| Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson in Shanghai Knights: double bill
The author is associate professor of literature, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In the eyes of the world, Hollywood represents not only the glamour of American movie stars, but also the “soft power” — what many see as the cultural imperialism — of the world’s lone superpower. The economic transformations of the past 20 years, however, are changing media landscapes in America and around the world. Perhaps nothing indicates these changes as much as the growing ties between Asian and American films industries — which are leading to the Asianization of Hollywood and the Hollywoodization of Asia.
Whether for critical acclaim or box office success, people like Ang Lee, John Woo, Michelle Yeoh and others from Asia are making their mark in America. In the past ten years there have been more Asians working in Hollywood than ever before. The presence of such Asian talent in Hollywood tells only part of the story, however.
Historically, Asian markets have not been very significant for Hollywood, insofar as they have not generated anywhere near as much revenue for the studios as have European and Latin American markets. This began to change in the Eighties and especially the Nineties. Today, Hollywood movies take about 96 per cent of the box office receipts in Taiwan, about 78 per cent in Thailand, and about 65 per cent in Japan, which has become Hollywood’s single most profitable export market.
Trade liberalization has allowed many more Hollywood movies into Asian theatres, and economic growth has given more people the means to see them. Modern multiplexes has dramatically increased the number of venues for film exhibition, while the privatization of television and the development of new distribution technologies such as video, cable and satellite, have created whole new markets for film beyond the theatres. While the distribution and exhibition sectors of Asian film industries have welcomed this market expansion, the production sectors have not always been so enthusiastic, insofar as multiplexes and the new home-based entertainment outlets tend to fill up with Hollywood films.
From the Fifties through the Seventies, Hollywood earned about 30 per cent of its money overseas. That percentage began to climb in the Eighties and today the average studio production earns well over 50 per cent of its revenue abroad. This means that Hollywood is becoming an export industry, making movies primarily for people who live outside the United States of America. Studio executives today have their eyes on Asia, which is Hollywood’s fastest growing regional market, especially on China and India whose huge populations make them potentially much bigger markets than Europe could ever be.
The globalization of markets is leading, in turn, to the globalization of labour. Jackie Chan is perhaps the best example of this. Chan has been the most popular star in east Asia since the late Seventies, and his movies anchored the Hong Kong industry for years. He tried to break into Hollywood twice in the early Eighties, but failed, in part because producers forced him into the mould of the American action hero. By the late Nineties Hollywood executives became more willing to let him do the things that had made him popular in Asia. And so in his recent Hollywood films — Rush Hour 1 and 2, Tuxedo, Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights — we see more of the trademark combination of martial arts, comedy and death-defying acrobatic stunts that Chan developed in Hong Kong.
In the past year or so, Hollywood has discovered South Korea’s booming film industry, which has started making high-quality commercial films with strong narratives, compelling characters and high production values. Impressed by these films, US-based studio executives have been snapping up the rights to remake them. In effect, they are buying the labour of South Korean screenwriters, which is much cheaper than that of American writers. Far from weakening the South Korean industry by extracting talent from it, the studios are strengthening it by providing it with a new source of revenue. Hollywood’s interest may be reshaping the South Korean industry, as some producers there are now tailoring their films with an eye to the Hollywood resale market.
The globalization of markets and labour is contributing to the globalization of cinematic style. Although Chan’s Hollywood productions differ in important ways from his Hong Kong ones — most notably by inserting Chan into familiar American genres such as the buddy-cop film and the Western — Hollywood is now clearly in the business of making a branded product — the “Jackie Chan film” —that used to be the exclusive property of another national film industry. The recognizable Jackie Chan style, once culturally marked as a Hong Kong style, has now become a transnational style.
The globalization of markets has also led, indirectly, to the globalization of production. The average Hollywood film now costs $ 90 million to make and market. As a consequence, producers have sought to cut costs wherever they can, and one of their preferred techniques has been to move production overseas to countries that have lower labour costs and looser union regulations. The Matrix, for instance, was shot in Australia and Shanghai Knights in the Czech Republic, with Canada and New Zealand also among Hollywood’s preferred locations. China is emerging as yet another site for these “runaway productions”.
Hollywood today is going into the business of producing and distributing “foreign” movies. This move derives from studio executives’ suspicion that Hollywood films may have reached the limits of their overseas appeal. In 2001, for instance, the top grossing films in South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan were all domestic productions. Hollywood is finding ways to turn a profit on the desire of local audiences to see local films; rather than trying to beat the competition, the studios are joining it. In the last few years, Columbia, Warner Brothers, Disney/Buena Vista, Miramax, and Universal have all created special overseas divisions or partnerships to produce and distribute films in languages other than English — including German, Spanish, French, Italian, Brazilian, Korean, and Chinese.