Reconciling Differences: Foreign Cinema and American Culture

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Reconciling Differences: Foreign Cinema and American Culture

[Exhibitors] ask “foreign?” and if the answer is “yes” they decline it.

William Fox, Box Office Attraction Company, 1914 (qtd. in Segrave 3)
The odds are stacked sky-high against the success of foreign films in the United States.

With, among other things, generally lower production budgets, foreign language dialogue plus the need for subtitling, and a lack of recognizable faces and star power, these films tend to arouse little interest from the American public. Each year, only about a dozen or so films from countries outside of the U.S. are successful at the American box office, garnering a profit of at least one million dollars (Kaufman par.3). Yet, how is it that even these few foreign films are able to break into the American market when most of the cultural “exchange” that occurs in the world today is unidirectional, allowing American culture to penetrate other world cultures while remaining largely unaffected itself?

Although previous authors examining the fate of foreign films in the United States have tended to focus on why the majority of these films are not successful, their work shows what the successful few have managed to overcome, and therefore begins to explain how those few have succeeded. The conclusions about this typical lack of success vary. Segrave, for example, identifies Hollywood’s vise-like grip on the U.S. distribution system as the main factor in limiting the access of foreign films to the American market (185). Kaufman, on the other hand, cites mainly a drop in media attention for foreign films—which he has dubbed the “new endangered species”—and an increase in lower-budget, independent-style domestic films like Brokeback Mountain (par. 2). He also recognizes that the content of many of these films fails to penetrate American culture, but does not offer any insight into the nature of this unsuitable content (par. 8).

Approaching this issue from the perspective of foreign filmmakers, some authors point to historical events, particularly World War II, that undermined the ability of many countries to compete in the global film market by demolishing their economic infrastructures and shifting attention away from film production to more crucial social and financial endeavors. Because the U.S. was less affected on home terrain by the war, it was able to continue film production throughout this period and become dominant in the global market (Peña 3; Cowen 7). This dominance continues to this day, and most foreign filmmakers remain economically disadvantaged in the export market. In Latin America, for example, many countries barely have the financial resources to produce and market films at home, much less abroad (Lenti 8). Yet even the countries that do have the financial resources to engage in this exportation, such as Hong Kong and India, have been unable to establish a stable presence in the American market (Cowen 7). There must be some quality of this market other than financial dominance that makes it largely unreceptive to foreign films.

So with such an uphill battle to fight, why do ­so many foreign filmmakers gear their efforts toward making films that will appeal to American audiences? The U.S. has the largest cinema market in economic terms; other countries like India may have higher theater attendance rates but do not manage to generate as much revenue in ticket sales as the U.S. (Cowen 6). It can therefore be very profitable for foreign cinemas to appeal to American tastes. To this end, French filmmakers, for instance, have been “attacking on the Americans’ own turf, beefing up budgets and taking large financial risks,” as well as adopting the American technique of targeting specific audiences with the content of films (Konopnicki 9). And the efforts of these filmmakers have not gone unnoticed. Though few foreign films actually make it onto the radar of the U.S. media market, those that do often receive a great deal of attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For example, Life Is Beautiful (1997), an Italian film, won three Academy Awards and was nominated for four others, and Amelie (2001), a French film, was nominated for five awards. Apparently, in addition to offering foreign filmmakers potential profits, these films also benefit American viewers by giving them an opportunity to view critically-acclaimed films that may improve their understanding of different world cultures.

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