Hollywoodization of world cinema represents cultural colonialism

University Park, Pa. -- Corporate Hollywood, led by international multimedia conglomerates such as Viacom, Time Warner and Disney, not only dominates moviemaking worldwide, a process accelerated in the 1980s, but also employs a colonialism-style of storytelling that may aggravate cultural relations, says a Penn State historian.

"Beginning in the 1980s -- the era of President Ronald Reagan, a former actor who led the conservative political movement -- the storylines of Hollywood movies have reflected not the contemporary social commentary of Seventies movies, but a glossy, Americanized Protestant work ethic theme," says Christopher J. Jordan, assistant professor of communications and author of the recent book, "Movies and the Reagan Presidency: Success and Ethics" (Praeger, 2003).

"The stories stress that only hard work produces success with the hidden message that poverty, instead of being a societal problem, results from laziness and incompetence," Jordan notes. "Such movies include blockbuster action films that inadvertently but often blatantly advertise the growing gap between the poor and wealth in the world, not to mention the United States."

To appeal to many audiences in different countries, most movie storylines are now simplified to emphasize action and spectacle over character development, ignoring or trivializing complex issues, he adds.

Historically, Hollywood and foreign film industries have had a symbiotic relationship since the early days of moviemaking, according to Jordan. In the 1930s, European audiences, even in communist countries, flocked to seek American films, while at the same time Europe exported large numbers of producers, directors and actors to Hollywood. Even by the early 1950s, the big studios sought to cut costs by making many of their movies overseas and using foreign labor, an early form of global outsourcing. Simultaneously, foreign theaters and film companies gained revenues from the tariffs on imported American films and from the showing of these films.

Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, a number of independent filmmakers and directors appeared in France, Italy and elsewhere who offered the movie world a diversity of voices, Jordan says. But at that time, they would find an audience in the United States and eventually come to the public's notice.

However, the past 30 years have brought the growth of media conglomerates that absorbed the old Hollywood studios and merged them with TV networks and high-profile news magazines in a complete reversal of the Supreme Court's antitrust Paramount decree of 1948.

"One of the primary results has been that Hollywood producers increasingly concentrate on making fewer, but more expensive, blockbuster films," Jordan notes. This change in turn has had several consequences. Hollywood movies, even when not intending to, often reflect the American Protestant ethic (eagerly embraced by Reagan) that hard work inevitably results in worldly success, with the hidden corollary that poverty must be self-inflicted. Such movies proclaim the growing chasm between have and have-nots in the global economy, according to the researcher.

"Blockbuster movies -- which combine the technologies of film and TV -- have a penchant for reducing debate over crucial social and economic concerns to mere entertainment. Blockbusters tend to emphasize spectacle and action over character development, resulting in a flattening out of important issues. Because they have to appeal to multiple markets, movies can't have the bite they once did," Jordan says. "Most movies' storylines are now simplified and do not reflect the complexities of life in the United States and other countries.

"The trend also suggests that blockbusters made for a global audience will continue to reduce issues of race, class and gender mobility to entertaining terms which condone capitalism's global colonization of domestic and foreign labor markets," he notes.

The growth of worldwide communication empires also has resulted in an enormous amount of power being concentrated into the hands of a few individuals such as Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner. Some of these media moguls, especially those with film connections, carry more clout today than some governments, Jordan adds.

The political influence exercised by media conglomerates was demonstrated, for instance, in 1992, when the European Union opted against removing trade barriers and tariffs on movies and television programs, says Jordan. Time Warner, Turner, Disney, Viacom and NBC circumvented this decision by forming partnerships with European television producers, broadcast stations, cable and satellite networks, and telecommunications services.

"Nonetheless, Hollywood's ongoing production of Reagan-era movies and their commercial popularity worldwide suggest that the movie formulas that prevailed have enduring appeal both as franchises for the major studios and as consumable cultural commodities for an expanding global audience," says Jordan.

"To suggest that Hollywood completely homogenizes global cinema would be to ignore the two-way trade between America's dream factory and other nations' filmmaking industries," he notes. "Movies made in other countries do get shown extensively in the United States. However, the box office potential of even the most successful foreign film released in the U.S. market pales before the global grosses of the top American money-earners."

He adds, "The media conglomerates that have successfully used their economic muscle to dominate trade with overseas filmmaking industries will continue to do for the foreseeable future."

Last Updated July 28, 2017