Pentagon’s penchant for Hollywood, power play in global cinema, concerns of its cultural imperialism and how much it pollutes environment – beyond our love for Hollywood films. Toby Miller reveals the other truths about American film industry’s grip over world cinema that are often debated elsewhere but get subdued by its glamour quotient in the South Asian sub-continent
This year’s massive movie hit, The Avengers, was released in four languages and 800 theatres across India a week before it came out in the United States. Indian audience greeted the film with thunderous applause for its special effects, high-octane masculinity, derring-do – and music by Agnee. It is already one of Hollywood’s biggest Indian successes, as the industry builds on demand for US movies on TV by releasing more movies in multiplexes.
So what is Hollywood, and why is it so popular around the world?
Hollywood, the universal shorthand for mainstream US film and television drama based in southern California, is profoundly linked to globalization, in four ways. First, export markets have long been crucial to its economic power. Second, it has always drawn on immigrant labor and shot movies overseas, in search of talent and cheap production. Third, its success has led to concerns around the world about cultural imperialism. And finally, it is a major polluter.
US companies own between 40 and 90 per cent of the movies shown in most parts of the world. They get $11 billion annually from film exports. Hollywood’s proportion of the international market has doubled since 1990. Fox International, for instance, made $200 million from overseas sales in 2005. Five years later, the figure was a billion. As for movies on television, Hollywood pictures drew the highest audiences in 27 nations across all continents in 2009.
When it comes to children’s television, 80 percent of programming outside the white-settler colonies and China comes from the US. Nickelodeon is available in over 150 countries. Viewers across Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa are familiar with SpongeBob SquarePants.
And television drama for adults? In Western Europe, the dominant TV series in 2007 were CSI: Miami, Desperate Housewives, Lost, Without a Trace, and The Simpsons, while 25 million fans were watching the three CSI shows in Asia.
Hollywood forever seeks to expand. In China and India, the plan is to utilize pirated copies as free form of advertising, build and own movie theaters, then grow more serious about policing copyright by releasing potential blockbusters in India before the US, to minimize the risk of illegal versions.
Hollywood confronts Bollywood’s perpetual taste for unauthorized remakes. Fox settled out of court with a large payout over its claim that Banda Yeh Bindaas Hai (2011) was an unauthorized copy of My Cousin Vinny (1992). Warner Bros advertised in The Times of India warning local producers against copying The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). They unsuccessfully sued the makers of Hari Puttar: A Comedy of Terrors (2008) on the grounds of infringing its trademark Harry Potter series.
Hollywood does well in the conventional Indian market, with about 10 percent of national box office, up from its historic average of five per cent.
Avatar (2009) was the second largest draw that year, behind 3 Idiots, and 2012 was extremely popular. Last year, notable triumphs in India included Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsâ€”Part 2, Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Adventures of Tintin, and X Men: First Class.
Hollywood now produces, subtitles, and dubs in Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil. Its international success is not a product of innate popularity or quality. It is to do with power politics.
The US was a net importer of both film stock and movies till World War I. But that dreadful conflict wiped out the European film industries that nominated till then. The US government’s State and Commerce departments immediately pushed Hollywood exports as contributions to balance of trade and ideological and business passports. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover praised the industry in the 1920s ‘as a powerful influence on behalf of American goods.’
Joseph P Kennedy, father of JFK and Bobby, acknowledged that films were “silent salesmen for other products of American industry.”
When World War II offered a further shock to Europe, Hollywood used the Marshall Plan of reconstruction as leverage to need recipients to open their markets. Since then, a combination of the state exerting economic pressure, the ability to clear production costs domestically because of a sizeable middle class, and the use of a New International division of Cultural Labour has retained and extended Hollywood’s hegemony. Today’s European film industry is one-ninth of its size in 1945.
The US government and industry set up cartels to market films overseas, with special agencies created for Anglophone and Francophone Africa. Hollywood’s American Motion Picture Export Company of Africa dominated cinema sales to the continent’s former British colonies from the 1960s.
Hollywood has benefited from access to about 200 publicly funded US film commissions, Pentagon personnel and resources, ambassadorial services, and state funds from other nations eager to attract the industry’s glamour and multiplier effect.
Today we see an intense convergence of Hollywood’s institutions and people across cinema, TV, and electronic games. The Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT) was set up in 1998 at the University of Southern California to articulate faculty, film and television producers, game designers and the Pentagon.
Film school meets fighter jet, if you like to call it that way. Formally opened by the Secretary of the Army and the head of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Association of America, the Institute’s workspace was dreamt up by the set designer for the Star Trek franchise and funded by $45 million of military money. That figure was doubled in its 2004 renewal and trebled in 2011, to $135 million.
In other words, ICT uses Pentagon loot and Hollywood muscle to test out homicidal technologies and narrative scenarios under the aegis of film, engineering, theater, and communications professors. By the end of 2010, its products were available on 65 military bases.
The Institute collaborates on films such as Spider-Man 2 (2004) that was a huge Indian hit and produces military recruitment games such as Full Spectrum Warrior that double up as training methods for the military: What’s good for the Xbox is good for the combat simulator. The Pentagon even boasts that Full Spectrum Warrior “captured Saddam,” because the men who dug Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti out had played it.
The Institute’s work is referred to in podcasts from Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military via the Pentagon. You will learn that the Pentagon and ICT are developing UrbanSim to improve “the art of battle command” as part of Barack Hussein Obama II’s imperial wars: “Instead of having Godzilla and tornados attacking your city, the players are faced with things like uncooperative local officials and ethnic divisions in the communities, different tribal rivalries,” to quote an Institute scholar in the pod.
On labour front, cinema is like internet banking, marketing, and ticketing in its 24-hour-a-day use of regional hubs that service various nations and industrial sectors. Advances in filmmaking and communications technology permit electronic off-line editing, synchronized special effects, and musical scores shared across the world through digital networks. Instant transfer of sounds and images is the norm. The high quality of India’s information technology and engineers is particularly crucial to the NICL because its costs are between 25 per cent and 50 per cent less than in the US.
The NICL covers a wide array of workers, right across the commodity chain. It includes janitors, accountants, drivers, and tourism commissioners as well as scriptwriters, best boys, and actors. Europe is a good place to exploit post-socialist states, which have highly-trained and cheap film technicians, bountiful tax breaks, compliant governments, and intermittently friendly exchange rates. China is a major site of Hollywood production, while Canada and Australia provide English-speaking, pro-business locations. Disney, Warner Brothers, and Fox draw on Indian talent via such films as My Name is Khan (2010), a joint venture that was the highest-grossing domestic film the year it released and succeeded with the diaspora.
Hollywood’s domination is often contested, from numerous ideological perspectives and through allegations of cultural imperialism. Hollywood is debated in everyday talk, trade unions, international organizations, newspapers, cultural policy, diplomacy, universities, and post-industrial service-sector planning.
US hegemony poses many complexities for opponents, analysts, and fellow-travelers alike. It has involved invasion and seizure, in the case of the Philippines and Cuba, temporary occupation and permanent militarization in Japan, naked ideological imperialism through the Monroe doctrine and Theodore Roosevelt. And a cloak of anti-imperialism in the form of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Obama.
US imperialism is quite different from the classic 19th century model. It is harder to gain independence from the US than it ever was from European colonists. Because US imperialism is indirect and mediated.
Today’s imperialism is as much to do with rhetoric as struggle. Culture is crucial because the US relies on ideation rather than colonization, underwritten by military and commercial power. Europeans wanted to occupy and exemplify conduct to conquered peoples up close. The US prefers to invade, then instruct from a distance. It learnt from the old powers through Spain’s religious conquest of America in 1492, Portugal’s and France’s colonizing missions of late 19th and early 20th centuries, that ideology and capital matter as much as gunboats and occupation.
Hollywood symbolizes and enables the dominance. Reactions to it can be negative. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, British authorities in India criticized Hollywood films as potential stimulants of nationalist unruliness that might hinder their colonial rule. The British Government in India banned movies that it deemed ‘likely to encourage revolutionary tendencies’, such as Viva Villa, 1934, Declaration of Independence, 1938, and Give Me Liberty, 1936. On the other side of the struggle, the Vice-President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce called for the Indian National Congress to boycott Hollywood, citing the physical resemblance of the Thugee high priest in Gunga Din, 1939, to Mahatma Gandhi.
Similar concerns about Hollywood’s impact emerged elsewhere.
In the 1930s, a delegation of Argentine businessmen protested to the US Embassy about It Happened One Night, 1934, because Clark Gable was seen removing his shirt, revealing no singlet below. This supposedly created an undershirt inventory surplus in their warehouses overnight!
A quarter century later, It Started in Naples (1960) found Gable showing a local boy how to eat a hamburger, which generated controversy about compromising Mediterranean cuisine.
Forty years on, the task of tying commodities to films was completed by another kind of envoy, as Disney coordinated the release of Pocahontas (1995) with McDonalds’ new McChief Burger early fruit from a ten-year cross-promotion agreement in 109 countries.
Today, many Islamic leaders and scholars attack secular, pro-Western Hollywood films dominating cinema, TV, and computer screens to the exclusion of religion. In Nigeria, is it said that violent gangs emulate such representations. In Jordan and Saudi Arabia, reality television is the object of fatwas from the Muslim Brotherhood, because it is deemed to aid globalization and US interests.
Hollywood’s most negative impact is not cultural but environmental. The motion-picture industry is the biggest annual producer of major pollutants in Los Angeles, thanks to its massive use of electricity and petroleum, and the release of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of deadly emissions. Across California, film and television related energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are about the same as the aerospace and semi-conductor industries.
Environmental impacts also derive from Hollywood’s use of the NICL.
Consider The Beach (2000), a Fox film in which a modern-day Eden turns nasty for jaded tourists. It was shot in Maya Beach, part of Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands National Park. Natural scenery was bulldozed because it did not fit the company’s fantasy of a tropical idyll. Sand dunes were relocated, flora rearranged, and a new strip of coconut palms planted. The producers paid off the government with a donation to the Royal Forestry Department, and campaigned with the Tourism Authority to twin the picture as that country’s promotion.
Director Danny Boyle, who went on to make Slumdog Millionaire (2008), announced his intention to ‘give something back to Thailand’ by hiring local apprentices, then complained that “We were hauling 300 f—— people around wherever we went. And you know how hard it is to learn Thai names. Every lunch-time was like a prime minister’s reception.” He also claimed that The Beach was ‘raising environmental consciousness’ among the local population.
If The Beach did raise environmental consciousness, it was probably because the region’s sand dunes collapsed in the first monsoon after filming ended. Their natural defenses against erosion got destroyed by his Hollywood bulldozers. The Ao Nang Tambon Administration Organisation, the Krabi Provincial Administration Organisation, and various environmental groups filed suit against Fox and local officialdom for violating the National Parks Act and the Environmental Protection Act. It took years, but the Thai Supreme Court ruled in favour of the environmentalists in 2006.
In keeping with its closed nature, China only admits 20 films from abroad a year. The large and increasingly affluent Indian market is of crucial importance to Hollywood’s domination. India had no multiplexes till 1997. Now it has over 800. Co-productions are the rage. A new LA India Film Council is comprised of leaders from both industries. It features the Taj Mahal and the Hollywood Sign on its website.
English language proliferates across the globe. So does Hollywood. With the free marketing afforded by illegal downloading and streaming, it is an element of US economic might that looks set far for future. Hollywood will continue to generate resistance, imitation, admiration, disgust, pollution and money.
(Views expressed by the writer are his own.)