A hostile takeover of global cinema

Global Hollywood
August 9, 2002

Hollywood is a small and not entirely salubrious patch of Los Angeles where many people work in the film business by day and dutifully attend each other's drab premieres by night. "Hollywood" is also a synecdoche for the US film industry, dominant exporter of movies around the globe. The reasons for that dominance are what concern the four New York scholars who have jointly authored Global Hollywood . This quartet declare themselves tired of the flummery of contemporary film studies and its fixation on "certain limited, seemingly arbitrarily selected, theories of subject-formation". In bracing neo-Marxist tones, they argue that Hollywood's hegemony is founded on the bullish exploitation of a New International Cultural Division of Labour (NICL).

This term derives from the thesis of Folker Fröbel et al that corporate capital has split the world into "core" and "peripheral" nations, those peripheries offering cheap, docile labour and so becoming key production sites. With this in mind, Global Hollywood devotes many pages to the phenomenon of "runaway productions" - major Hollywood movies that are outsourced overseas so as to cash in on weaker currencies and elude US union wages and working hours. Thus we see why Toronto has become such a popular stand-in for Manhattan, why James Cameron went to Mexico to sink the Titanic , why Australia has hosted the latest Star Wars trilogy and why Martin Scorsese took his forthcoming Gangs of New York to Italy's part-privatised Cinecittà studio.

Still, the authors are wise to the fact that the standard charge of US cultural imperialism is complicated by the multinational corporate structure of today's Hollywood. After all, Universal is now in the possession of Vivendi, the French water and power utility that also owns several English regional water companies, Connex trains and the Sarp waste management plant near Sheffield. They appreciate, too, that while Los Angeles is the lucrative hub of film distribution, production finance and talent come from far and wide. A favourite example is 1492: Conquest of Paradise , released in 1992 by Paramount but co-produced by France's Gaumont, shot in Spain and Costa Rica, starring Gérard Depardieu and directed by Ridley Scott from South Shields.

As the authors amply illustrate, Hollywood has increasingly come to value co-production as a means "to spread risks and increase capitalisation". Ironically, such partnerships have been enabled by European cultural policy-makers as part of a long effort to forge "treaty, subsidy and quota provisions meant to create alternatives to Hollywood's domination". Weighing the balance, the authors suggest that the US profits more handsomely from these provisions than does Europe; the overriding impression, though, is that "global Hollywood" is essentially "an institution of global capitalism", in which the US and Europe are evil companions of a kind.

As its average budgets have sky-rocketed, Hollywood has become increasingly reliant on income from overseas markets. Hence the infamous stand-off at the 1993 negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, when the French claimed a "cultural exception" for audiovisual texts while the US aggressively lobbied for a "free flow of information". And yet in October 2001, agents of the Motion Picture Association of America could be found near Bangkok, helping Thai police raid a DVD factory engaged in bootlegging The Mummy Returns . Hollywood's obsession with copyright enforcement is vital to its global reach, and here the authors cite such mean-spirited operations as AOL-Time Warner's rash of cease-and-desists against kids who posted unsanctioned Harry Potter websites. Sadly, the quartet's argument for a more generous US conception of "fair use" will cut no ice in Burbank.

Global Hollywood is dense with interesting data and nimbly written throughout. Chapters on marketing and audience feel a tad less fresh, but still offer good detail about the Hollywood-employed researchers who haunt suburban shopping malls in search of the average movie-goer. The authors conclude in the true utopian spirit of the left by urging us to slough off the false consciousness engendered by the NICL and "imagine alternative, more salutary conditions and possibilities for our own cultural labour and for our brothers and sisters in the cultural works everywhere". Alas, this excellent survey does more to suggest that "global Hollywood" is an especially sterling example of international capital buying cheap and selling dear, scurrying as ever towards its best and safest bolt-hole. The book closes plaintively with testimony from various unemployed "below-the-line" Hollywood professionals, none more glum than Jean Rosone of the costumers' union: "I hear about potential jobs all the time. Unfortunately, they are in Canada or Australia."

Richard Kelly is the author of Alan Clarke and The Name of This Book is Dogme 95 .

Global Hollywood

Author - Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria and Richard Maxwell
ISBN - 0 85170 846 3 and 845 5
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 9

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