One Sure Thing About Globalization – The American Motion Pictures Industry World Hegemony Part 3

[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]

Broken Promises

Harm to the poor on a considerable scale occurs when rich countries suddenly violate the principles of free trade they publicly support, on the main. The US government and those of other post-industrial countries will periodically make a show of vaunting the merits of free trade on stages (such as the World Trade Organization) that guarantee worldwide publicity. These actions must encourage at least some of the most enterprising poor in poor countries to produce for distant markets they are not in a position to understand.

When the governments of rich and large entities, such as the US, Japan and the European Union, suddenly inhibit the free movement of products, those enterprising poor people in poor countries suffer, and suffer disproportionately. Thus, the recent passing of new American farm subsidies legislation (in 2002) makes it difficult or impossible for small farmers in the Sahel area of Africa to compete on the world ‘s cotton markets with American growers (Thurow and Kilman, 2002)(6). The steel tariffs erected by the Bush administration – with the full complicity of Congress – must have similar effect on steelworkers in some of the Third World and Eastern European steel-producing countries.

Neither of these policies nor the broken promises they imply, can be easily defended on moral or rational grounds. Directly, it can probably be shown that the economic actors of poor countries who embraced free trade end up worse off than they would be if they had toed to a more parochial (“autarkic”) line. Indirectly, such breaches of faith by powerful rich countries contribute to the stagnation of the Third World by seeming to prove wrong those who adopted a stance leading most surely to economic development: embracers of production for worldwide markets. (In my experience, well-educated defenders of national economic ”self-sufficiency” rarely care to argue against free trade in principle; instead, they rely on evidence that there is no real free trade but a poisonous international game where the dice are loaded against the poor in poor countries. Sometimes, they have a point.)

The American Motion Pictures Industry’s Hegemony

The second, comparatively new phenomenon (less than 20 year old and growing) that can be seen as a form of globalization is the immense reach of American movies. The strong position of American screen productions in the world is not in itself completely new: In 1946, French motion picture industry workers demonstrated on the Champs-Elysees to protest the ascendancy of American movies in the French market. However, the multiplication of movie theaters everywhere in the world, including in poor countries, the retreat of several other important national film industries, the syndication of old movies on television (itself with a near global reach), all ensured that publics everywhere would enjoy increasing  opportunities to watch movies over the past twenty years. The uncheckable proliferation of video-cassettes and the negligible cost of reproducing them, including through copyright piracy, probably enhance again the availability of movies to everyone, including the most destitute  populations. As the opportunity to watch movies in general, increased, the likelihood that those would be American movies grew very fast:

Between 1970 and 1995, the American share of global motion picture production rose from less than 9% to 45%, approximately. (UNESCO, 1995:8-1). Those are approximate figures because of irregularities and incompleteness of enumeration in this source but the order of magnitude is sure to be correct.) Correspondingly, out of 65 countries reporting for 1995, or 1994, or 1993, only four imported more movies from any country than they did from the US: Azebaidjan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran. Notably, Cuba imported more movies from the US than from any other country. (UNESCO, 1995:8-2). This short essay does not allow me to deal with the whole range of means by which American films reach their audiences, worldwide. Instead, I concentrate on film production and revenue figures which are easy to obtain and compare, remaining cognizant of the fact that these figures probably provide an attenuated vision of reality. For the same reasons, I refrain from discussing the spread of other American media. Roughly, it parallels that of the film industry.

From 600 to 750 movies are produced in the US every year, roughly as many as are produced by 33 European countries together ( European Audiovisual Observatory 2001- [EAO]). If we consider motion pictures production on a national scale (there are reasons to do this, see Delacroix 2001), only the Chinese, Japanese and Indian industries are of similar magnitude. Hong-Kong and the rest of China jointly produced about 450 movies per year in the mid-nineties (UNESCO, 1995:8-1). Between 250 and 300 movies are turned out in Japan each year but they are not very successful, worldwide, except in the form of televised cartoons and other animation products. It’s difficult to assess exactly the size of the Indian movie industry because, for administrative purposes, it only became officially an “industry” recently. It seems to be more or less comparable in size to the American industry. Production estimates range from a low of 400 to 500 movies per year in the past ten years ( “”) to a high but probably reliable 800 to 900 between 1991 and 1993. (Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema 1994). A little fewer than one third of these films are produced in Hindi, the official indigenous language of India, the rest in a variety of local languages including Tamil, the predominant language of South India (Indofilms and Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema).

Although the foreign revenue figures of the Indian movie industry are still modest, of the order of $M250 per year recently, its products are said to be present in a wide variety of countries, including some beyond the Indian diaspora, such as Japan, Russia, and much of the Middle East (CIO 2002), Indonesia, and even Pakistan (Chatterjee, 2002) as well as in the former Soviet Central Asian republics (UNESCO, 1995:8-1). We all remember that the re-opening of Afghan movie theaters after the rout of the Taliban regime was widely reported by the international press as having been celebrated with Indian movies (7). (Approximately 430 to 450 movies were produced in the Philippines in 1994 and 1995. An incomplete data series prevents me from gauging whether this is a new durable trend or a flash in the pan. It may be that the Philippines should be added to this list.)

Finally, Colombian, Brazilian, and Mexican made-for-television soap operas seem to be shown in many parts of the Third World and in the former Communist countries but hard numbers are difficult to come by. So, I will keep this interesting fact out of my discussion.

These potential rivals notwithstanding, today, the American cinema dominates global entertainment. People watch American movies wherever it’s not forbidden. By contrast, Americans watch very few foreign movies. In 2000, the share of European movies shown in the European Union, was estimated at only 22.5 %, the balance made up almost entirely of American movies, with the occasional Asian success. This, although collectively, Europeans produce about as many movies each year as do American studios, the fifteen countries of the European Union, about 2/3 as many (EAO 2001: 78). Most motion pictures made in Europe don’t do well in Europe outside of their national markets. Hence, if we did an exact count of the spread of French movies in the UK, or of German movies shown in Italy, for example, the numbers would be minuscule (EAO 2001: 75). Even when a strong, democratic, prosperous country such as France, with a general educational status similar to or higher than that of the US, erects careful devices of economic dissuasion against foreign (read “American”) movies, the results are underwhelming: About 60% of all admissions in France are to American movies, fewer than in Germany (about 75% and variable) but about the same as in Sweden, and more than in Luxembourg. (EAO 2002:96-97). Only the American motion pictures industry has universal appeal.

(6) This fact is not always lost on responsible political leaders in the Third World. The voice of the Minister of Agriculture of Benin managed to be heard above the cacophony of the 2002 Johannesburg United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development. “They are killing our farmers”, he said, in reference to agricultural subsidies (Wall Street Journal, 09/03/02:A20). Given that Benin is poorer than Haiti and Bangladesh (according to its Purchasing Power Parity of national income per capita – World Bank 2002:18), and given that farmers usually make up the poorest segment of the population in agricultural countries such as Benin, the minister’s statement may be literally true.

(7) Westerners familiar with them as well as university-educated Indians often treat Hindi-language (“Bollywood”) movies dismissively. In the context of the present discussion, this might be a mistake. Although they tend to have childish plots and to display exaggerated acting, they also feature music, singing, and energetic dancing on a scale not seen in Hollywood since the forties, often beautiful scenery, and increasingly, satisfying violence. It would not be surprising if this cocktail appealed powerfully to the large segment of the world population that is illiterate or poorly educated, (mostly in the Third World). The American cinema’s hegemony may thus soon be challenged from this quarter. (Even as Indian audiences increasingly appreciate American movies; the two are not mutually exclusive). “Globalization” cuts more than one way.

Go back to Part 2; Proceed to Part 4

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