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Parochialism and Cultural Export… or Why Titanic is France’s Best-Grossing Film
Ethan Zuckerman, 8 Sep 08

I mentioned a few posts back that I found individual sentences in Paul Starr’s brilliant “Creation of the Media” worth remembering and exploring later. One sentence that stuck with me was his observation that, despite Thomas Edison’s role in creating a popularizing moving pictures, the US wasn’t initially the world’s biggest producer of movies: “In 1907, two-thirds of the films released in the United States were imported from Europe; Pathé-Frères alone supplied one-third of all movies shown in America, more than any domestic firm.”

It’s not that US filmmakers were late to the technology - they were simply late in understanding their audience. In the early 20th century, the US was a nation of immigrants, to a greater degree than we are today. 14.7% of the US population in 1910 was foreign born (as compared to 12.5% in 2006) and the recent immigrants from Europe may have had more of a taste for European films than for early American films, which were largely focused on the edification of the middle class. The US film industry didn’t really take off until immigrant theatre owners entered the production business and started creating films that would appeal to their customers. Starr also observes that the US audiences were so polyglot that “filmmakers in the early 1900s may have been uninterested in adding sound to pictures partly because their audience spoke not one language but several.”

This all changed, and quickly. By 1918, the US was producing 80% of films worldwide. While the US isn’t quite that dominant these days, Hollywood studios now make between 50 and 60% of their revenue in overseas markets - blockbuster films featuring recognizable stars make as much as 70% of their revenue overseas.

I haven’t been able to find good figures that indicate what percent of cinema tickets sold worldwide are for American-made films, but the box office statistics from BoxOfficeMojo.com are endlessly fascinating (to me, at least). In most of the world’s markets, American films are the most successful, crowding out local competition. The site offers a chart of the most successful films of all time in a number of international markets.

The highest-grossing film of all time in cinema-mad France? Titanic, taking in roughly a tenth of its global $1.2 billion gross in that country, almost doubling the revenue of #2 Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre. Titanic holds that distinction in the UK, Spain and Germany as well. (I remember visiting a rural hotel in Mongolia a few years back, staying in a ger in the middle of a national park. Looking for evening entertainment besides Mongolian television, I bought a pack of playing cards from the hotel desk… which featured scenes from Titanic on the back of the cards. Even in Mongolia, my heart will go on.)

It could be worse. According to BoxOfficeMojo, the highest-grossing film of all time in Australia is Crocodile Dundee, which seems like something of an insult and an injustice.

I’m interested in the influence of American cinema because I’m interested in parochialism, the tendency of people to pay attention to their own interests, both personally and nationally. When I speak to audiences about media attention, showing what countries get more and less attention in the US media, I often get asked whether citizens of the US are more parochial than those in other nations, perhaps due to our geographic isolation from other countries, or through some brand of American exceptionalism.

My response has generally been to cite some lovely maps produced by Nicholas Kayser-Brill and Gilles Bruno, which use cartograms (proportional map distortions) to show what countries get more or less attention in different global newspapers.

It makes sense that The Australian, published in Sydney, would pay more attention to Australia and New Zealand than to other, far-off nations. And the attention paid to the UK is an interesting cultural artifact, evidence of Australia’s historical and economic ties to the UK. (I saw a very similar pattern in analyzing the BBC’s media attention - BBC pays more attention to countries that were previously part of the British Empire than to similar nations.)

Similarly, a map of Slate’s news coverage shows how parochialism can include an intense focus on rivals and on military involvement - you can see disproportionate coverage in this US media source of Iran and Iraq.

So everyone’s parochial, right? That certainly seems to be a trend in news reporting - the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s report “The Changing Newsroom” saw strong evidence that US newspapers were limiting their ambitions and refocusing on reporting local and state-wide news, rather than on national or international issues.

But movies appear to be a different matter. American moviemakers are extremely talented at producing content that sells in international markets - we’re cultural exporters, outcompeting the local, parochial filmmakers with products designed to be easily translatable and understandable in other cultures. (Explosions and chase scenes translate easily; complex character development, witty banter, multilayered plots - not so much.) Certainly, filmmakers in other countries are aware of this disparity - film studies professor Thomas Doherty points to a wonderful line in German director Wim Wender’s film “Kings of the Road” - “The Americans have colonized our subconscious.”

What effect does this cultural asymmetry have on those of us in the US? My guess is that Americans have a tendency to assume a global culture… which might be assumed to be more or less co-equal to American culture. Does this make it less likely that people in the US pay attention to cinema from other parts of the world? Are we less receptive in general to perspectives from other parts of the world because we’re used to exporting and not importing cultural information?

The Arab Human Development Report, a remarkable document produced by Arab scholars focused on development shortcomings in the region, focused in part on translation of books as evidence of cultural isolation of the Arab world. The authors observe that the Arab world, as a whole, translates about 330 books a year from other languages into Arabic, roughly a fifth as many as are translated into Greek, a language with a much smaller community of speakers. (More starkly, the total number of works translated into Arabic in the past thousand years is smaller than the titles translated by Spain in a single year. Eugene Rogan, in Eurozine, challenges this assertion.)

If translation is associated with a willingness to connect to other cultures, the US doesn’t stack up very well, at least according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, a database which attempts to provide a comprehensive index of global translations. The US ranks 14th in the number of total translations, well behind nations like Germany, Spain and France, who’ve published many times as many translations as US publishers. This may reflect the fact that English is, by far, the most popular language to translate from. But it’s striking that French publishers have translated almost three times as many texts from Arabic as US publishers.

This sort of data suggests the possibility of analyzing countries in terms of import and export of media from other nations. We might conclude, for instance, that the US is a stronger exporter than importer, and that a translation powerhouse like Germany is a major cultural importer. This might be an interesting complement to indexes like the KOF Index of Globalization, which seek to put an absolute number on a country’s “cultural globalization”. The factors KOF uses to calculate how culturally globalized a nation is are focused primarily on connections between the citizens of one nation and other nations - telephone and mail traffic, international tourism, use of television, internet and newspapers. Countries that export culture, but aren’t especially skilled at connecting to people in other nations are not likely to top this index. And indeed, the US ranks 24th in terms of cultural globalization on KOL’s index, down ten positions since 1970. (The US’s absolute score in cultural globalization has increased, not decreased in that time… but over twenty nations have had larger increases than the US in that interval, led by Portugal, which has moved from one of the most culturally disconnected to most culturally connected in that period.)

I wonder whether the US’s cultural export dominance will continue in the long term, with the rise of other culture-producing nations on a global stage. India’s film industry, including the Hindi film producing “Bollywood”, is the world’s largest film producer, in terms of new titles per year. These films are enormously popular outside of India, and may constitute a form of cultural soft power for the nation. (An Indian friend tells a wonderful story about being deported from Moldova via Turkey, and passing his time in a detention cell in Ataturk airport singing Bollywood songs with his fellow deportees. Representing nations throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the deportees didn’t have a common language, but they all knew the great Bollywood hits and could sing along.)

The rise of low-cost video equipment has helped Nigeria emerge as another major cultural exporter, sending Nollywood films throughout Africa. Franco Sacchi, who produced the film “This is Nollywood”, observes that this film industry isn’t interested in reaching the US market - it’s an industry that produces films for people who make a dollar a day. Films can be made in seven days for less than $10,000. At a certain point, the line between professional and citizen cinema gets pretty blurry. Does the rise of Nigeria as a cultural exporter presage what might happen as individuals around the world start producing video? Is the group that eventually ousts Hollywood from the dominant position as a cultural exporter… everyone?


Update: International Network Archives, a fascinating project at Princeton, has answers to a few of my questions about cultural export in a beautifully designed graphic titled “Stealing the Show“. They calculate that Hollywood controls 35% of the world’s movie markets in terms of revenue, and point out that 19 of 20 of the biggest movies worldwide in 2007 were produced in the US. They also note that the US’s cultural export extends to the small screen as well, with roughly four times as much EU television programming produced in the US than in Europe.

This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's excellent personal blog

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