial showing so much of the Japanese character Hiro in "Heroes" that I though it was an ads for a Japanese film (if I didn't know any better). Hiro does play an important role in that TV series. Look at his name (Hiro) - a veiled title role.

Unlike "Lost", the attempt of "Heroes" to reach global audience is a bit (shamelessly) transparent with its international cast (not too mention that it jumped onto the bandwagon of global success of "Lost"). The international ensemble cast of "Lost", on the other hand, fits in organically with the narratives because the characters are the passengers of an international airline flying between Sydney and Los Angeles. These 2 cities have some of the most diverse ethnic communities on earth (maybe the MOST multicultural). In fact, the story demands an ethnically diverse casting. If Hollywood includes the Chinese market, surely the Indian market would follow suit. Whenever Chinese economy is mentioned, India isn't far behind. Look at the coining of the term Chindia. Unlike "Heroes" where the Indian played an important role, there's no Indian in "Lost". Hang on, there is. Sort of. Naveen Andrews is an Indian Brit who played an Iraqi soldier Sayid Hassan Jarrah, which happens to be his most well known role in his career (so far).

"2012" (2009) is an interesting movie to study the Hollywood's reach for the global markets and issues of globalisation. For the fist time, this is a disaster movie where USA isn't ALONE the saviour of the world since WW2. But it's an international co-operative efforts that saves the world. Maybe Hollywood is sick and tired of showing Uncle Sam as the world's regular saviour. Nah, get real. It's more like the global audience is sick of Hollywood showing that. Like "Lost", the international cast and backdrop is integral to the story. The Ruskies are no longer just evil commies, but belongs to the democracy club. They're one of us now. Let paint them in a better light, shall we? More importantly, Hollywood movies are now exporting to Russia. In "2012", the Yank's family is flown to safety in the huge Russian aircraft Antonov 500. It was the cooperation between the Yank and Ruski pilots that save both the Russian and American families. The real life parallel? Instead of having a space race as in the Cold War where both countries tried to outdo each other, Russia and USA is cooperating in space program nowadays to save themselves both a lots of mullah and elbow grease. Hollywood likes the Ruskies so much, they give the Russian pilot Sasha the heroic role, who bravely and selflessly scarifies himself to save the passengers. In fact Sasha is the only TRUE hero in the movie. Bravo, Sasha! Dasvidania, Sasha!

2012 the movieThe Ark is built in Tibet because it's the Roof of the World. If they expect a Biblical flood that going to inundate the world, the highest point on Earth seems like a logical place to put it. Also, such remoteness would help to minimise security leaks (which the governments willing to kill to keep it a secret in this film. Would be a real challenge to keep it out of Julian Assange's website though). And what's more, where else in the world where one finds a large enough labour force to build this mammoth ship? Where else but the factory of the world, where they build all the iPhones, and Canon cameras in the world, and just happens to be the world's largest shipbuilder? Last but not least, the inclusion of Tibet would also add a spiritual dimension to the narrative (even if it's quite shallow. Better shallow than nothing. Just look at the movie poster. Other 2012 disaster movies got Mayan Prophecy, this one got Tibetan people. Close enough). So it's a perfect candidate. China is thus worked seamlessly into the story. Russia, however, is not. But Hollywood wants the Russian market too, and make good for all the Russian bashing done in the past. "If we can be friends in space. We can be friends on earth. Till death do us part!" Very a gay sort of way. Nice.

If there's - it should have - a message coming out of "2012", it's that many of today's global issues could only be solved by international efforts, not by any one country. The giant solar storm obviously represents global warming, and the Ark symbolises green technology. Another message is that to fund the Ark project tickets were sold to the super rich, does this a comment that the worst victims of climate change are the poorest, while the rich nations can simply pay their way out? I may be reading too much into the story...but then the writer(s) may have that intention all along.

Here's some other reasons why USA isn't the saviour of the world in this movie. If the solar storm symbolises global warming, and because USA has been dragging its feet in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, instead of showing leadership as it once were in many issues. So if this movie portrays USA as saviour, the audience who sees this symbolic link would jeer, not cheer.

The recent world's financial tsunami that was sent to the rest of the world came from the epic centre of Wall Street. Except this tsunami was created artificially, fuelled by pure greed that built on the house of cards that's the housing bubble. It produced the worse economic recession since the Great Depression, which also created by Wall Street, NOT coincidentally. In fact, both crisis were caused by the bursting of asset bubbles. The only difference was that in the 1920s, it was a stock bubble, and this time a housing bubble. It's very hard just now to hail USA as the saviour of the world. Also because of the economic tight spot is in, it has no choice but to relinquish many of the leadership roles it assumed previously when it lived in more prosperous time. Lybia is a case in point. "You Frenchies can be the head of this operation. I'm too busy saving myself".

After WW2, we lived in a bipolar world (of the West Vs Communist Bloc) much of the 2nd half of the 20th century. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we left with the unipolar world with USA being the singular superpower for the final decade of the 20th century - a coda for Uncle Sam. With the rise of the economic powers of many developing/emerging economies - especially that of the BRICS - the 21st century world is entering into a multipolar world.

During the Cold War, USA saw itself as global Messiah, saving citizen of the world from the scourge of Communism. But in this multi-polar world, and with the US economic clout on the relative decline, an international co-operations seems like a more realistic modus operandi. "2012" in particular, and Hollywood movies in general, are reflecting this New World Order. Yep, this is what globalisation should be about, not just people doing business around the world, but solving problems together, saving the world together (from terrorism, financial crises, climate change, trade protectionism, drug and human trafficking, pandemic diseases, denulearisation, meteor striking the Earth, invasion of extremely cute and cuddly but deadly ETs, etc, etc, etc). None of these problems could be tackled by any one country alone, no matter how much good will or power it has. With all this in mind, it's getting harder to buy into the idea of US exceptionalism. Of course, if the saviour happens to be Tugg Speedman in "Tropic Thunder" (2008), who saved the world from disasters similar to "2012" 6 times in the "Scorcher" franchise, I would be the first to line up for ticket.

Some directors in Hollywood - in fact the director of "2012" - defended themselves that the "pro-China" stance in their movies aren't there to capture the Chinese audience because the Chinese market is too small. Small compares to USA, which is the biggest. 2 things needs to consider even if the Chinese market is small. One, it's small, for now. The key words often associate with Chinese market are 'fast growing'. Two, China seems to indispensable to the story. But the most interesting things is the directors' reply that they don't deliberately include China into the story because the market isn't big. Well, the only conclusion one can draw is that they would HAVE reason to include China when their market is big enough. Does the director realises what he's saying? Oops! Sorry, no 2nd take!

Adding China into a movie doesn't just increase sales to China, but to all countries. Who isn't talking (or yapping) about China today? Movies about the African country of Chad likely won't sell, movies about China do. China, like USA, love her or hate her, you can't ignore her. I guess, directors, being artists at hearts, hate to be seen as selling out to the mighty Dollar (or Yuan). Big time directors have to bow to market forces too not so much because they have to pay rents or put their kids to colleges, but because they have to answer to studios who bankroll their projects. The studios in turn have to answer to shareholders (investment folks like you and me) who invest in the studios, and expect returns for their dough. Directors shouldn't need to feel embarrassed for given into the market forces. It's capitalism at work (unless you prefer Communism, then all you get to watch are propaganda movies).

If the title of saviour of the world is to be bestowed onto a country, it should be China. Hear me out. She saved the world from the Asian Currency Crisis by biting the bullet and resisted competitive currency devaluation. This hurt Chinese economy in the short term, but ultimately benefited everyone in the longer term. It was a dirty job, but somebody got to do it.

During the financial meltdown of 2008, having a growth engine the size of China would at least help to stabilise the crisis from sliding into something similar to the Great Depression. No matter how you look at it, the world is better off in 2008 with China doing what it did. To expect Hollywood to portray a communist state as a saviour of the world in their movies, get a grip of reality! It's already making a great concession by not painting China as a evil commie as Hollywood had been doing throughout the Cold War. So the closest thing would be having a movie that shows everyone is trying to save the world in a joint effort (even if the way they go about it is anything but honourable).

Last but not least, China saved the world when they adopted the One-Child policy some 30 years ago. People in the West view the policy being very draconian to the Chinese. The condom-banning Catholics[3] find this policy inconceivable (pun fully intended). Yes, it's very tough for the Chinese, but it benefits the rest of the world. This is Chinese sacrifice to the world. With world's population reaching 7 billion this year, the exponential growth of the population is unsustainable. With increasing population and therefore more competitions for resources, things are becoming more expensive, wars become more common place. And with more people living on earth, more greenhouses gases will be produced, and with greater deforestation due to more people demanding timbers, this is double whammy for the global warming. No one single policy any country had done so far to reduce greenhouse gases more than the One-Child policy. Sure, China is doing this to save China. With the world more globalise than ever, and China makes up 1/5 of the world population, any positive impact on China will have positive impact on the world, and vice versa. According to statistician, if China didn't enforce the One-Child Policy in the last 30 years, there would be extra 450 million mouths to feed (about 20 times the population of my 2nd home of Australia). There would be 450 million people demanding crude oil (no, you don't need to drive to use crude oil. The largest consumption for crude oil is in the production of food), timbers, everything. These 450 million babies will grow up and have babies.

Some scientists are suggesting that with population reaching tens of billion (which won't take long), wars, famine, global warming will eventually kill billions on earth, thus bringing balance back to earth. Nature is always cruel (watch some nature documentary if you aren't convinced), and destruction is usually the natural course to restore balance. When we're strangling our mother earth with unsustainable population, the earth will be choked to death, and take us with it. Human is like strangler fig tree that lives by killing its host - the mother earth. After all, we can't live without the earth. Well, we can live outside earth by colonising space, but it will take a long time to get there. It's a question of race against time between the successful colonisation of space and the total depletion of the earth's natural resources. OR, we can slow down population growth to buy more time. Even better, reverse it. But this isn't a good solution either, because this implies the greying of population. But a less bad solution. Well, no easy solutions.

Of course, at times, Uncle Sam is a reluctant saviour. At other times, USA jumped into the role with both feet. You know what they say, with great power comes great responsibility. And being the most powerful country, Uncle Sam is simply expected to take up that baton/torch/stick/M-16. Now, China is expected, at least from US point of view, to share that baton (if not simply hand it over). Like US of A, China doesn't really like the extra weight of responsibility. And China has been using its status as a developing economy - as true as that is - to dodge that bullet. Having said that, China does provide the largest UN peacekeeping force. And China is probably, no definitely, the ONLY developing country who sends financial and technical aids to other developing countries.

Ok, I'm talking about common responsibility, not national self-interests. But with globalisation getting so cozy (like the 3 sumo wrestlers in the Mitsubishi truck TV commercials in Sydney), the line between common responsibility, and national interests are increasingly blurred. Especially with all these forming of economic, and geopolitical blocs, if one falls, the whole domino effect will transpire. E.g. this is the reason why EU is so concerned about the Greek debt crisis. Greece has a small economy, and a small country in any sense of the word. What people are concerned is the contagion effect. Nothing more fearful than the contagion of fear. Anything happens in the world is everybody's business in the globalised world.

It isn't the weight of responsibility that China wants to shake off. China has always minding its own business. Its ancient history shows that. Even in the recent history, during the Mao Era, China closed itself off completely for 3 decades. Since the Opening-Up Policy in 1978, China's foreign policy is taking the non-interference stance. It's a step up from total isolationism to non-interference. But be careful what you wish for, Uncle Sam; China may take up that role one day - not today - and you may not like what you ask for. Actually, China is already doing that in the UN by voting on resolutions as P5 member , and ended up cheesing off the Capitol Hill. Abstention Vote was what PRC used to do during the quiet , isolated Mao Era. When Washington asked Beijing to take up the world leadership role, it means to play ball with them. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Well, PRC is too blind to get those subtle signals. Selective blindness, I think that's what it is. I sometimes miss those signals too when I don't like what I see. If you know what I mean...nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

In the bipolar Cold War where USA is the sole leader of the West, and the brief unipolar world of the 1990s when USA was the sole superpower of the world, in both cases, this encouraged Hollywood to stick the formula of a singular hero(ine) saving the world. With the multipolar world of the 21st century, Hollywood answered the call with "Lost" and "Heroes". The latter TV series is titled "Heroes", plural. Not "Hero". The heroes/heroines all have to cooperate to save themselves. Similarly, "Lost" has many heroes/leaders, each exert their influences and have their followers. At the end, they all have to work together for the common goal.

Not surprisingly, it's cinematic movies that blazed a trail for the TV Land. Look at some of the big budget, popular franchises that started in the zero hour of the 21st century: "X-Men" (2000), "Ice Age" (2002), "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (2003), "The Incredible" (2004), "Fantastic Four" (2005), "Madagascar" (2005), "The Watchmen" (2009), "The Expendables" (2010), "The A-Team" (2010), "Super 8" (2011), "The Smurfs" (2011), "The Avengers" (2012), "Chronicle" (2012), "Rise of the Guardians" (2012), etc. These all have multiple heroes that confront with conflicts among themselves. There're many more movies produced than the above list suggests as they're franchises with many sequels. "Harry Potter", "Kung Fu Panda", and similar franchises also fall - albeit more loosely - into this category.

These (super)heroes/(super)heroines need to overcome their differences to achieve the common goals. The UN is increasingly playing an important role as an arena to resolve international conflicts. "The Expendables" is an interesting example in that it's both directed and acted by the slight speech slurring Sylvester 'Sly' Stallone (try to say the last 6 word phrase really quickly without slurring). He's best remembered in "Rambo", and "Rocky" franchises where he played the typical singular American hero who saves the day in the pre-21st century. This is especially true in "Rambo" where he's pretty much a one-man army. But in "Expendables", he's working in the 21st century mode of operation (or military ops). Instead of Team America, Hollywood is reflecting Global Village with many Chieftains.

It's also probably true that the movies with multiple heroes tend to be complex with intricate interactions between characters, and Hollywood didn't think the audience was sophisticated enough before, thus too risky to make them until now.

Majority of those multi-heroes franchises have PG rating, I think that's good to prepare our kids for the 21st century Global Village. A team player. An change in emphasis from competition to cooperation.

Putting geopolitics asides, the bottom lines is that increasingly the foreign markets and revenues for Hollywood movies are greater than the domestic markets (as I pointed out in painfully great length that geopolitics and market shares are the same thing. So can't really say "putting geopolitics asides").

What I meant is, let look at market shares figures alone, at this point, it's about 65/35 split. If - no when - the trends continues, it won't take long to see 90% of their revenues coming from overseas. And the largest single export market for Hollywood would be China (despite piracy). In fact, many predict China would be the biggest movie market by 2020. So if Hollywood isn't making movies for foreign markets, they're not into the business of making money.

For some studios or films, their very success already 100% depending on worldwide markets.

Having said that, America consists of 35% minority, but it was the overseas audience, not domestic audience that causes Hollywood to put minority American faces into their movies. This is understandable, because Hollywood don't have to please the local minority audience because they rather watch Hollywood than foreign movies, in general. In a sense, the globalisation of Hollywood films is simply given its domestic multicultural audience a louder voice.

Hollywood always has worldwide markets. It's just in the last decade or so, the acceleration of an increase in foreign markets due to the rapid rise of many developing economies are unprecedented.

This is why we accuse of Hollywood doing its bid in the American cultural imperialism. For those people who are yelling that this rise of American penetration into more worldwide markets equates to the ever rise of American cultural imperialism. Think about this. Notable Americana like American Graffiti (1973), On the Waterfront (1954), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) are unlikely to be made today. To ensure successful worldwide markets, Hollywood will make movies that are appeal to the different cultures of the world.

Better yet, instead of injecting cultural themes that appeals to specific country, why not make something that appeal to all cultures. There's such a thing. Make movies that contain universal values, rather than American values. In a sense, the success of Hollywood over movies of other countries is because Hollywood's knack of turning out movies that have universal appeal due to its universal values.

Take Mulan(1998), which is based on a Chinese story. If it was made by Chinese, it would be about filial piety. People of other culture wouldn't understand it. If it implies absolute obedience to your parents, some audience of the West would find it distasteful. Indeed, the Confucian idea of filial piety does demand obedience (although not too much in the story of Mulan). Hollywood looks at it from the angle of a daughter's love for his father and her country. This is a indeed a universal values that people all over the world can relate to. Much simpler and more powerful idea than filial piety.

Indeed, globalisation of Hollywood implies the universalising of cultural values. Despite all the cultural differences among peoples, we all share some universal values that bind us all together.

And Hollywood has always been doing that. Before, it was Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, Ali Baba, today it's Kungfu Panda. It's Americanised version of imported stories from somewhere else.

So with the globalisation of Hollywood, Hollywood could no longer just sell American values, but universal values that shared by all. With globalisation (and Hollywood's adaption to it), American cultural imperialism is on the decline because most of us were already very Americanised in the 2nd half the 20th century. The success of Hollywood is that they're not only telling their own stories, but other people's stories as well. And they're telling more and more of other people's stories. The question of American cultural imperialism is a mixed picture at best.

[1] I'm talking about doing space walk independently as many countries who has no space flight ability have sent their countrymen to do space walk in international joint ventures up in space station.

[2] "Lost" adds a Japanese into the international cast in Season 6, soon after I wrote this diary entry, just trying to make me eat my own words. Good one. Get Lost! But also thanks! For adding weight to my argument.

"Lost" is an apt title. The characters are a bunch of LOST souls before the plane crash. After they get LOST in the island, they FOUND themselves. Remember the song "Amazing Grace"?
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Amazing, isn't it? Hope I didn't spoil for those who hasn't watched it.
"Lost & Found" may be a more accurate title, but then it gives away too much, thus its mystery is LOST.

[3] Ok, the Pope lifted the ban in Nov 2010. Better late than never. We need fewer people. Not more.

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