LONDON — For more than three decades, foreign countries lined up to see American-made films with big stars and directors, plenty of noisy spectacle and the latest hi-tech innovations from CGI to 3D. Hollywood became one of the America’s leading exporters and an attractive global investment target. And if its U.S.-centric happy endings came at the expense of Russians, Chinese, or Middle East villains, too bad.
Cut to the New Now. DVD revenues flattened. Swing-for-the-fences movies, the ones that can generate $1 billion in global ticket sales, became astronomically expensive, Every studio is owned by a global conglomerate whose fortunes fluctuate. All of them impose tight fiscal restrictions which work in some industries but strangle a creative business traditionally known for excess. Domestic box office has become a smaller piece of a movie’s P&L each year, as non-U.S. ticket sales today account for 70% of business and climbing. Russia, China and other countries have seen their economies — and movie-going — booming by comparison, forcing producers to go hat in hand for overseas funding because studios no longer want to pay for the movies they make.
So it was inevitable that Hollywood’s desire to traffic in foreign countries would eventually collide with the tinderbox of politics, religion, cultural differences and economics prevalent in offshore markets. These factors have only grown more combustible in recent months, forcing Hollywood to reconsider — perhaps even reinvent — how to tell stories in films that need to travel and profit in a dangerous, complex world.
“Globalization has a mirror image,” says former Reliance Entertainment chairman Ami Khanna. “On the one hand we are witnessing a rise in globalized content, yet side by side with this is also a rise in parochialism and fundamentalism. We live in a network society today, where there has been the democratization of access to the public at large through media. This has accelerated the aspirations of splinter groups, like we saw in Paris, and given them a global platform with which to express their frustrations.”
When the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo repeatedly ran cartoons featuring Muhammad on its cover, Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists murdered 12 people in cold blood. When an outraged North Korea saw its leader Kim Jong-un play the fool in the Sony Pictures comedy The Interview — the climax saw his head blown off in a fireball — the isolated country had no economic leverage to use for lobbying power, as China or Russia might. Instead, the U.S. said it engaged in an act of cyber-terrorism, hacking into Sony computers and disseminating everything from contract negotiations to personal emails and employee Social Security numbers, feeding them to anyone interested in embarrassing the studio.
While The Interview proved to be an entirely forgettable comedy not worth fueling an international incident, Hollywood was paralyzed.
Unaccustomed to this kind of pressure, Hollywood is clumsily trying to work out a strategy. Sony wasn’t really sure what to do: It was depicted as leveraging theaters into scrapping the film, and it was excoriated by President Obama after it announced it was all over. Sony then released it at a number of small venues and on VOD. While The Interview proved to be an entirely forgettable comedy not worth fueling an international incident, Hollywood was paralyzed. Neither a rival studio, nor its lobbying arm the MPAA, rose to the studio’s defense. New Regency scrapped Pyongyang, a North Korea-set film to headline Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher star Steve Carrell, much to the consternation of its director, Gore Verbinski. Decisions made navigating this unprecedented situation must be graded on a curve: what fiscally responsible financier would jump into production with another toxic film that flipped the bird at a government willing and capable of such extreme action against a movie?
At the same time, religious politicos stunted the performance of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Of Gods And Kings. A seemingly universal story recognized by Christians, Jews and Muslims, the film was nonetheless avoided like a plague in parts of the Arab world: Exodus was simply denied entry in Egypt and Morocco. And tensions escalated over the Showtime drama Homeland, with its depiction of Muslim terrorists as the unqualified villains in the critically lauded drama series, which one diplomat labeled “an affront to the people and institutions in both countries.”
All of these factors are testing the parameters of freedom of speech in an increasingly inter-connected global marketplace. Some of the responses are simply a heightened sensitivity to a multicultural global reality, better reflecting the popcorn purchasers in the $15 seats. Others are more sinister, devolving into self-censorship in the scripting process and more blandness in the marketplace.
“It is axiomatic to say you’re not likely to see any comedies about North Korea for a while,” says one studio exec. “But creative people are always going to want to take risks and our society cannot compromise our values. There has always been a responsibility that comes with tackling certain subjects but I would say that the fear now is greater.”
Deadline has learned that that Warner Bros just placed in turnaround a fully developed thriller about Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy who became a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin. From his deathbed after being poisoned with polonium-201, Litvinenko blamed the Russian president and his security henchman for slipping him the fatal doses. That film once had Mike Newell and later Rupert Wyatt circling to direct and there was talk of Johnny Depp in the lead role as multiple films on the subject raced to the start line. Now, Warner Bros insiders swear they put this project in turnaround on November 20 — days before the Sony hacking was revealed by Deadline — but despite the strong thriller elements, any studio interested in taking on the project will have to at least consider the fact that Putin remains at the helm of a country that is an important landing place for films.
And, let’s face it, if North Korea could bring all Hollywood to its knees, what kind of payback capabilities does Russia have? Will Hollywood be the next Ukraine?
‘If there are 10 projects presented to us, I know right off the bat the ones that won’t work in China because of the subject matter so we don’t even consider developing them.’
Then there’s China. With its vast population of movie lovers, the People’s Republic is set to overtake domestic box office within a decade. In fact, it will soon be the world’s largest single theatrical market. China’s box office grows at a rate of about 30% and bordered on $5B this year, as local and Hollywood films share (government regulated) space on 18,000+ screens across a country of 1.3 billion people. Hollywood studio execs have already been put on notice that if they insist on showing certain images that could offend politically sensitive officials in the country, they won’t be allowed entry. Even though China takes a radically high percentage of box office, flouting that decree could cost a studio — and its shareholders — hundreds of millions of dollars. So who’s in the catbird seat regarding creative decisions?
“If there are 10 projects presented to us, I know right off the bat the ones that won’t work in China because of the subject matter so we don’t even consider developing them,” says one Western exec with extensive dealings in China. “You can call it self-censorship, but I don’t see it as that different to what studios do when they make a $200 million superhero film. There are no political issues in those films either. It’s the same process, just for different reasons.”
Filmmakers who do business in China have said that aspirants for coveted slots in China have to meet a list of “suggestions.” They include: no vigilante-ism; no civil disobedience; police and military can have guns, but no guns or serious violence by Chinese civilians; no Chinese villains unless they are from Hong Kong or Taiwan and with Chinese heroes in place to balance the action; no explicit sex; no Chinese prostitutes. And if your movie portrays China and its culture positively and takes that to an international stage, well, you’ll know exactly how Charlie felt when he unwrapped the Willy Wonka golden ticket.
Hollywood has found funding partners in the Middle East, but China has more leverage over plot considerations than anybody because the Middle East is still a relatively underdeveloped theatrical market. Entrepreneurs like Alibaba’s Jack Ma make noise about buying a Hollywood studio, with Lionsgate and MGM mentioned, and Paramount, Warner Bros — and maybe even Sony — possible targets. So: Can we imagine a Hollywood studio owned by an entrepreneur who got rich because of permissions granted by a rigid communist government? It seems very possible.
If you are viewing all of this from the other side of the pond, Hollywood has gotten off relatively easy. Here in London and all over Europe, there is mounting political tension between forces for change and those who resist it.
On the same day that viewers tuned in by the millions to watch the deadly hostage situations in France unfold live on air, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was publicly flogged 50 times in the conservative Kingdom after being found guilty of cybercrime and insulting Islam. Also that day, hactivist group Anonymous, previously better known for its coordinated hack attacks on government, religious and corporate websites, declared war on the social networks and media operations of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
That same weekend, Aamir Khan’s satirical comedy PK — about an innocent alien who lands in India — became the highest international grossing Indian film of all time, despite the film itself being the subject of protests from Hindu nationalists angry at alleged slights on Hindu deities.
All this while Clint Eastwood enjoyed the biggest opening weekend of his career in Italy with American Sniper, despite that film drawing criticism from some circles internationally for its perceived tub-thumping of American military might. The marketing campaign that Warner Bros hatched — and is using abroad — focuses on emotional images that show the unbearable who-lives-or-dies decisions made by the U.S.’ most lethal sniper Chris Kyle, and the toll it took on him and his family, while assiduously avoiding overt politics. And yet the title and the fact that Kyle’s cross-hairs are trained on bad guys in Iraq guarantee that some audiences will be polarized. The UK’s Guardian newspaper, hardly a bastion of anti-American sentiment, recently ran an article headlined, “The Real American Sniper Was A Hate-Filled Killer. Why Are Simplistic Patriots Treating Him As A Hero?”
Who will provide a corrective to the situation? If the major studios wilt under the pressure and churn out generic, global-friendly fare, there is a line of indie financiers who say they are only too happy to pick up the slack on projects that show spine.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” says Image Nation Abu Dhabi CEO Michael Garin. “It allows us to make pictures that we want to make. We’re not a distribution company. So many films are ruined because they have to be ready by a specific release date but we have the luxury of making a film only when we’re ready to make it.” Image Nation just finished a feature-length documentary on Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner. Directed by Oscar-winner David Guggenheim, the film looks at the events leading up to the Taliban’s cowardly attack on the courageous young Pakistani school girl on a bus, after she spoke out for the education of young girls. Then 15, she was shot three times, point blank, and left for dead. She miraculously survived; the film traces her recovery that led to a stirring speech at the United Nations.
‘We’re not interested in propaganda,’ says Imagention’s Garin. ‘Our objective is to do everything we do with integrity and to counter some of the ill-considered stereotypes.’
Image Nation has high hopes for the film, particularly given how it offers an inspiring tale of a young Muslim woman who stood up to extremism with nothing more powerful than ideology to overcome her life-threatening injuries.
“We’re not interested in propaganda,” says Garin. “Our objective is to do everything we do with integrity and to counter some of the ill-considered stereotypes. When it comes to dealing with religion, we have a duty to be accurate and leave viewers better informed.”
The question of responsibility in an age where ideas — and images — can spread virally in seconds is crucial. Some, such as celebrated writer Salman Rushdie — the target of a decade-long, Iran-led religious fatwa following the publication of The Satanic Verses — are unambiguous in their position. He has been vocal in his criticism of what he describes as “the but-brigade.” “The moment somebody says, ‘I believe in free speech, but,’ I stop listening,” said Rushdie in a speech at the University of Vermont. “The moment you limit free speech, it’s not free speech.”
That may be the case with the abominable attacks on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo. Yet even Pope Francis, in condemning the Paris carnage and expressing the importance of freedom of speech, cautioned that “you can’t make a toy out of the religions of others.”
There were more than a few who felt that Sony management was acting insensitively by bowing to the insistence of the hit-making The Neighbors duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and their refusal to fictionalize the Kim Jong-un character. More than one studio decision maker said they would have kicked the project to the curb, particularly when the discussion went as far as the Sony brass in Japan. There was similar reaction in the UK recently when the BBC broadcast a short story imagining the assassination of Margaret Thatcher. One critic went as far as to call the BBC a “sick broadcasting company.”
This underscores the strong hand required in navigating the balance between creative and commerce.
“There is a difference between when an artist is expressing an individual opinion and when there’s a multi-national company with $100 million invested in a project,” says Hani Farsi, a Saudi-born film producer, financier as well as partner in French distributor Le Pacte. “An artist has the absolute right to express themselves creatively. When a big company is behind a project, however, it can take on the guise of a campaign, particularly if the target of offense is a religion or minority.”
Spare a thought then for Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. In December 2010, the award-winning director was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on directing any movies, writing screenplays, or giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media after being charged with anti-government propaganda.
As the U.S. and Iran engage in a tentative diplomatic rapprochement ahead of a possible nuclear deal, there is no sign of that opening up being extended to Panahi or any of the other filmmakers who’ve run afoul of the regime.
“Ideologically, the regime dominates the media and the entertainment industry,” says Saad Mohseni, the Afghan media mogul who counts News Corp. among the shareholders of his Moby media group with interests in Afghanistan, Iran, India and the Arab world. “You may well see big multi-national companies coming into Iran in coming years but the last thing the regime will let go of is their grip on is culture. It will be the only thing they have left.”
Despite those restrictions, however, Panahi has managed to make three films while in captivity, the most recent of which, Taxi, was just selected in competition at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival. It is testament to the abiding creative spirit that Panahi, renowned for his edgy features, has refused to allow his circumstances to silence his voice.
Indeed, the voices of individual citizens voices have never been louder. Harry Potter’s creator J.K. Rowling came to the defense of 1.6 billion Muslims following a clumsily worded post-Paris tweet from Rupert Murdoch. The overwhelming unity shown by the French following the events of recent days offers hope in the battle between openness and fear.
Charlie Hebdo was shocking to so many because of the progress that at least some Muslim audiences showed in reacting to their portrayals in Western content. Ten years ago the publication of Danish cartoons led to protests across the Muslim world and left dozens dead. The latest publication of imagery of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo led to muted protest over there — before the mass murder. The widespread dismay and condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the media and amongst Arab filmmakers has led to discussion of the need for Arabs and Muslims to come in from the cold and create narratives for themselves. Advocates of this include some who’ve witnessed first-hand the brutality of extremism and terror.
Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar, for example, whose editor in chief Gebran Tueni and star reporter Samir Kassir were killed in separate car bombs in 2005, published a powerful cartoon in solidarity with its peers at Charlie Hebdo.
‘The biggest problem the Arabs have is themselves,’ says Jaber. ‘We have no story to tell.’
“The biggest problem the Arabs have is themselves,” said Ali Jaber. “We have no story to tell. The region is a disaster right now. ISIS right now has the dominant narrative because there’s no other coherent narrative coming out. The solution is within us. We can’t speak to ourselves, let alone anyone else. We have to develop our own dialogue.”
In a measure of what a topsy-turvy world we now live in, an Arab-American porn star was recently voted the No. 1 actress on adult website Pornhub. Lebanese-born Mia Khalifa instantly found herself the target of death threats. The 21-year-old history graduate’s response was as deft as it was succinct.
“Doesn’t the Middle East have more important things to worry about besides me?” she wrote on her Twitter feed. “How about finding a president? Or containing ISIS?”
Some worry that Hollywood’s remedy will be to tell stories where the only heroes wear capes and spandex, and the villains arrive in space ships. For filmmakers and journalists who insist on dealing in hard truths, the battleground has never been more perilous.