How Appeasing a Global Audience is Making Hollywood Movies Weaker (and Oddly More Whitewashed)
Our shift toward a truly global community is wondrous. We can instantly connect with cultures on the other side of the planet, directly engaging in conversations that lead to greater understanding and better appreciation. We’re traveling more. We’re savoring experiences (and socially shareable photos) more than physical objects. We’re also importing art, including movies, from a vast array of different countries.
These are all good things, but there are at least three ways in which navigating the new global community has made studio movies dumber. These are the Hollywood movies that an international audience craves, and in catering more and more to worldwide box office, there have been some negative implications.
Movies aimed at maximizing global gains can be broader, can sacrifice logic for political safety and can even, counter-intuitively, keep non-white actors away from leading roles.
An Uncommon Language
This is the most difficult to prove because there are many different reasons and methods that studios use to determine the elements of a movie. Even if the accounting department is leading the charge, decision-making isn’t as simple as 1 + 1 = $300m gross. However, there’s a growing trend in creating broader-based movies in order to appeal to audiences around the world that don’t speak English as their primary language or understand American social cues. There’s a reason that Everybody Loves Raymond is so popular in Germany.
The thinking is that it would be difficult to make a dialogue-heavy, character-based film popular all over the world. Thus, watered down plots and well-known characters (either those like Harry Potter who earned international appeal before appearing in films or those like Shrek who hit big on a global scale) rule the day. Franchises and familiar faces, the highly-visual and high concept, animation and adventure.
This trend seems to have started at the end of the 1980s, and although it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact date, 1989 might be the culprit.
The year before saw Rain Main, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Coming to America, Big and Twins as the highest grossing domestic films. In 1989, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Back to the Future Part 2, Look Who’s Talking and Dead Poet’s Society were at the top worldwide (and kudos to the last two because who could have called that?). In fact, Box Office Mojo doesn’t even list worldwide box office from 1988 and before. In the 1990s and into the 2000s, sequels and more generic fare began dominating the list with few exceptions. The result is a machine driven by these types of movies.
On a random note, the films that crack the top of the worldwide box office that could be considered straightforward comedies (like The Hangover) involve a lot of physical comedy without a lot of wordplay. Either that, or they’re animated. On an even more random note, it’s been suggested by at least one actor that other countries dumb their movies down for American audiences (but that those movies don’t succeed).
The China Syndrome
Recently, a few fans have wondered what happened to some of the elements in Total Recall (2012). The remake apparently left a few things on the cutting room floor, including an entire country. According to this guide from Cinema Blend, the impoverished “Colony” was originally called “New Asia,” but was altered to the more generic term because, according to director Len Wiseman, “it was one of the concerns of the studio about being so specific about… it was slanting too much to where we were saying that was the entire culture, and it’s not.” That’s the polite way of saying that China and other Asian markets wouldn’t have been happy, and it wouldn’t be the first movie to alter itself because of how China feels.
It’s been widely noted that the forthcoming Red Dawn remake was significantly delayed because MGM chose to change the country fictionally invading the US after the movie was shot. Why go to the trouble? Because it’s hard to make China your bad guy and then try to make $20–40m from them. On the other hand, it’s easy to make North Korea your villain because they have a GDP on par with North Dakota and only allow US movies to be shown if they were directed by Kim Jong-il (I personally loved his Pulp Fiction). The full measure of how ridiculous this change has made the movie was summed up by Wired’s David Axe ‐ who points out among other things that North Korea doesn’t have modern weaponry or the ability to deploy beyond the Yellow Sea much less all the way to the States.
So, rather ironically, a movie that could have stood metaphorically for the current economic battle between China and the US has been altered specifically because of China’s growing economic power. How’s that for a statement? For double irony, that same movie will most likely feature the guns-blazing dominance of America.
Now, it’s not to say that there can’t be good story alterations that come from considering powerful global markets, but limitations of this kind are often handcuffs instead of keys to success, and so far the PC changes have been, for lack of a better phrase, double plus bad.
Another method to draw in international crowds is to cast their stars in major studio productions. The most recent example was Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spider-Man. Khan should be welcome in any role because he’s incredibly gifted, but it seemed clear that Sony also used him as a marketing tool when they included one of the few scenes he was in ‐ a pivotal, spoilerific one ‐ in the Indian trailers for the film. Of course, the other explanation is that trailers give away important scenes all the time and that studios still haven’t figured out that the internet makes everything they do accessible. Still, he wasn’t a fixture in US marketing, and his presence (in addition to his acting talent) doubled as a marketing pitch to Indian movie fans to check out their super star in the new superhero flick.
The Kids Are All White
In direct conflict with that sentiment (since we can all handle opposing evidence in a complex situation), Broken Lizard founder Jay Chandrasekhar made an interesting point about studio development in the face of global audiences:
“It’s an endless discussion in the casting rooms, in studios and in television. Endlessly, like ‘we should get some color in this thing,’ and you’re like, ‘okay,’ but it’s rarely in the leads, because we’re all trying to make money. If you could make money with non-white people in the leads, then that’s the trick ‐ you’ll have more and more people doing it. And it all gets back to like they always say this about foreign [audiences] ‐ ‘don’t put a black person on the poster because they won’t sell in Germany.’ And you’re like, well what does that say? Are we saying it’s okay? We really want to sell in Germany so let’s not put black people ‐ what does that mean? Are we just willing to make the buck and sell it to racists? Well yes, in fact, yes, that is what we are willing to do. And it’s strange.”
It’s not that the sentiment is correct; it’s that it exists in the minds of at least some executives. Theoretically, a movie can cast an international superstar to use in regional trailers and still be able to post up two white people on the poster in their lead roles. That’s the center of the venn diagram if you believe Germany won’t check out a movie with a non-white leading man or that India will be more inclined to see your blockbuster if you use one of their biggest stars for a handful of lines.
Chandrasekhar’s comment is simultaneously shocking (in that it conveys a peerless amount of cynicism amongst the powerful) and not (in that, well, yeah, that seems pretty plausible for a studio executive). However, if accurate and widespread enough, it represents a brand of studio thinking that keeps non-white people out of leading roles in order to avoid alienating overseas audiences. Again, irony abounds.
The Big Picture
Overall, these elements belong to a pile of considerations that come into the mind of those giving the green light to larger projects. Domestic attendance is down, 3D hasn’t been the savior many thought it would, big budgets are the entire game, and worldwide audiences represent a market ready to be tapped more thoroughly. Yet, with most newer ventures, studios have found a formula that seems to work and use it even when it doesn’t.
Perhaps a more honest title for this piece would be “How Delivering What They Think International Audiences Want is Making Studio Movies Weaker” because it’s unfair to blame the audiences of the world for the weakening of American storytelling currently happening with blockbuster fare. In fact, the biggest enemy here is the risk averse nature of the studios today. They are fearful of innovation, content to hammer home the tested elements that should lead to success. That lack of gambling has twisted an appeal to an emerging market into something that’s apparently racist and patronizing.
And coming in a meaningful third ‐ damaging to artistic and creative ability.
None of this is to say that studios shouldn’t be reaching out to a more global audience, but the way they’re going about it currently is creating some painful consequences.