In the two decades covered by this study, the film industries in the United States and Europe have become internationalized, not only in economic and political areas, but culturally as well.
Film is following the path of other industrial activities in searching out the largest markets. The growth in technology and costs work against serving small and selective markets. These can be satisfied only if they are wealthy enough to support the work of craftsmen, or if production resources can be organized so as to reduce costs to make serving them worthwhile.
For years, British industrial manufacturers have been exhorted to export or die. The same warning is increasingly in order for motion pictures. Only the cheapest films will be able to survive without export earnings. Just as the United States is no longer the sole market for American pictures, Britain is no longer the only market for the British film industry, and France and Italy are no longer the only markets for their own films.
Successful exportation, however, implies getting other people to “like” the product, and this often leads to homogenization, blurring the differences which are the sharp edges of distinct cultures. With film, this growing similarity—apparent in what many observers refer to as “mass culture”—is taking a leap onto an international plateau where local idioms are erased or played down in favor of broader ones. In the United States, television has already blurred sectional achievements and differences.
Indeed, international financing, international settings, international stars and production teams, and dependence upon world markets, breed international films appealing to most people in most places. True, many films not made under these conditions have become universal favorites. As examples, consider the Chaplin films or those in the Italian neo-realist tradition. They were international, but in a much different sense.
They were able to convey a human message in terms understandable to people everywhere. While the neo-realist films were grounded in conditions and times of a particular country, they spoke to diverse cultures because they struck a chord of human sensitivity. But so many of the new international films border on dehumanization by brutalizing sensitivity, often deflecting attention from reality. They count on developing audience response with synthetic, machine-made images. Their shallowness and cardboard characters are camouflaged with dazzling colors, wide screens, and directorial slickness. Of course, undistinguished pictures always have been made, but now the context in which they are produced and marketed is substantially different. Films of this genre are not a form of cultural exchange. In reality, they are anti-culture, the antithesis of human culture.
Perhaps the crucial distinction is that many of the makers of today’s pictures are playing consciously to international consumers. The “human” films found their way around the world because of qualities intrinsic to them and for what their makers had to say, not because finance dictated it.
Complete internationalization has not been reached, and probably never will be. The craft aspect of film making in Europe is too firmly rooted to be completely obliterated, and a few European nations will manage, somehow, to keep some form of national production alive on an identifiable cultural basis. There always will be room for a local film which can talk to people in their own language. That some film industries in small countries thrive on this is not surprising. This does not mean, of course, that all such films are great works of art.
The American presence in Europe is leading to internationalization as nothing else has. With it comes another culture’s perspective on the world, intertwined with production money and international distribution possibilities. Inevitably, this leads to thoughts of universal markets, because investments must pay. Films produced in this atmosphere reflect these underlying currents. They are no longer considered as films made for the French, or for the Italians, or for the British—but as films made for consumers everywhere.
On a more obvious level, the American presence in Europe has been assisted by the American government. Our diplomatic corps and our trade specialists lend their help to the film industry in dealing with import restrictions, negotiations for film agreements, and in alleviating currency problems. Our government recognizes that film is not only a commodity which brings dollars to the United States, but that it is useful in a propaganda sense. It tells our story (often with deadly accuracy!). Furthermore, the shift of personnel between industry and government cannot be overlooked. This is true not only on the level of Eric Johnston and Jack Valenti, but in the lower echelons as well. At times, it is difficult to determine where loyalties lie. True, governments everywhere maintain contact with their film industries, but almost exclusively in internal and national terms. None surpass in extent the assistance given by our government to our film industry internationally.
American overseas expansion is not confined only to film. Leo Model, writing in Foreign Affairs, observed:
The role of U. S. direct investment in the world economy is staggering. According to the U. S. Council of the International Chamber of Commerce, the gross value of production by American companies abroad is well in excess of $100 billion a year. That is to say, on the basis of the gross value of their output, U.S. enterprises abroad in the aggregate comprise the third largest economy … in the world—with a gross product greater than that of any country except the United States and the Soviet Union.1
He noted that three American companies dominate the foreign automobile industry, and that in western Europe, American companies have almost a monopoly in producing complex business machines. One also could point to the growth of American advertising agencies in western Europe, setting up offices there, buying out European agencies, or merging with them. It seems American expansion in Europe has been mainly in the consumer-oriented industries, and obviously film is one of them.
In motion pictures, American control is increasing quietly but at a frightening pace. The British industry is that in name only, having lost its independence in the last decade. The Italian film industry has become so tied to American investment and American companies that its autonomy can be questioned. In these two countries, it is no longer merely the case that American film imports capture the market. The problem now is that native production industries have been absorbed by a foreign interest. France and Spain are approaching the danger point. The matter becomes more significant because in the trend toward internationalization these industries are compelled to channel their films through American distributors who are in a position to determine implicitly the nature of films to be made. Important directors do have some measure of autonomy, but they are few in number.
In one way, Europeans have themselves to thank or blame for this state of affairs, because their film industries and governments encouraged American investment. Aside from the immediate benefits of employed workers and capital for production, this open arms policy was one way in which these industries could live with their chief competitor. In a sense, it meant a reduction of competition, because the warring groups combined for their own welfare. European countries received American capital, distribution facilities, and access to the United States market. American companies, meanwhile, benefitted from foreign wage scales and subsidies. In this way, film is analogous to other industrial activity in which “competitors” fix prices, divide the world into exclusive markets, or consolidate to cultivate all markets without fear of competition.
The alarm was sounded occasionally in the 1940’s and 1950’s as concerned Europeans noted the rising tide of American control. Especially in Great Britain, tenacity and adamancy in some quarters of the cinema industry yielded statements such as this:
American companies have established subsidiaries in this country which are legally British companies and enjoy all the advantages which have been devised by Parliament and otherwise chiefly in order to enable British producers to survive notwithstanding the fierce competition in their home market from American imports. American subsidiaries … not only have the benefit of Exhibitors’ Quota but receive payments from the Production Fund on precisely the same terms as British producers. They also claim British export licenses for foreign countries….
At the present time American production in England is greatly increasing and it is this increase which is so disturbing to British picture makers….
I am confident that it will not be in the best interest of this country or of British film production to leave things as they are at the present time—an equitable solution to the problem must and can be found.2
It was. It entailed greater American involvement in the British industry. Now the insecurity of the either-or question is irrelevant. Most film people there seem to be satisfied because production money and international distribution are available. Moreover, “British” films have demonstrated a remarkable degree of financial success around the world, chiefly in the American market. What economic state of affairs could be better for the British film maker? Now he has a steady job.
International relations in the film industry today are vastly different from those in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Certainly some American companies did produce features abroad; many French and German film makers were brought to Hollywood; and some European companies tried desperately to copy American films. But in those days, the autonomy of European film production was not at stake. Today it is.
In relation to this, two old myths must be laid to rest. One claimed that because the United States was such a large market, American films could be offered in Europe at prices lower than new local productions. This is not the case today, nor has it been for the last twenty years. Rather than trying to undersell competitors, American companies have been instrumental in raising rental terms to support their increasingly expensive style of film making. The second myth asserted that the great number of American films on the European market drew a reaction based on protectionism. This is no longer accurate. American films have declined numerically and they are not now seen as a threat, such as they were in the late 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s. European chauvinism today has its roots in the fear of American control of production and distribution through investment.
Twenty or even fifteen years ago, Europeans undoubtedly did not realize the consequences of their open arms policy. They saw foreign involvement as an aid—but were slow to recognize it as a danger. American interests found fertile ground and grew rapidly. Indeed, people on the continent may discover in the not too distant future that many of their film industries are not really theirs, but overseas branches of Hollywood which merely hire the locals.
If economic independence and cultural integrity are to prevail, then European industries and governments must respond to the two thrusts of the American industry—production financing and the international distribution system. Government programs to this time have placed European film industries on a moderately healthy basis and have saved them from total destruction. But these schemes are not geared to industries of the 1970’s which are faced with threats unknown two decades ago. If European production is to remain in European hands, the public sector must accept the responsibility which the private sector has not been able to manage.
Independence does not necessarily mean “better” films in an artistic or financial sense, any more than internationalization means “better” films. But autonomy can increase the chances for diversity and different points of view. Because film is an art which portrays man’s interpretation of life, it is imperative that contrasting perspectives be given the opportunity to exist and develop. The movement toward oligopoly and monopoly in American industry in general is now spreading elsewhere, paralleling American expansion. While this might spell efficiency in economic terms through elimination of duplication, with fewer producers serving larger markets, it is to be avoided in the field of culture. It would be a pity to have but one control over all the printing presses in a nation—or in the world. The same can be said for film production and distribution. Yet this is coming about in the world of the West.