What Is The American Film Market Really Selling?
(originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine Jan/Feb 2002)
It is safe to assume that more than half of the world’s population will never travel to the United States. Consequently, their perception of America and what it means to be an American will be based solely upon two highly variable factors: hands-on experience with tourists who travel to their country and the television and feature film product that their country imports from the United States.
As frightening as is to think that world opinion might judge all Americans based on their impression of a retired Mid-western couple named Junior and Shirley, the on-screen product we sell for overseas distribution may have made a significant contribution to the growth of anti-American sentiment in some parts of the world.
Throughout the 20th century, there has been no dearth of third world citizens who were willing to stand in front of a camera and burn the US flag while spouting invectives and threats. Yet, each time we witness these events, a question floats through the collective unconscious: how can people who live in underdeveloped countries ruled by despots find fault with the American way of life?
A World Divided By 500 Channels
It is important to acknowledge the fact that – in regard to media product – there is a primary disparity between the US and the third world. Living in the United States means being bombarded by thousands of cinematic images each day. We grow up watching Sesame Street and Saturday morning cartoons, then progress to movies and television series that provide an abundance of programming for every demographic taste. Although the mere fact of quantity ensures that a significant percentage of it will be mindless entertainment, we are also blessed with an equally significant percentage of quality material. Every DUMB & DUMBER enjoys the counterbalance of an AMERICAN BEAUTY. Every V.I.P. can find its antidote in THE WEST WING. But, as with all things, in America we have a choice of what to watch and what not to watch.
In third world countries, the cinematic image is rare. Whether or not a movie theatre is within close proximity becomes a moot issue in a place where people cannot afford to pay for food, clothing and shelter. When there is no income, there is no “disposable income” to purchase movie tickets. Under these circumstances, television assumes a far greater role in the communication of Western ideology. Yet, television can be equally rare. In Afghanistan, for example, it has been estimated that there is only one television set for every one hundred people. Even if there is a television set, there might not be access to the electricity that is required to operate it. As a result of these limitations, what we consider to be a passive experience becomes extremely intense. In the third world, the act of watching television merits the focus and full attention of viewers who are incapable of taking the event for granted. The event assumes the tone of something that is sacred. Now it becomes extremely relevant to consider the power of the impact that will be made by the content that is being presented to these hyper-focused neophyte viewers. Who is deciding what they will watch and on what information are the decisions being based?
Can It Travel?
There are three major film markets where buyers and sellers negotiate the details of distributing American entertainment product in foreign markets. Every October, MIFED gathers them together in Milan, Italy. In May, a select group of “high end” buyers and sellers meet in Cannes, France for the same purpose. In February, the American Film Market Association (AFMA) takes over the Lowe’s Santa Monica Beach Hotel for a two-week period.
All of the beds and most of the furniture are removed from 350 hotel rooms in order to transform them into functional offices. Here, over an eight-day period more than 100 production and distribution companies will gather to sell the foreign distribution and/or ancillary rights to their feature film and television product. Approximately one-half of the films that are presented for sale are in the can and ready to show. The rest of the films are in various stages of development with companies that are seeking to raise production funds through the pre-sale of foreign distribution rights. Over the course of the AFM, more than 400 films will be screened. Millions of dollars worth of transactions will result. Soon after the offices have been cleared and the beds are returned to their rooms, prints and promotional materials will be on their way to the farthest corners of the world.
The obvious presumption one might make is that the 400 films being offered for sale would be the same 400 films that will make their way to a theatre near you throughout any given year. However, an examination of the promotional material demonstrates the unfortunate fact that a predominant amount of the films and television product are exploitative and represent the bottom of the barrel of our creative potential. Another obvious presumption would be that feature films made in the United States would be distributed as feature films overseas. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Most foreign sales “bundle” rights for distribution. That is to say, product that is sold as a feature film is most likely being purchased for use on television overseas. Herein lies a dangerous complication.
In the United States, when focus groups pan a film it is typically relegated to the eternal shelf-life hell of “direct to video.” The production company avoids wasting large sums of money for prints and advertising, yet seeks to recoup their production budget losses through foreign sales. Once these films make it to the AFM, the promotional material takes on a new tone. The names in the above the line credits are frequently accompanied by parenthetical information that lists other credits that might help the buyer identify otherwise unrecognizable names. There is also a predominance of artwork that features the faces of actors who have any level of recognition.
While the occasional A-list actor might be featured in the higher end of the product line, the “stars” in a majority of the films sold at the AFM tend to be at the level of Eric Roberts, Michael Madsen, Michael Ironside, Tim Thomerson, and Costas Mandylor. Industry parlance suggests that these actors “mean something” on a video box. That is to say, when the product goes direct to video people might actually rent them based upon recognition of the faces of capable actors who have not yet made their way to the list of household names on the A-list. Even so, it is important to note that in the case of these films, the actors are of secondary importance to the plot.
In conversations about story, producers and distributors at the market use words like “quality” and “touching the human spirit.” But, in the quiet moments – usually off the record – the truth emerges in a subtle, almost confessional tone of voice. High concept genre films reign supreme. By their own inventory, at the 2001 AFM, 170 films were action adventure; 12 were adult erotica; 17 were animation; 17 were geared to children and/or teenagers; 178 were comedy; 33 were documentary; 329 were drama; 24 were family films; 52 were horror; 61 were romance; 20 were science fiction; 191 were thrillers; and 3 musicals managed to sneak their way onto this lineup.
While this list appears to be innocuous, a deeper look into the details of these films reveals themes and topics that are far more insidious. Regardless of the genre, an alarming number of the story lines are draped over the topics of sex, drugs, gambling, murder, insanity, racism, revenge, disillusionment, mean streets, secret weapons, human experiments, lies, deceit and terror. The lead characters include hit men, the Mafia, prostitutes, strippers, stalkers, mercenaries, covert agents, gangs, vampires and corrupt cops who cross the line to become the worst criminals of all. Rather than rehabilitate, prisons are a violent place where criminals regroup and plan their next heist. Romantic triangles turn deadly when lust and desire lead to murder. Serial killers triumph and murders remain unsolved. Teenagers party, get laid and have a good time until the slasher arrives.
The titles provide further evidence of their high-concept shock value intent. THE TRUE STORY OF THE CHIPPENDALE MURDERS; PROZAC NATION; SHOOTERS; SEX, LIES & OBSESSION; BLOODY BEACH; CAMP BLOOD II; CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD; EVIL WRESTLING FEDERATION; FLASHBACK – MURDEROUS VACATION; DISCO PIGS; SAVAGE LAGOON; THE ASSASSINATION; BEYOND JUSTICE; BLOOD & GUTS; .COM FOR MURDER; (not to be confused with MURDER.COM); FEAR.COM; PRIMETIME MURDER; THE SMILE OF A MURDERER; SCANDALOUS BEHAVIOR; SINFUL TEMPTATIONS; SWEET REVENGE; TRAIN TO HELL; SHIT HAPPENS; SLAP HER SHE’S FRENCH; POOLHALL JUNKIES; BAD GUYS; AMERICAN OUTLAWS; DEATH GAME; INSTINCT TO KILL; JAILBAIT; A DIRTY LITTLE BUSINESS; HE DIED WITH A FALAFEL IN HIS HAND; KILLER BUD; and PSYCHO BEACH PARTY. (It should be noted that none of these titles come from the list of adult erotica.
In short, we have presented the world with an endless barrage of images to support the premises that are currently being promulgated by fanatical extremists in the Middle East – the notion that America is built upon a cycle of depravity and corruption and only the bad survive. After being exposed to these cinematic images under the infrequent circumstances previously discussed, it is understandable that the sanctimonious representations of extremists and fundamentalists would seem plausible to uneducated individuals who have no firsthand experience with American citizens or the actuality of our way of life.
Certainly, a balance does exist within the products presented at AFM. Miramax can be relied upon to deliver products with quality and integrity. Major studios offer an assortment of films that (in 2001) included ERIN BROCKOVICH, K-PAX, POLLACK; LIFE AS A HOUSE; WIT; CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION. Still, it must be acknowledged that even in our high-end, quality product, the focus is frequently on unsavory characters and distasteful subject matter. Furthermore, this high quality product is offered at premium prices, making it inaccessible to the smaller, emerging markets in the third world countries that desperately need to learn about the positive aspects of the American way of life.
This year, the AFM will be held at Lowe’s Santa Monica Beach Hotel from February 20th through the 27th 2002. Most of the finished product that will be offered for sale was completed prior to 9/11. However, there is hope that projects still in development and seeking funding through presales can be reshaped and adapted to our renewed support of the American ideal. When faced with crisis, Americans rise to their greatest potential and become one huge, diverse community united by a common cause – the betterment of humanity. Perhaps this defining point in our country’s history can also serve as a defining point for our industry.