Just another National Specialization
The massive asymmetry in films exports between the US and the rest of the world may be the result of any number of factors. The fact that foreign movies occasionally do well in the US market ( in recent years, “Life is Beautiful”, from Italy, “Amélie”, from France. The first, 1999, Pokemon cartoon from Japan grossed US$85.7 , million, according to WSJ 7/19/02:w11, and, as forecasted by same – “Read my Lips”, also from France, will do well) suggests that public preference, and possibly language barriers, are more likely to be issues than American distribution superiority, for example. Yet, language barriers may be less significant than one would guess. Luc Besson’s “Jeanne d’Arc” (“The Messenger”) released in 1999, purportedly produced in English to make it accessible to the polyglot EU markets and to the US market, registered 3.07 million admissions in the European Union in that year, against, 40 million for American-made “ Star Wars Episode 1”, 23 million for “Tarzan”, almost 21 million for “The Matrix” , and 7.4 million for “American Pie”. Even the obscure, American-made “Patch Adams” did better ( EAO 2001: 100). “The Messenger” flopped so badly in the American market that admissions and revenue figures are hard to find. For 1999 also, only one British production and two UK-US co-productions, all in English of course, figure among the top worldwide 50 admission getters. In Belgium where practically the whole population understands French , French-made movies obtain usually less than 10% market share, against an 80% share for American-made movies. (EAO 2001: 96). Finally, the foreign successes of Indian movies, almost all in languages understood hardly anywhere outside India and not everywhere in India, suggest again that language may be a small constraint.
The US consistently provides a more munificent environment for the movie industry than the European Union. (Thanks to its a large monolingual population, some argue, but see above.) The US movie market also grows somewhat faster than the European market: from about 1000 million cinema admissions in the US and about 600 million in the EU in 1987, to about 1400 and 800, respectively, in 2000. (EAO 2001: 87). Thus, the origins of the American dominance of the global motion pictures industry remind us of other national specializations. The Italians and the French, who always produced a lot of wine for their own consumption, also provide much of the wine for the rest of the world. (Some of their best buyers live in other wine-producing countries such as the US, Germany and Switzerland). This is exactly the situation international trade is supposed to generate: The economic actors of whatever country happen to have a knack for turning out or distributing certain goods, for whatever reason, including being ahead of the game by historical accident, will supply others, for the benefit of all. Note that there are not many clamors to protest the fact that Denmark, Brazil and Singapore, for example, seem to be largely excluded from the global system of wine production. (The fact that Canada insists on protecting its pathetic wine industry is the exception that proves [“tests”] the rule.) Note also, that under the current system of relatively free trade, it’s possible for producers from historically excluded areas to challenge the hegemonists: See the current success of Australian wines on the American market.
Do Movies Have any Influence?
The belief that movies are potent agents of change, especially with respect to values, is instinctive, widespread, and probably deeply anchored. Typical of this unexamined belief is the assertion by one Indian journalist that,”United States-based Indians take their kids to the [Indian] movies to reinforce cultural values. Weak on plot, the movies promote respect for seniors and the benefits of arranged marriages.” (CIO article:”Don’t call it Bollywood.”). Yet, there is not much hard fact substantiating the idea that movies (or television) do anything to people’s values or attitudes. Professional students of the cinema tend to be very skeptical of the possibility that they do anything at all. In 278 pages including footnotes, Tom Stempel (2001), a teacher of cinema at Los Angeles City College, makes 158 people selected haphazardly (rather than at random) tell everything they know, remember and think about movies. The result is a wonderfully live document that shows that the effect a particular movie has on a person depends on a multiplicity of factors including age, sex, personal life experience, length of experience as a movie-goer, and on the largely accidental material and social conditions under which a movie is viewed, and of the company one keeps while viewing it.
Many of Stempel’s respondents reminisce on how a particular movie made no impression on them, or a bad impression the first time, while they enjoyed it the second time around, or vice-versa. Movies often serve as markers of one’s personal life (Stempel, 2001:118), like the Kennedy assassination, or the September 11/2001 attack, without necessarily being granted a meaning of their own. The movies viewers report as having made the longest lasting or the strongest impression on them are often not taken seriously by those who so acclaim them (Stempel,2001:155). These include “Star Wars”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, among others, and “Jaws”. This speaks to the issue of encephalokleptophobia (see Delacroix and McAnany,1999), the fear that the screen is stealing one’s mind: Viewers don’t give much attention even to those movies to which they say they pay attention. The only two example in the book of movies altering attitudes (and even behavior, in this case) durably are “Jaws” and “Psycho”.( Several respondents affirm that they ceased enjoying swimming in open waters and even stopped swimming altogether after seeing “Jaws”. A couple state that they were afraid in the shower after seeing “Psycho”.)
Stempel recounts (2001:262) how in the 1920s, a morality league, convinced of the evilness spread by movies, spent $200,000 – at least $2 million of today, a princely research grant – to have social scientists study the impact of movies, only to be told that more often than not, movies don’t affect attitudes. He further refers (Stempel, 2001: 262, footnote 268) to Fowles ‘ review of studies of the effects of television (1992) which shows that for every study demonstrating influence, there is one demonstrating no influence.(8) Finally, he cites several critics Stempel (2001:192), including Charles Champlin, of the LA Times, to the effect that viewers pick and choose and that movies exist only by the “ consent of the entertained”, a posture that constitutes the overall conclusion of his book.
There is also striking anecdotal evidence to support the viewpoint that movies are impotent to alter values. One Canadian newspaper commentator (Michael Adams, in The Globe and Mail, 7/ 4/ 2001) argues persuasively that twenty years of increasing exposure of Canadians to American movies (and television) are associated with a strong value divergence between the two neighbors: As Americans became more patriarchal in their outlook, Canadians veered more toward egalitarianism in matters of gender. (Notably, this divergence was observed for Quebec as well as for English-speaking Canada.)
The strongest evidence that the screen affects people comes from studies of television violence. Beginning as a curious skeptic, two years ago, I surveyed the literature both secular and scholarly on the subject and came out believing (in a somewhat tepid way) that there may be a relationship between it and violent behavior. My change of heart was effected by a careful and tentatively exhaustive meta-analysis by Paik and Comstock (1994). These scholars pieced together 217 empirical studies published (85%) or otherwise made publicly available (15%) between 1957 and 1990 and relating television viewing with anti-social behavior. They show robust and statistically significant cumulative evidence in support of the idea that exposure to television violence is associated with a propensity to engage in anti-social behavior. However, their metaanalysis is based on studies that are short on hard field measures of violent behavior that are also conceptually and methodologically independent from the independent variables, according to the authors ‘own description (Paik and Comstock, 1994:524-525). This fact raises technical issues of common variance and it poses the question of unintended ideological bias. Moreover, overall, the studies included do not overcome completely the design difficulty implicit in the notion that violence-prone individuals may be more likely than others both to commit anti-social acts and to seek violent stimuli, on television and elsewhere. Thus, the study does not speak directly to the specific issue of influence on attitudes. A 1999 editorial in the usually careful British medical journal The Lancet asserts that, contrary to a widespread impression, “It is inaccurate to imply that the published work (more than 1,000 scientific studies) strongly indicates a causal link between virtual and actual violence.” It is not rare for scholarly students of the media to point to the same lack of resolution. Thus, in a review of the National Television Violence Study 3,- covering the years 1994-1997, Chaffee (1999: 196 ) comments that criminal violence is decreasing at the same time as exposure to television violence is increasing.
(8) There are more sophisticated approaches to the issue of movie influence, but they are far and few, I think. A study by a native-American sociologist (unfortunately a small study but sophisticated in design), brings a subtle answer to the question of what movies do to people (Shively, 1992). The author tries to capture how matched groups of whites and Sioux Indians perceive a classical Western movie where the bad guys are Comanche Indians. All subjects enjoy the movie; all say they like Westerns; all respondents, whites and Indians alike, state that they identify with the intended good guys, John Wayne and another white actor. Asked why they like who they like however, the whites mostly single out the moral integrity of the characters; the Sioux emphasize in the same proportions the bravery of the same characters; the whites appreciated the intelligence of the characters while the Sioux pay tribute to their toughness. While most of the whites think the movie is a good historical document, none of the Sioux thinks so.
[Editor's note: this lecture was delivered to the Leavey Institute of Santa Clara University in 2003. You can find it reproduced in whole here]