I just returned from a two-week student exchange with the Beijing Film Academy, or the BFA, the main (and best, according to their PR) film school in China. They say it’s the 3rd-ranked film school in the world, which I guess I believe, though who knows who is doing the ranking.
The BFA has about 3,000 students enrolled at a time, in undergraduate and graduate programs – 500 new ones enter per year, selected from the fray of fierce competition among 100,000 applicants. They have programs in film, television, directing, cinematography, post-production, and photography – and I was struck by how much it reminded me of USC, where I was an undergraduate in the film program from 1997-2001.
Many of the serious, smart, babyfaced students reminded me of myself as an ambitious young filmmaker, and the campus hums with production energy – random groups setting up dolly track along the sidewalk, the atrium of an otherwise deserted building dazzlingly bright during a lighting exercise in the middle of the night.
They have nice gear, too – sponsorships from RED, Arriflex, Canon, Kinoflo, Black Magic – just to name a few high-profile vendors of film equipment here in the US, whom I imagine are salivating with the prospect of dominating the fast-growing Chinese film industry.
Culturally and economically, it makes all the sense in the world that talented young people, excellent facilities, world famous alumni such as Zhang Yimou, and substantial underwriting from the Chinese government would yield a quickly growing film industry to serve the needs of the massive audience of Chinese citizens, 1.4 billion strong.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a recently published book by film producer Lynda Obst which describes in detail how in the past few years, Hollywood has recalibrated its business model specifically towards International Sales, which means, in large part, Asian Audiences. According to Obst, the main reason for the obsessive focus on massive tentpole film releases (any summer movie based on a comic book, for instance) is that they reliably make hundreds of millions of dollars internationally, which is, at this point, necessary for even the slimmest profit margin.
There are still a lot of people making a lot of money in Hollywood, and there’s a pervasive sense that we’re stuck with this model now – big, stupid movies for international audiences. But this will only work for as long as our big stupid movies can corner the international market. It’s easy to assume that this type of movie is quintessentially American, because historically it has been – but this sort of American exceptionalism isn’t any different, it seems to me, than the bluster around American-made cars in the 70s, which was ultimately and efficiently crushed by Honda and Toyota in the 80s.
I’ve been thinking lately of American culture as a resource, a raw material like oil or timber. The 20th Century was an impressive bonanza in the mining and manufacturing of America as a Cultural Product – lots of cool things happened here, from Prohibition-era gangsters to Jazz to the Beat Generation to the Hippies to… I guess, Michael Jackson. We have certainly had a good run leading the world in Cultural Product for mass consumption, and our industries for converting those raw materials to exportable commodities were, and are, first rate.
But I don’t think it’s farfetched to compare the tentpole blockbuster comic book movie, 200-million-dollar spectacle, to, say a Hummer SUV – they’re both big and loud and inefficient, impressive and garish curiosities with, ultimately, a short shelf life. How many Hummers do you see around these days?
No doubt once upon a time, in the 70s, Detroit was a paradise – everyone was making good, union money converting raw steel and rubber into big, shiny cars, and feeling great about leading the world in their industry. And now there’s not much left of Detroit.
In Hollywood today, pretty much everything and everyone is geared towards large scale media production – big mainstream movies and pop music, exported around the world. And yet the profit margins are thin and rely on huge audiences in foreign countries – who could probably be persuaded, at some point, by savvy, hip graduates of a school like the BFA, to choose a slick cultural product from their own side of the world over the latest X-Men Something Something. It doesn’t seem farfetched to me.
We’re still willing to take our summer blockbusters pretty seriously over here – it seems to be the only game in town – and for the moment they can still make some money. But I can’t help but wonder what’s next. To extend the metaphor, if the status symbol SUV of today is the ridiculous H2 Hummer a decade from now, how long, really, before the first smart, well-made Prius crosses the Pacific in the other direction, and finds massive, unexpected success on these shores?
I’m not necessarily saying that the USA is tapped out, culturally. But I think that More and Bigger, as a strategy, only goes so far – and before long, if we don’t have a genuinely original idea to contribute to the international conversation, we’re going to be surprised to find that someone else can do More, Bigger, and Cheaper – and just like that, our guys will be out of business, and Hollywood will start to look a lot more like Detroit than Beijing.