The antipathy of other nations toward the United States tends to recede at the water’s edge of popular culture, but not always. Despite rising anti-American sentiment linked to a possible war against Iraq, much of the world holds a sturdy but cautious admiration for American pop culture, especially movies — a notion embraced by U.S. film distributors and supported by a recent survey of global opinion.
American movies have long been a global lingua franca, a cultural language enjoyed around the world, and a way to export American traditions and values arguably as effective as diplomats, politicians and armies. Where other aspects of American identity are under fire around the world, American movies and cultural ideas still have a generally favorable impact. Generally.
Liked but disliked
But a love-hate relationship does exist between the world at large and American culture. Between July and October 2002, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press conducted the Global Attitudes Survey, a canvass based on interviews with 38,000 people in 44 countries. The survey, released in December, found that “America is nearly universally admired for its technological achievements and people in most countries say they enjoy U.S. movies, music and television programs.”
International reception to one recent American film may be a case in point. the Warner Bros. romance starring Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock, did handsome business in the United States after opening in December, grossing more than $92 million in its domestic release.
Recent figures from Warner Bros. show that, to borrow from industry parlance, the film has legs. In Germany, an Iraq-war holdout, the movie last week was the top film in the market, grossing ahead of Steven Spielberg’s and Martin Scorsese’s latest Oscar contender,
In Turkey, a Muslim nation whose parliament voted recently to prohibit U.S. troops from staging a northern front against Iraq, the film “opened to excellent results,” outpointing Oscar hopefuls and at the box office, Warner Bros. said.
Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures, found similar results at his studio. Box-office receipts for Universal productions — as circulated by Universal International Pictures, the company that distributes Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks films internationally — are “actually quite healthy” overseas despite the swelling tide of anti-American feeling.
“At present, our pictures are really playing well. I certainly think that, in most places, that will continue to be the case,” Shmuger said in an interview with MSNBC.com.
Another example of a movie doing well is Curtis Hanson’s the film debut for rapper (Oscar-nominated for best original song), and a movie that grossed more than $116 million in the United States.
“He is a distinctly American artist [with a distinct] form of expression,” Shmuger said, “and yet it’s doing gangbusters all over the world. It’s making as much outside America as in America.”
“The revenues from American films overseas often represent 50 percent of worldwide box office,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a company that monitors film industry trends. “It’s an important part of the revenue stream for overall box office.”
For some in foreign countries, he said, that pervasive aspect of U.S. movie culture has a downside. “Movies are seen by a lot of foreign countries as the ultimate propaganda weapon, and a device to corrupt their cultures, especially in those countries that really do hate America,” he said. “To foreign countries, it’s one of the most insidious things that can influence a culture.”
Going forward, it’s anyone’s guess if American films overseas will be affected by war. Dergarabedian conceded that a boycott or some other reaction is possible. “People in America boycott things they don’t agree with,” he said. “It’s a grassroots form of protest, and that could be very powerful.”
Saddam and Sinatra
“It’s an odd contradiction — the tremendous desire to experience our culture, and in some ways to resist it at the same time,” Shmuger said, going on to recall something that spoke to the power of American pop culture in general: having heard of Saddam Hussein once playing rendition of “My Way” at a birthday celebration.
“I have a photograph that I ordered after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Shmuger said. “During the Taliban’s rule there were no movies shown, by government law. Movies were seen as a frivolous activity. The photo was taken in Kabul after the movie theaters reopened — it was an eight-year-old Iranian film, but there was a mob scene outside the theater.”
To Shmuger, the Kabul theater story illustrates the strength of motion pictures as a social presence. “Ever since the birth of pictures, there’s been something extraordinarily powerful in what they’re capable of depicting, how we experience these stories on that large screen, and how we experience them socially,” he said. “It’s a very powerful form of expression, and people the world over respond.”
Exporting American ideas
“Yet in general,” the Pew survey reported, “the spread of U.S. ideas and customs is disliked by majorities in almost every country included in this survey. That sentiment is prevalent in friendly nations such as Canada (54 percent) and Britain (50 percent), and even more so in countries where America is broadly disliked, such as Argentina (73 percent) and Pakistan (81 percent).”
Events in Pakistan the previous year would seem to have supported the survey’s conclusions before the survey ever took place:
In July 2001, a bomb exploded in a movie theater in Karachi, killing one man and wounding eight others, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported. The owner of the Prince cinema told Dawn the blast had made the Pakistani theater owners more cautious about showing American movies.
And in October 2001, the BBC reported, mobs destroyed property in Quetta. Nine banks were destroyed or damaged, and four others were looted. Up to nine cinemas were attacked — two of them for showing American movies, BBC said.
“In general, people around the world object to the wide diffusion of American ideas and customs,” the Pew survey determined. “Even those who are attracted to many aspects of American society, including its democratic ideas and free market traditions, object to the export of American ideas and customs. Yet this broad-brush rejection of ‘Americanism’ obscures the admiration many people have for American culture and particularly U.S. science and technology.”