The Rise of the Global Box Office and the Sad Decline of American Movies Set in America

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 19 2012 6:07 AM

Un-American Activities

John Ford’s Westerns, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Woody Allen’s Upper East Side: American movies used to be set in America. Not anymore.

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We’ve heard this story before in books like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: how the summer blockbuster de-cored the American film industry like an apple, with the executives spitting out auteurs like pips. In Biskind’s book, the conflict was intergenerational, a tale of two Americas: straights versus the squares, auteurs versus the suits. But for most of the '80s and '90s, Hollywood still bore a passing resemblance to the industry that had made Stagecoach, Casablanca, and The Godfather: a film industry indigenous to North America, making American films for American audiences. That all changed with Jurassic Park in 1993, the first year in which Hollywood’s foreign earnings outpaced its domestic ones—a historic tip of the seesaw. Executives’ ears pricked up: The new Wild West was overseas.  Since then, it’s been a story of rapid, exponential growth: Foreign revenues counted for 64 percent of the total in 2009, 66 percent in 2010, 69 percent in 2011—pushed up there by Avatar, tellingly a remake of Dances With Wolves in space—and now rests at a staggering 70 percent, an industry-reconfiguring statistic. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Michael Cieply observed:

Last year Hollywood’s top 20 domestic box office performers included just two movies—“The Help” and “Bridesmaids”—with realistic stories about American life, contemporary or otherwise, according to boxofficemojo.com. The rest took place in a fantasy world, like “Thor,” or abroad, like “The Hangover Part II” and "Fast Five." In 1992, by contrast, 15 of the 20 best-selling American films were rooted in realistic, if sometimes twisted, American experiences. Those included “Sister Act,” “Lethal Weapon 3,” “A League of Their Own,” “Unforgiven” and “Boomerang,” all of which were released from May to August of that year.

In other words: Forget Stage Coach. It’s when Sister Act disappears that we need to be worried.

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The ironies here are legion. There were the French in 1993, up in arms about Jurassic Park, with Gerard Depardieu claiming “the movie industry in the United States is like a war machine,” and casting Steven Spielberg’s film as a Trojan horse filled with Hollywood infantrymen, all bearing checkbooks and smiles and eager to infiltrate heads of the little lycée children. Well, it was a Trojan horse, but it was bearing down on Los Angeles, not Paris. The film industry under threat was not France’s but America’s. Instead of the French waving baguettes at Jurassic Park, Americans should this year be protesting foreign audiences for turning Battleship into a hit. The film was a bomb at the North American box office when it was released earlier this year—a "two-hour infomercial that should do wonders for naval recruiting if not civilian entertainment,” said Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. But overseas it wasn’t and raked in $236 million, which meant Hasbro got stung but not nearly as much as it needed to get stung in order to stop more Battleships from being commissioned. The only ones interested in seeing Americans play the role of jingoistic, militaristic roid-heads, it seems, are non-Americans.

No longer the indigenous film industry of North America, Hollywood is now the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized entertainment.” It’s one reason the Oscars have turned into such a mad scramble of late, even fishing overseas for quality crowd-pleasers—The Artist, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire—while reserving a spot on the nominations list for something flinty and home-spun from the indie world. Two years ago it was Winter’s Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks. This year it is most likely to be Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which takes us deep into the swamplands of Louisiana. Together they almost amount to a new genre: the American Exotic, mixing myth and magic realism to trawl the furthermost reaches of the American disaster zone for wide-eyed urban audiences, the same way they used to trawl the Third World.

Even the genre is telling: Magic realism used to be the genre of South America, not North, the way storytellers make sense of the everyday absurdities and violent disparities of the developing world. That the genre has found any purchase on the northern American continent is a subtle but damning indictment, both of how broken down America has gotten around its edges, but also of just how foreign the country now seems, even to Americans. It’s a whole other world out there. Somebody really ought to make a movie about it.

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