How Not to Be Successful in America

If there's one thing that is and will always remain a constant in America's international relationships, it's the much-loved habit of other countries to underestimate the USA.

The Korean film industry has been booming for some time and now it has made its first major sally into the American market with "Dragon Wars", a big special effects movie based on a Korean legend. It has just opened to horrible reviews.

I wish the film and the Koreans in general success – not only would success inject the Korean entertainment industry with a dose of fresh adrenalin, Hollywood and America in general have always profited from outside influences.

But I was skeptical in advance, when I read a statement from the producer on the formula for movie success in America. He said: “The secret is to move beyond the melodrama that characterizes so many Korean films. They don’t understand that to be commercial in the U.S., you need great action and effects.”

Ah, but that's not the secret. In fact it's just the opposite: It is a gross underestimation of the American public. In fact, most outsiders underestimate the American public when it comes to Hollywood. Just like most European think westerns are just patriotic action movies and nothing more (the opposite is true, of course), they also believe that Americans are a bit stupid and only want violence and effects in their movies. That's partly because they want to believe that, it's also partly because they don't watch closely enough.

You can see that in Germany. Every once in a while, Germany produces an international English-language movie, most recently "The Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer", and usually it goes completely wrong. And they don’t know why. It's because they think American audiences are unsophisticated. Bernd Eichinger's big budget "The House of Spirits" in the nineties was chock full of Hollywood stars including Meryl Streep. I knew it would fail when in one scene, portraying a national election in South America, there was a banner strung across the street calling for the people to vote – in English. I cringed, as did most Americans. Why would a Spanish-speaking town put up a sign in English? Eichinger's thinking was most likely: "These Americans don’t speak any foreign languages, so they won’t like it if the sign is in Spanish."

In a made-for-German-audience TV-movie about the American "air bridge" that saved Berlin from a Soviet embargo in the 40's, an American officer played by Heino Ferch took out his gun in a hanger and shot into the roof to call for attention. For the Germans (the film was made for Germans, so it didn’t matter), this was a perennial American act: big, boisterous, violent, larger than life. As an American, I cringed. Sure, in a saloon in the Wild West that might have been possible, but in the US army, that has more rules that a Prussian officer has gold bangles? The officer would have been put under arrest in a second. We know that, as we know the rules for the very different Western and WWII genres, but the Germans think it's all the same.

Another German cliché about intellectually inferior American audiences is that they don’t like subtitles. Of course, "Star Wars" wouldn’t have been the hit it was, if it was all in subtitles, but once you produce a really good film, like "Run Lola Run" or "The Lives of Others," that hit a nerve, they work with subtitles. As did the recent subtitled hits of Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood and Ang Lee. "Americans don’t go to movies with subtitles" is just one of many ways to underestimate the American audience.

As far as special effects go – Korean and Germans are so impressed by special effects that they can't see beyond them. In fact, it's never really about special effects, it's about the American fascination with the New. They want to see something they haven't seen before. Once they've seen it, it grows old, just as CGI effects are growing old now, and they want to see something even newer. The fascination with the new is what makes the American economy so dynamic and the American audience so hard to please.

What neither Koreans nor Germans understand (with some remarkable exceptions) is the Anglo-American narrative tradition. It's a tradition of plot-based story-telling that goes back to Chaucer and has remained unique all that time. Campbell in his "Hero of a Thousand Faces" claimed that all myth had the same narrative backbone, but it's the English who launched a way of telling stories that installed meaning and statement in a plot that appeal to the masses. This is the narrative tradition that Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle and Hollywood have in common. But it's about more than just action or suspense.

Of course, even American producers underestimate their own audience. For every hundred films they produce, only ten or so are any good, I would estimate. So the odds were against a single Korean movie entering the marketplace anyway. But still, the "dumb-Americans-will-go-see-anything-with-explosions-in-it" attitude betrays an overblown sense of self-importance that is in the end self-defeating. Anyone who really knows the market could have told the producer that films like "Reign of Fire" and "Dungeons and Dragons" proved that special effects are not enough. Still producers keep making movies that assume their audiences are idiots.

I wish the Koreans good luck. But I wish both them and the Germans and others that they will someday take their audiences seriously.


MollyB said…
Taking the audience seriously would require harsh insight into cultural differences, and a too-bitter-to-swallow dose of seeing one's own areas of non-superiority. Which, if you don't have experience or role models for re-constructing your Selbstbild, seems existence-threatening.

But I second your good wishes!

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