Today's date:
Winter 2008

Shock and Awe vs. Heart and Minds at the Movies

International Herald Tribune, 2006

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ and Global Viewpoint. Mike Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, has been involved in the production of scores of films over the years. The authors are writing a book about the role of Hollywood and pop culture in the rise and fall of America's image in the world.

Los Angeles — As if it were not jarring enough that cherry trees blossomed in New York's Central Park in January while it snowed in the Malibu hills, climate change of a different sort is unsettling this year's Hollywood awards season.

Films by foreigners—such as Babel, The Queen and Volver, which make little at the box office—are winning the top awards while the big Hollywood blockbusters, which make all the money, are being virtually ignored. Even Clint Eastwood's acclaim is due to his portrayal of the Iwo Jima battle from a foreign (Japanese) angle.

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel explores how the fates of the far-flung, from Mexico to Morocco to Japan, are linked by the threads of globalization.

Using the death of Princess Diana as a foil, Stephen Frears' The Queen examines the uneasy clash between tradition and modernity that pits our most revered symbols against our casual and meritocratic, if celebrity-soaked, way of life.

Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, for which Penelope Cruz has an Oscar nomination for best actress, is a tale of women coping with generations of abuse from husbands and fathers.

In all of these films we see our world in transition. All have managed to break Hollywood's cycle of remakes by telling new stories—something American filmmakers once excelled at.

Too often American filmmakers grind out formulaic, shock-and-awe blockbusters with gratuitous violence, sex and special effects that may be winning the battle of Monday-morning grosses, but are losing the war for hearts and minds. For all their brawn, American filmmakers, like the generals in Iraq, are in danger of losing the battle of ideas.

In this sense, Hollywood's Mission: Impossible III has a lot in common with President George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished." Despite America's continuing but diminishing dominance, its ability to win hearts and minds is draining away. In cinema, as in politics during the information age, it is all about whose story wins.

Just as America's image has fallen in world opinion, audience trends for American blockbusters are beginning to show a decline as well, both at home and abroad. For years, big movies like Titanic or Independence Day have grossed more abroad than at home, where infatuation with contrived spectacle has waned. Last year, Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon made 65 to 70 percent of their revenue abroad.

But something is stirring in theaters outside the United States. Even long-time US cultural colonies like Japan and Germany are beginning to turn to the home screen. For the first time in decades, in 2006 more than half of cinema admissions in Japan went to local films, while German admissions for domestic films hit a postwar high of nearly 25 percent.

This suggests they are headed to where TV viewers have long been. In South Korea, 92 percent of television is domestically produced. Latin American telenovelas now attract larger audiences around the world than US soap operas.

Globalization accompanied by technological change is hitting Tinseltown just like every other industry. Just as the post-World War II American order paved the way for new economic and political competitors from Asia to Europe to Brazil, so American- led post-Cold War globalization—including its backlash—has led to cultural competition.

This suggests that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the world's century-long honeymoon with Hollywood.

Now that globalization has moved us all into the same neighborhood, more and more people out there want to see their own stories on the big screen at least as much as they might enjoy the latest offerings from Lucasfilm or Pixar.

Khan Lee, the director of Zeus Pictures, an independent studio in Taipei, has offered this blunt take on this issue: "Hollywood is a dinosaur that has destroyed and occupied our minds for too long. The world is full of new stories waiting to be told, and new audiences waiting to hear them, even if we use Hollywood's template to do so."

Indeed, his brother, Ang Lee, made one of the first breakthrough films of this kind, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie that combines Asian themes with Hollywood production values.

"The world is changing," says González Iñárritu. "The film community is now a global film community. It's not anymore about cultural barriers or language barriers. It's emotion and humanity. We are using the power of cinema to cross borders."

Of course, there will always be a role for blockbusters, just as there will be for aircraft carriers. But in this new global order, we're with Iñárritu. Ultimately, it's about hearts and minds, not shock and awe.