Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Hollywood Doesn't Care About American Consumers

In a recent film discussion, a question was asked how it could be true both that Hollywood is highly consumer oriented (as they are) yet also pays no attention to the opinions of Middle America (which they don’t). The answer is simple: Hollywood doesn’t view Middle America as its consumer market. I’ve been saying this for a while, and now The Economist offers proof.

Most Americans assume Hollywood should strive to please Middle America, because they believe the American public is where Hollywood earns its money. But that’s not true. Starting around 2001, Hollywood began making more money overseas than it made in the US. Last year, foreign box office receipts more than doubled US receipts -- $10 billion in US ticket sales versus $22 billion in ticket sales overseas. Moreover, while the US market hasn’t grown since 2005, the foreign market doubled between 2003 and 2010, and shows no signs of slowing. Indeed, consider that, Hollywood made $1.5 billion in China last year even though China currently allows only 20 US films to be shown each year.

As a result of this, according to The Economist, “the studios are careful to seed films with actors, locations and, occasionally, languages that are well-known in target countries.” In other words, Hollywood is learning what works in target countries and is changing its films accordingly. For example, the Chinese want “films that reflect China’s central place in the world.” Thus, films like Kung Fu Panda play well because they show China’s influence over the West. Japanese audiences love Japanese locations and characters. And most of the world prefers European villains.

More insidiously, these markets don’t like films that contain pro-American messages or American cultural elements. Thus, these are now being removed from films. For example, “G.I. Joe” was changed from a team of American special forces to an international team with an international cast. Captain America is being renamed “The First Avenger” overseas and his American-flag costume has been largely de-Americanized. Also, says the director, the character will downplay American patriotism because “this is not about America so much as it is about the spirit of doing the right thing.”

The studios are quite open about this. Says Rob Moore of Paramount Pictures: “We need to make movies that have the ability to break out internationally. That's the only way to make the economic puzzle of film production work today.” Disney studios execs say the same thing: "I can tell you that no studio head is going to make a big expensive movie that cost $150 million or $200 million unless it has worldwide appeal. You can't pay back that production cost on the domestic model alone."

This means Hollywood is letting its marketing concerns make its artistic decisions. And those marketing concerns say (1) include foreign characters and locations from target areas, (2) remove traces of American culture, (3) dumb dialog and plots down to make them easier to translate, and (4) add plenty of special effects filler. It also influences the types of films that will be made. Don’t expect many films based on American history, events or persons. And don’t expect may new comedies. Says Brad Grey, the head of Paramount Pictures, “You won’t see us doing a lot of comedies, because comedy doesn’t travel well.”

This is why Hollywood can be both consumer oriented and still ignore the American consumer, because it doesn’t see American consumers as important anymore. And that’s why you’re seeing such a change in films lately. I would also say, it’s no coincidence that Hollywood’s current low quality period began right around the time foreign markets first surpassed American markets in value.

Welcome to the future.


And if that doesn't give you something to think about, then let me ask you this. . . is it possible that Star Wars was a rip off of The Wizard of Oz?


Tennessee Jed said...

I don't disagree with your conclusions, Andrew so much as I lament them. Still, I feel like something is missing here. Isn't the middle American market lucrative (see "Blind Side." In old America, there would be somebody waiting to hop all over an underserved market of that sizw.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I lament this too -- I'm not happy about it.

In terms of Middle America being lucrative, I think they view it this way:

1. The American market is largely teenagers. American teenagers aren't particular and will accept what we are selling overseas.

2. Foreign markets are particular and don't want the things mentioned in the article.

3. Thus, we can cater to the foreign market without turning off the American market.

4. And while there is the possibility of a huge hit like The Blind Side or Passion of the Christ if we paid more attention to American wants, those are rare and impossible to predict.

5. Thus, the safe strategy is to make lowest-common denominator stuff that appeals to Asian kids, which the American kids will buy, and leave the surprise hits to smaller studios or dumb luck.

In other words, they generally shoot for the broadest market possible, and don't worry about trying to hit homeruns.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, since your main topic depresses me, I'll ignore it, and instead focus on your last question: Was Star Wars a rip-off from The Wizard of Oz? The answer to that is no. Because The Wizard of Oz did not have power converters.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Nice answer! I'm serious though, it hit me the other night that Lucas may have based Star Wars on TWOZ. Yikes!! We even had a tin man in C-3PO, and possibly a cowardly lion in Ben Kenobi. Arrgg.

CrispyRice said...

Well, I'm middle America and I don't really care about Hollywood much, so does that make us even? ;)

But, yes, this would explain why films seem to be getting worse. It could be a never-ending declining cycle.

And also, are you saying the tie-fighters = flying monkeys??

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I had that very thought in fact.... flying tie-fighter monkeys. Arrg.

In terms of your perception of movies, I suspect that's probably right. I'm betting that this trend started long before we realized it and that's why they've been turning out such bland junk these days.

AndrewPrice said...

As an aside, before anyone gets too depressed, this might actually be a market opportunity for conservatives. If Hollywood refuses to do comedies and pro-American type films, and there is clearly a market for such things, then maybe conservatives can fill it by getting into independent films and making those kinds of films there?

T_Rav said...

Andrew, how DARE you call Ben Kenobi a cowardly lion! If anything, old Ben was closer to Glenda, the Good Witch of the South, than the Cowardly Lion, a role C-3PO could also fill. What a terrible thing to say.

And I totally agree with Crispy: TIE fighters=flying monkeys.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Good point about Ben Kenobi being Glenda.

Clearly, Luke is Dorothy, R2D2 is Toto, and .... arrrrgh.

You see my point? Once you start thinking about it, pieces start falling into place, and that's just bothering me something fierce. :-(

AndrewPrice said...

UPDATE: To back up the point in the article, John Nolte just put out a piece about MGM demanding that the producers of the new Red Dawn remove the Chinese from the film -- who apparently were the villains. Want to guess why?


DUQ said...

This does not make me happy. I feel like I should have known something was up when films started getting ultra-shallow. I thought Hollywood had just lost it's deeper writers. Who know it was the suits.

On "Star Wars" being Oz, nah nah nah I can't hear you! Just kidding. I can see what you're saying and it wouldn't surprise me if Lucas used something the Wiz as his basic story. I'd always heard it was a take off from a Japanese film?

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Yeah, it's supposed to be based on a Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress. I don't know if there is any connection between Star Wars and the Wizard of Oz, but it's one of those thoughts that comes to you late at night and ruins your life.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - as to your aside, that was kind of my point. There is still a large potentially lucative audience of middle Americans who will support good films aimed at them. If not the current Hollywood group, then somebody else. I do recognize that film making is inherently risky and does require copious quantities of capital, but still . . .

I've suspected for a long time that Hollywood was making enough foreign revenue to act on ideological matters and cater to other markets .Based on prior conversations, though, I think the international audience piece while big, is not the total answer. Things you have pointed out in the past (e.g. intellectual laziness, etc.) play at least some role.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, True. I think it's all part of the puzzle. There's the financial aspect mentioned above, there's intellectual laziness, there's ideology or just living in an echo chamber, etc. I would say all of that together explains the current stake of Hollywood to one degree or another, though no single piece is another on its own.

In terms of the aside, these situations always create market opportunities and hopefully people will be savvy enough to exploit that. I'd love to see conservatives fill in the gap and become the driving force in making films that Hollywood won't, especially if the categories are as large as "comedies". And with Hollywood having coopted the independent film industry in recent years, the opportunity should be there for people start filling in.

Anonymous said...

The Wizard of Oz also didn't have Admiral Ackbar. :-)

Re: comedies, I may be wrong but I was under the impression that physical comedies translate well whereas more verbal comedies don't (I assume we're talking about the Asian market; Woody Allen, for example, is still popular in Europe). They talk about this on the Naked Gun DVD commentary: Leslie Nielsen's puns didn't translate at all but the physical gags did.

Re: American historical films - that's a damn shame but I'm hoping the TV networks pick up the slack. If HBO can give us one John Adams-quality miniseries every year, I'd call that a win-win.

Re: Red Dawn - I doubt this'll happen but maybe there's a chance the US will get the unedited version and China will get the Koreanized version? Oh, well. There goes my idea for a Get Smart sequel idea involving "The Craw." :-)

There's got to be some happy medium here. Judging from the trailers, I'm hoping J.J. Abrams has found that medium with Super 8.

Joel Farnham said...


These Hollywood big shots sounds like RINO Republicans reading pie charts and what not in order to get the Hispanic vote.

Their "emerging markets" are mostly backwards countries which don't have the internet and no film industry. This is a stop-gap. The markets will last about as long as their internet stays in it's infancy there and the locals don't create their own film industry.

The studio problem is the same problem Wisconsin has, and the Big Three automakers have. Unions.

I don't see the studio bosses having the guts to confront and dismantle the unions. They work around the union laws all the time. They think that they have tapped into something that will be ever-lasting with all that implies.

It isn't going to work in the long run. It never does. Like pandering to Hispanics in a fake accent. After a little bit, the Hispanics catch on and go away.

About the Star Wars thing. Didn't Dorothy just want to go home? Didn't Luke just want to join the rebellion and hated home?

T_Rav said...

Scott, I think Andrew is only referencing "Star Wars: A New Hope," and no others. Because by that token, we could also shoot the comparison down by saying Oz had no Ewoks. But wait...there were Munchkins, weren't there? And they were kind of...Arrghhh.

Andrew, it helps a little bit that now North Koreans are the villains in "Red Dawn," as opposed to the Chinese beforehand. But then, North Korea's a country everyone can treat as the enemy, whereas China not only does not have universal dislike, but also controls half the world, so it doesn't matter if they're hated or not. Does this mean Patrick Swayze and company lost after all? Double arrghhh.

Anonymous said...

You're right, but I still just wanted to mention Ackbar. I'm fond of working "It's a trap!" (or a word that rhymes with "trap") into normal conversation. :-)

AndrewPrice said...


Star Wars didn't have Adm. Ackbar either, he came along later.

On comedies, I am giving you the direct quote in the article about comedies. In terms of translating, I have German relatives and I can tell you that little actually translates -- not only the verbal jokes, but even the physical jokes. They just find different things funny than we do.

On historical films, you never know. HBO has done a pretty good job so far of stepping right into the gap that Hollywood has been abandoning by providing intelligent films/series. And I guess the more Hollywood abandons, the greater the gap for them to fill in. So maybe, HBO will become the new Hollywood?

Forget the Craw... they'll never go for that these days, though that was a funny character. From what John Nolte wrote, it sounds really ridiculous to me. It sounds like they let them film it, knowing they wouldn't allow it, and are only now telling them "you can't do this." So who knows, but it sounds like they just want to kill the whole project?

I would like to believe there's a happy medium, but I have my doubts. The history of this kind of behavior in consumer goods is that once everyone starts shooting for the same "largest chunk" of the market, they stop worrying entirely about niche markets. So I don't think this will turn itself around unless some outsider shows that they're missing huge profits.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, The Oz comparison isn't perfect, but the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. . . sadly.

On the executives, it's all the same thing as RINOs and simply the corporate structure. They look to maximize profit while minimizing risk. That means finding the biggest possible guaranteed audience and giving them what they are likely to buy. It does not allow for creativity or risk taking because risks tend to scare those kinds of markets. It's a triumph of marketing over art. (In politics, it's popularity over principle.)

I'm sure the unions are a problem in Hollywood for production costs, hence they are seeking to make more films overseas, but this isn't really a union issues, this an issue of targeting audiences and then pandering.

By the way, did you see Rosie O'Donnell complaining the other day that unions basically caused her Broadway show to close? That was worth a chuckle!

Kosh said...

I came to your article from Big Hollywood. Reading it was one of those DUH! moments. It suddenly made sense. Why dialog is so stilted and lame. Why so many action films take place all over the world. Why we hardly ever have any Chinese antagonists. Why I hate going to movies, especially certain genres. Still, it is a short sighted policy sort of like the McDonald's of movie making. Trying to please everyone and you get tasteless mush. A more long term approach would to have different subdivisions making different films. Also, most of the $150 million movies are crap. Instead make three really good $50 million.

Star Wars = TWOZ?

Tin man - Han Solo (no heart)
scarecrow - Leia (no brain)
Lion - Chewy (no courage) or C3PO

I don't buy C3PO as tin man, he had a brain but a complete coward. Chewy could also be toto. Emporer as wicked witch (he looked melted)? Yoda as Wizard? I think it is a stretch but all stories borrow themes from previous stories.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Ewoks = Munchins... ** slaps forehead **

The problem with the North Koreans though, is that no one takes them seriously (at least no one beyond South Korea). I can't conceive of them taking over a 7-11 in LA, much less the Western United States.

But you are correct, it is acceptable to hate them.

AndrewPrice said...

Kosh, Welcome and thanks for the comment. It is kind of a "duh" moment, isn't it? For several years now, movies have seemed to be getting simpler and simpler and the dialog has been getting dumber and dumber. At first, it just seemed like a bit of a rut, but this puts a whole new complexion on it -- and it's not a happy discovery.

I agree about it being short-sighted too. I think they're looking to maximize profit with minimum risk. But risk is what movie making is all about. Risk is what brought us most of the great pictures that made Hollywood so special. All they're doing now is making B-movies with A-movie budgets. And if all they do is turn out generic films, as you say "McDonalds of film making," Hollywood's former reputation will slowly fade.

Good point about C3PO! And excellent point on Chewy as the Cowardly Lion. In fact, he kind of looks like a lion and Han Solo does have to push him in a couple situations. I seriously hope we're all reading into this. LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I never knew there were any big Adm. Ackbar fans! LOL!

Anonymous said...

It's become one of those Internet memes.

I once saw a photo of a coffee shop counter with a sign: "It's a frappe!"

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You're hanging out in some strange neighborhoods! LOL!

T_Rav said...

Andrew, it was just occurring to me a little while ago that, knowing Hollywood, they'd make the South Koreans the villains if they could get away with it. Actually, if things go much farther, they may do so anyway.

On the more general subject of movies and stuff, John Nolte had a pretty good BH piece the other day about TV being so much better than movies right now, and maybe indirectly blaming the whole thing on Tom Cruise. Which alone makes it worth reading.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I missed that article, but he's got a point. As films have been getting lower quality over the past decade, television has really improved -- HBO, FX and AMC have all been turning out quality television.

Here's the link: LINK

(I have no qualms with blaming Tom Cruise for anything! LOL!)

On the Koreans, I'm surprised Hollywood knows the difference frankly. But, yeah, once they figure out which is which, it will probably be the South Koreans.

CrispyRice said...


Kosh is here?!!

I can barely contain myself. :D I //puffyheart B5!


AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I think you're thinking about a different Kosh! LOL! B5 was a great show though (at least until they rushed the ending)!

CrispyRice said...

I'm quite certain there can be no other Kosh, Andrew.


AndrewPrice said...

Ok, Crispy, you win! :-)

In any event, what a great character. At first, I didn't think the Vorlons were all that relevant, but they really developed quite an amazing story line.

T_Rav said...

Okaayyy...I give up. What ARE you two talking about?

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Babylon 5 -- a science fiction show from the 1990s. It was a pretty good show with a really neat and intricate plot. It revolved around a space station parked out in the middle of space as a place where representatives of every alien race could come to work out their problems -- kind of like a universal UN.

The Vorlons were one of the 5 major races, and their ambassador was called "Kosh."

I recommend checking it out if you ever get the chance.

Anonymous said...

The article Nolte was referring to was a piece in GQ.

Interesting reading. Many like to blame the state of modern Hollywood on Lucas and Spielberg but if every movie made today were as good as Jaws and Star Wars, I doubt we'd be complaining. And someone (maybe on BH) asked, "Would you really want Lucas and Spielberg never to have existed and the movie industry dominated by people like Mike Nichols and Hal Ashby? If Lucas and Co. hadn't come along, someone else would've filled the void."

CrispyRice said...

T-Rav, Kosh is the coolest of the coolest aliens ever on a series. B5 is totally worth checking out. If you find the 1st season dragging a bit, persevere 'til the 2nd when it really it gets going. And then, ummm, absolutelu stop at the end of the 4th season. A 5th season? Never heard of it...

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't think Lucas and Spielberg are the problem at all. I think the problem is the influx of the corporate mentality.

When art gets mass produced, it stops being art. No one takes chances, no one is willing to risk trying to make the next big hit. Instead, you get everyone trying to copy what's already worked. Add in cost cutting issues and marketing efforts to fine-tune the twinkie to appeal to the largest swath of humanity possible, and what you get is pure garbage.

If you want proof of how things have really gone wrong, look at what happened with independent films. Independent films started making great money because they had some hits and that got them more money for production values and distribution. So along come the studios to buy them up, thinking they would benefit from that "creative spirit." But the first thing they did was put big-Hollywood insiders in charge. Then they changed the way those films were made, to make them just like other studio films. Then they coopted the "festivals" like Sundance to the point that generic blockbusters now headline these festivals. Now they're indistinguishable from the big-studio pictures except for the name -- which is nothing more than a fake brand at this point.

That's how the corporate mindset works, no matter what the form, it all needs the identical, generic, mass-appeal substance.

That's where Hollywood really went wrong. Lucas and Spielberg are just two of the more powerful guys within that corporate culture.

Kosh said...

We are all Kosh.

T_Rav said...

Ohhh. So from what Crispy is saying, I get the idea I should treat the 5th season of Babylon 5 like these unconfirmed rumors of a fourth Indiana Jones movie. Don't believe it.

AndrewPrice said...

Kosh, LOL! So you do know B-5!!

In that event, great screen name! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Season 5 was disappointing. There was a dispute with a cast member who got suddenly written out, then they had their season shortened, so they compressed the story arc. I think they also decided to push parts of it into made-for-tv movies. Then they did some poor story-decisions. It was disappointing.

In any event though, it's a science fiction show unlike anything you've seen before. The aliens are not only very real, but they come from whole civilizations, so you get storylines involving their politics, their cultures and their religions rather than just seeing one member or seeing one story on their planet and never seeing them again. Plus, the humans are not the strongest species, which is interesting -- they're kind of the new kid on the block.

Also, they've got things like a dock workers union, the beginnings of a fascist regime, bathrooms, a gritty underworld, drugs, gambling, etc. -- all of which make it feel like a very real society. And the story arc really builds amazingly well, particularly as you're trying to figure out who this mystery race is that starts to appear. I definitely recommend it.

Kosh said...

I loved B5. So much that I named my cat Kosh. He is gone so I use his name in his honor.

Yes, a straight guy can have a cat. Since I was many times gone for several hours at a time, a dog was no good. But the cat didn't care.

AndrewPrice said...

Tosh, Ah! Hence "KoshCat" at Big Hollywood!

It's always great to meet more people who loved B5! My whole family used to watch it all the time -- my sister even has a license plate bracket that says: "Who are you? What do you want? B5"

B5 really is one of those gems in the science fiction world that people should check out.

LimeyLibertarian said...

B5 rules! well written, thoughtful and complex Sci-fi drama (Plus some really good space battles!)

Ref. the discussion regarding American markets and films. Interesting article here on on why movies are getting so expensive to make compared to a few decades ago, even taking inflation in to account. One of the main reasons Hollyweird needs to make a films appeal as broad as possible.

gp_fromOZ said...

Hi Andrew, followed you over from BH. I must admit, this article of yours and John's really made so much sense and answered an issue with the lack of quality in american films over the last few years and you are right, they are getting progressively worse.


AndrewPrice said...

LimeyLibertarian, Thanks for the link: (LINK). I'll check that out. I've been curious about why costs keep going up when CGI was supposed to make everything so much cheaper. In fact, it strikes me it's got to be cheaper at this point to actually hire 10,000 actors than is it to keep making films the way they're making them today?

Cool, another B5 fan! I loved the space fights, especially since they kept true to the zero gravity/friction principle rather than turning them into airplane fights in space. And it was really cool to see the cruisers battling each other!

AndrewPrice said...

Graeme, Thanks, and welcome!

It was kind of a funny coincidence that John and I did similar articles on the same day, but between them, I think it really does show what's been going on. I'm not at all happy about it, but at least it makes sense now.

The real question is how do we reverse this trend so that we start getting good movies again? That's the real question. My personal hope is that if Hollywood is going to abandon the thinking/patriotic-American market, then hopefully, conservative film companies can come along and fill in the gap?

Ed said...

Andrew, You've depressed me. But you're right, this might be a good opportunity.

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry Ed, but facts is facts... as they say.

Let's hope this does become an opportunity! :-)

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