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The Asia Factor in Global Hollywood

Often criticized for overwhelming global audiences with 'American culture', evidence from the past twenty years shows that Hollywood is expanding its embrace to include actors from Hong Kong, scripts from South Korea, and production facilities in New Zealand and China. With 50% of its revenue now coming from abroad - and that's expected to increase - the American film industry sees the growing markets of Asia as its next great frontier. In the pursuit of the billion-plus viewers of India and China, however, Hollywood studios are operating in ways that incorporate and reflect the diversity of the world's audiences. 'Hollywood' can no longer be seen as a monolithic institution with only one style or method. - YaleGlobal

The Asia Factor in Global Hollywood

Breaking down the notion of a distinctly American cinema
Christina Klein
YaleGlobal, 25 March 2003
Jet Li in China's official entry at the Oscars - 'Hero': A global film with a Chinese director, Hong Kong actors and Hollywood financing. (Courtesy: www.netasia.net Target Asia Network Corporation)

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: In the eyes of the world, Hollywood is America. It 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 twenty 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 - ties 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 Hong Kong film industry alone has contributed actors like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun-fat; directors such as Tsui Hark, Kirk Wong, and Ringo Lam; and martial arts choreographers like Yuen Wo Ping, Yuen Cheung-yan, and Corey Yuen. The presence of such Asian talent in Hollywood tells only part of the story, however. We are also seeing American movies shot on Chinese locations, ubiquitous Matrix-inspired martial arts action scenes, borrowings from Bollywood in films like The Guru, and remakes of Japanese hits like The Ring - not to mention the Japanese ownership of a major Hollywood studio.

 

If we want to understand why this is happening, we need to think about the globalization of Hollywood over the past twenty years. What exactly does the globalization of Hollywood entail? We can think of it in part as the globalization of the markets and audiences for Hollywood films and the increasing importance of Asian markets in particular. 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 1980s and especially the 1990s. Today, Hollywood movies take about 96% of the box office receipts in Taiwan, about 78% in Thailand, and about 65% in Japan, which has become Hollywood's single most profitable export market.

 

A number of factors have contributed to the growth of Asian film markets and to Hollywood's increasing domination of them. Trade liberalization has allowed many more Hollywood movies into Asian theaters, and economic growth has given more people the means to see them. The building of 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 theaters. 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.

 

While competition from TV, video-piracy and other factors have hurt Asian film industries Hollywood has gone from strength to strength. Hollywood's economic, institutional, and political power gives it a competitive advantage that few industries in the world can match: only Hollywood can afford to spend $200 million on a single film; only Hollywood has the global distribution network and publicity machinery that can get its movies into theaters worldwide and keep them there; and only Hollywood has the US government behind it pushing to open foreign markets even further.

 

As markets around the world expanded and as Hollywood claimed a bigger and bigger portion of them, the logical thing happened: the studios began to earn more of their money outside of the US than they did inside. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Hollywood earned about 30% of its money overseas. That percentage began to climb in the 1980s and today the average studio production earns well over 50% of its revenue abroad. That number is expected to grow over time, with some industry figures predicting the foreign share of box office earnings could rise to 80% within the next twenty years. This means that Hollywood is becoming an export industry, making movies primarily for people who live outside the US.

 

Studio executives today have their eyes on Asia, which is Hollywood's fastest growing regional market - and especially on China and India, whose huge populations make them potentially much bigger markets than Europe could ever be. Some analysts predict that within twenty years Asia could be responsible for as much as 60% of Hollywood's box-office revenue. So in terms of audiences, Asia is where the action is and will be for the foreseeable future.

 

The globalization of markets is leading, in turn, to the globalization of labor, as Hollywood executives poach popular stars and directors from other nations' industries. Jackie Chan is perhaps the best example of this. Chan has been the most popular star in East Asia since the late 1970s, and his movies anchored the Hong Kong industry for years, regularly topping box office charts there. He tried to break into Hollywood twice in the early 1980s, but failed both times, in part because producers forced him into the mold of the American action hero. By the late 1990s, however, 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. By letting him make films similar to those that he made in Hong Kong, studio executives hoped to draw his millions of Asian fans into the multiplexes to see his Hollywood films.

 

In the past year or so, Hollywood has discovered South Korea's booming film industry, which, in a successful effort to reclaim its own domestic market from Hollywood, 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 labor 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, however, be reshaping the South Korean industry, insofar as some producers there are now tailoring their films with an eye to the Hollywood resale market.

The globalization of markets and labor are contributing to the globalization of cinematic style. As high-end laborers from around the world find work with the studios, they make their own unique contributions to Hollywood's style. Although Jackie 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. As Hollywood has focused its energies on making the special effects-driven blockbusters that sell well around the world, production budgets have ballooned, to the point that 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 do what many other US manufacturers have done: move production overseas to countries that have lower labor 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. Now China is emerging as yet another site for these "runaway productions." Drawn by production costs one-eighth of what they would have been in the US, Quentin Tarantino shot much of his latest film, a martial arts actioner called Kill Bill, in Beijing; Miramax recently finished shooting a World War II picture on the Shanghai Film Studios' back lot, and other filmmakers are in negotiations to do the same.

 

The globalization of production means much more than just shooting studio films in Asia, however: 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. As evidence, they point to the growing popularity of locally-made films around the world. 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, Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese. While some of these films are aimed at international markets, others target local audiences - if they can be exported to the US, that's a bonus, but many of them are not being made primarily with American viewers in mind.

 

The Japan-based Sony Corporation has made the biggest investment in Asian production. Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia - the Hong Kong-based subsidiary of Sony's Hollywood studio - has produced a number of films, including Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou's Not One Less and The Road Home, Tsui Hark's Time and Tide, Feng Xiaogang's Big Shot's Funeral, and Corey Yuen's So Close. The studios are also becoming important distributors of Asian films. Warner Brothers, for instance, recently picked up a Filipino film for local distribution in the Philippines. In the US, Disney released the Academy Award-winning Japanese anime film Spirited Away and Miramax regularly distributes Asian arthouse and commercial films in theaters and on home video.

 

When scholars talk about global cinema they usually mean the Hollywood blockbusters that perform well in markets around the world - films like Titanic or Jurassic Park. But the integration of Hollywood and Asian film industries is producing a different kind of global cinema: films which contain material and stylistic elements from industries on both sides of the Pacific. Hero, China's official submission for this year's foreign language Academy Award, is one example of this new global cinema. Zhang Yimou, a mainland filmmaker who has disavowed any desire to work in Hollywood, wrote and directed this Mandarin-language martial arts film using actors and high-end technical talent from Hong Kong. Miramax supplied a portion of its huge (by Chinese standards) budget of $30 million, and the producers consciously aimed the film at mass audiences in Asia and the US.

 

It may no longer make sense to try to categorize a film like Hero in national terms. Which criteria should determine its identity? The citizenship or ethnicity of its talent? The source of its financing? The location of its production? Its language? Its audience? Its visual style, themes, or story? Today, the notion of a distinctly American or Chinese or Indian cinema is breaking down, as film industries around the world become increasingly integrated with one another in ways that make them simultaneously more global and more local.

Christina Klein is Associate Professor of Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rights:© Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization