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GiveLife.ca

    
All the world's a screen
Hollywood used to consider foreign moviegoers almost an
afterthought. No more. Marketing campaigns have gone global,
and U.S. films dominate Top 10 lists virtually everywhere,
arts correspondent DOUG SAUNDERS reports from Mexico City

DOUG SAUNDERS

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Their proud postures carved in granite, the national heroes gaze across lanes of busy traffic from their monument in the middle of a downtown square in Mexico City.

Meeting their stares, with expressions no less resolute, are the eyes of a very different pair of heroes: Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, their ghostly faces framed in the walls of bus shelters ringing the square.

You would have a hard time avoiding the gaze of Harrison and Michelle in Mexico City these days.

In the city's northern sprawl, they are above the freeway, staring down at the clotted masses of traffic from giant billboards. To the east, their uneasy brows span the wall of an office tower not far from the president's residence.

Downtown, they cover the entire front of the Cinepolis movie theatre, luring scores of young couples to see their latest movie, What Lies Beneath (known in Mexico as Revelaciones).

Sitting high above it all, in his office a dozen storeys up in a glass-walled building, the man responsible for the Ford-Pfeiffer onslaught savours a small victory.

Jose Juan Hernandez is a young man with a business degree, a standard-issue show-biz executive wardrobe of jeans and T-shirt, and a boyish enthusiasm for movies.

He is one of Hollywood's colonial foot soldiers, single-handedly responsible for the sudden appearance of the two stars' faces all over Mexico's streets, magazines and television screens.

As the head of marketing for Twentieth Century Fox's Mexican operations, Mr. Hernandez wields great power over the country's landscape. However, as he was reminded with What Lies Beneath, that power is not his own.

"It's been a fight all the way," he says in clear American-trained English. "You need to have different campaigns in each country, but a lot of times this year they've wanted to use the same art as the States. Head office didn't want to show the stars, and I really had to argue with them to get that."

The original ads for the thriller, designed by Fox's Hollywood staff, had featured only an eerie hand reaching out of a bathtub; the stars' faces were to appear in the ads later. The ads with the hand were to be used all over the world.

As Mr. Hernandez sees it, Mexican moviegoers, like many foreign-language audiences, tend to choose films based on big-name stars rather than stories or genres.

The faces of Mr. Ford and Ms. Pfeiffer absolutely had to appear in all the ads, he had argued over the phone to his Hollywood masters during the summer, when the thriller was becoming a modest hit in the United States and Canada, eight weeks before it was to hit Mexico's screens.

Eventually, the studio executives relented, the stars' faces appeared early on the Mexican ads, and this afternoon Mr. Hernandez is giving himself a share of the credit for making What Lies Beneath the third-most-lucrative Mexican opening weekend Fox has ever had after Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace and Titanic,with a million people watching it on 419 screens.

It is currently the No. 1 film in Mexico, as it is in Germany, Finland and Austria, and as it probably will be after it opens in Argentina, the Philippines and South Africa.

This makes What Lies Beneath a fairly routine global hit.

Last week, all of Mexico's top 10 movies were products of Hollywood, as is the case most weeks.

Mexico is hardly alone in its dependence on Hollywood's output. It is actually one of the more culturally independent nations, with its own thriving movie business, a long-standing cultural resistance to influences from north of the border and laws requiring theatres to show a quota of Mexican movies.

But Mexico's citizens, like those of France, Hong Kong, Russia, Brazil, Malaysia and most other countries, consume American films over local ones by an overwhelming margin, ranging from about 70 per cent (in France last year) to more than 95 per cent (in Canada).

In no other sphere has the United States dominated the world so thoroughly or so consistently.

Certainly not in music, where only two of the world's five major record companies are American (and one of them, Universal, has just been bought by the French), and, while American pop music can be heard on the streets of any city in the world today, it finds itself in tight competition with local culture and with global pop music manufactured in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

American fiction is a current fad in Europe, but foreign countries generally have their own global stars such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer and Anita Desai, as well as their own publishing fortunes.

In film and television, though, the world follows the U.S. lead. American TV shows, dubbed into dozens of languages, fill the spaces between local shows in almost every country: Together, the U.S. networks earn about $4-billion from exporting television shows, more than the TV export revenues of all other countries combined.

The big U.S. cable networks, such as HBO, are each available in a dozen languages to better-off viewers around the world, and their programs have set the tone for television everywhere.

The influence carries far beyond the financial. It is almost redundant to talk of an "American-style" movie or TV show, as the style, phrases and many of the values of Hollywood have been thoroughly rubbed into the grain of most of the world's cultures.

Advocates of local culture chafe and try to set up barriers to Hollywood's onslaught.

In some cases, this is because the messages of U.S. culture are populist and democratic, and threaten to upset more authoritarian or spiritual cultures: In Hollywood's scripts, the little guy is constantly up against the big system and romances flourish across class and race lines.

In other cases, the messages appear simplistic, materialistic, lacking in poetry and given to pat answers, utterly unsuited to the world's more sophisticated cultures.

Like the rise of tobacco in the 17th century, though, Hollywood's images have entered the world's folkways so thoroughly that people no longer think of them as foreign.

This dominance requires hundreds of foreign agents such as Mr. Hernandez in branch offices in most major cities around the world. With one foot in the local culture and one in Hollywood's imperial centre, these agents resemble those of the old British foreign service more than those of any modern corporation.

In fact, Hollywood's overseas outposts may form the last of the great global empires, one that currently seems unstoppable and far more resilient than any based on mere politics or force.

It is an ephemeral empire: Hollywood remains its own cultural centre even as its studios are owned by the French (Universal), the Japanese (Sony and Columbia) or the Australians (Fox), even as its movies are denounced as insufficiently pure and moral by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates at home.

Despite assaults from without and within, the American entertainment industry has never been so powerful on the world stage. This is largely because the world has become more important to the U.S. entertainment industry.

The 1990s marked the first time Hollywood made more money off its movies and videos from foreign customers than it did from Americans. And that was without the fifth of the world living in China, which has opened for trade with Hollywood in recent months.

This year will see the inevitable outcome of this growth: the movie released around the world in a single day, a development that is profoundly transforming the role of agents such as Mr. Hernandez.

As recently as 20 years ago, Hollywood movies were made exclusively with American audiences in mind. Long after a film had finished its run in the United States and Canada (which is treated as part of the U.S. market by Hollywood), foreign distribution was expected to bring the studio some extra revenue, usually 20 to 40 per cent of the film's total gross. This was often enough to save a box-office flop from bankrupting the studio.

Movies would often open in foreign countries months and months after their U.S. debut, and people such as Mr. Hernandez had plenty of time to prepare distinctive advertising campaigns suited to their country's tastes and peculiarities.

Mr. Hernandez quickly sums up Hollywood's Mexican-release credo: "Big stars are important, but movies with black people and movies about cowboys or Chinese guys do not do well here."

(Then again, Big Momma's House and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps have recently done very well in Mexico, largely because Mr. Hernandez and his colleagues shrewdly aimed their ad campaigns at children under 12.)

With enough notice, a good foreign campaign can still turn a domestic failure into an international hit, or at least salvage some of its $100-million investment.

Earlier this year, the Fox Mexico City office was given the challenge of wringing some money, any money, out of the studio's biggest flop, the disastrously expensive sci-fi cartoon feature Titan AE.

Mr. Hernandez and his colleagues hired the popular Mexican TV actor Kuno Becker to dub the Spanish voice of the lead character, a fact that was trumpeted boldly in the film's advertising. As a result, Mexico was one of the few countries that delivered an audience to this abominable film.

But the days of such marketing adventures seem to be drawing to a close. This year, big studio movies are being released overseas weeks or even days after they launch in the United States.

Gladiator,an enormous international hit, actually hit Mexican movie screens this spring a week before it made its U.S. debut. This leaves no time for branch offices to develop custom-tailored campaigns, and often the U.S. advertising is merely translated into the local language.

"When I started here four years ago, we'd sometimes begin planning a release two years out," Mr. Hernandez says. "Today, I don't know what I'm going to be releasing in December."

Soon, he may not know what he is going to be releasing tomorrow. On Oct. 27, Artisan Entertainment will make history by opening Blair Witch 2: The Book of Shadows on 3,600 movie screens around the world on the same day. This is an expensive and difficult task, since it entails flying the world's media to L.A. for publicity tours and making 3,600 copies of the movie at several hundred dollars each.

Chief executives at several studios believe Hollywood movies will soon routinely open everywhere on the same day. There is no such thing as a "foreign" audience any more.

To understand the new, fast pace of American entertainment, you need only look to the streets below the Fox offices in Mexico City. In the market that sprawls around the city's historic centre, several blocks are dominated by stalls filled with hundreds of videotapes of recent Hollywood films dubbed into Spanish, sold for $3 each. What Lies Beneath was selling briskly a few days after its cinematic debut. So was Eddie Murphy's The Klumps,then the No. 2 film in Mexico. Some vendors were pushing copies of Coyote Ugly,which had not yet opened in Mexico.

All of these are illegal bootlegs, standard fodder in the markets of any major city outside North America and Western Europe. The movie studios are eager to beat the bootleggers and, in their view, this means getting the movie out fast, all over the world.

Or look on a newsstand, where the local Spanish-language editions of People and Premiere profile the week's U.S. movie releases, and huge-circulation titles such as Hola trade gossip about the stars.

Or on the Internet, where fans discuss new and forthcoming films across national borders.

The global media and the Internet are turning U.S. pop culture into universal culture more efficiently than Hollywood could ever have managed by itself. This has changed the way movies are made in the United States.

"Studios have become more and more interested in what used to be dismissed as 'foreign.' There was a time when foreign was merely regarded as a bit of profit, as a bit of icing on the cake," says Gerry Lewis, who orchestrates Steven Spielberg's international releases from his London office.

It was Mr. Lewis who made Jaws a worldwide hit, awakening studios to the potential of overseas audiences.

"Now, everybody's interested in the international marketplace and everybody pays a great deal of attention to it," he says. "It's become the driving force in the movie business."

On the edge of Vermont's Lake Champlain, a movie crew was capturing the last shots of What Lies Beneath last December when talk of its international launch began.

Five thousand kilometres away, a group of studio executives gathered in an office tower in Century City, the L.A. business district built around the Twentieth Century Fox back lot.

In a symbol of the old style of movie distribution, Fox's international-distribution division occupies a separate office building from the studio's main offices. In a few months, the power structure would change dramatically.

The talk was led by Jim Gianopulos, a volatile businessman with a tough temper and a golden reputation.

When he started six years ago, Fox International had been a money-losing backwater. Now, he was known as the man who turned Titanic into a global phenomenon that earned Fox almost $2-billion (U.S.), two-thirds of it overseas. Half of the $1-billion brought in by The Phantom Menace came from Mr. Gianopulos's office, plus about a billion each year in revenue from the studio's other releases.

Like most studios, Fox now earns as much overseas as it does in the United States and Canada. With the opening of show-business trade to China this year, the ratio could become more dramatic.

Almost as soon as the final reels of film had arrived in Los Angeles early this year, Mr. Gianopulos's executives began hiring translators and voice actors to dub the film into dozens of languages, a process that now often takes place at the same time as the English sound editing.

There were a million details to consider: Elections and holidays and political turmoil abroad, huge new multiplex cinemas being built in European cities, the monsoon season in Asian countries.

Dominating the world entails endless meetings.

It did not seem that way in 1908, when a Hungarian immigrant named William Fox was showing movies for five cents a shot at his Brooklyn penny arcade.

Mr. Fox may have been the largest independent theatre owner in the United States in those days, famous for using fire eaters and sword swallowers to draw crowds into his theatre, but that wasn't saying much.

The movie industry was dominated by the French, who produced 70 per cent of the movies shown in the United States that year. This foreign domination of America's screens was a cause for public outcry. People said their children were being poisoned by French values.

"The French are somewhat in advance of us," acknowledged Thomas Edison, the James Cameron of his day. "But they will not long maintain their supremacy."

He was right.

William Fox's nickelodeon would become Twentieth Century Fox, and American movies, helped by two world wars that decimated the European filmmaking industries, came to be the world's movies.

But that left the rest of the world a little uneasy.

"The bulk of picture-goers are Americanized to an extent that makes them regard the British film as a foreign film," Britain's Daily Express complained in a 1927 editorial. "They talk America, think America, dream America; we have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intents and purposes, are temporary American citizens."

If this was bothersome to the English, it was anathema to the French, who had been recolonized by the very industry they had invented and shipped to the United States.

In 1948, a French government official expressed his horror. American films, he said, "literally poison the souls of our children, young people, young girls, who are to be turned into the docile slaves of the American multimillionaires, rather than French men and women attached to the moral and intellectual values which have been the grandeur and glory of our nation."

As the Twentieth Century Fox executives prepared to send Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer around the world in 60 days, those French sentiments were a factor to be considered.

Over the decades, major countries have tried a whole range of policies to wean their citizens off Hollywood and onto domestic movies. Import restrictions, tariffs, outright bans, box-office taxes, movie-screen quotas, tax credits, investment incentives, advertising campaigns and direct subsidies for domestic producers have all been tried.

Sometimes those policies work. In 1998, French audiences devoted a third of their moviegoing to films made in France, causing nervous comments in Hollywood.

In England every few years, policies such as the use of lottery funds for movies produce an international hit such as The Full Monty or Chariots of Fire or Four Weddings and a Funeral. Despite endlessly optimistic predictions, those hits have never congealed into an industry that could challenge Hollywood.

Nevertheless, What Lies Beneath would have to face waves of nationalism on its journey.

The Italian government recently shut down the local branch of MTV, Malaysia unveiled a government-produced patriotic film that was to be shown in most theatres (it eventually took the No. 1 spot), and the French had a plan that was sure to blow Hollywood out of the water.

Theatres in France were to unveil 20 new French films this summer, on multiple screens in every city, over two months, backed by an unprecedented campaign of government-funded publicity. The French would spend the summer watching French films, and Hollywood would have to stand on the sidelines.

It was not to be. "After eight weeks, the battlefield is strewn with corpses," the newspaper le Parisien wrote. In the words of producer Siad Bensaid, "the mayonnaise curdled."

French moviegoers spent 91 per cent of their time and money on American movies such as Gladiator and Mission Impossible 2. Hollywood was not even scratched; last week, What Lies Beneath was the No. 3 film in France.

The victors were paid handsomely. In late August, just as What Lies Beneath was beginning its global march, Jim Gianopulos stood before his executives at Fox International and gave them shocking news: He would be leaving the building.

Even though he had no experience making movies, owner Rupert Murdoch had named him one of the two chief executives of Twentieth Century Fox. The international division, once an afterthought, was now running the studio.

This transformation, along with the same-day global release, has changed the lives of people such as Jose Juan Hernandez.

"I used to be doing specifically Mexican campaigns, but now I'm basically reproducing what the United States is doing," he says as he leaves his Mexico City office for a meeting with his regional staff. "Now, they're calling most of the shots from Hollywood."

In Hollywood's eyes, we are all Americans, and we always have been. The difference, nowadays, is that now we are all effectively living in one country, the United States of Entertainment.

Planet America

Saturday, Oct. 14: Overview
Monday, Oct. 16: Diplomacy
Tuesday, Oct. 17: Culture
Wednesday, Oct. 18: Science
Thursday, Oct. 19: Business
Friday, Oct. 20: Military


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