These days, it isn’t only American culture that is affected

[13 April 2007]

By Jonathan Last

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Two recent stories from the Wall Street Journal point to a deep—and unexpected—revelation about the evolving nature of globalization, a term that we hear a lot but understand only dimly.

These stories may seem trivial, but they represent something quite grand: a striking change in the way American entertainment products get made and exported, and a shift in the nature of globalization.

The first article concerns the international airing of Apple’s ingenious Mac-and-PC ads, which run in many overseas markets. In Spain, France, Germany and Italy, the ads were simply dubbed in the native language. But in Japan and the United Kingdom, the ads were completely reshot. Native actors were used, and the focus of the ads was changed to reflect local sensitivities.

The U.K. ads poked fun at the European Union’s short workweek and long holiday schedule. The Japanese ads avoided making direct comparisons between Macs and PCs, which would have been considered in poor taste in Japanese culture. Instead, they poke fun by making the PC character overly, and unsettlingly, friendly.

The second piece, by Brooks Barnes, details the making of a new TV show in France. The show, Paris Enquetes Criminelles, is a remake of the successful American program Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, has overseen the careful exporting of the show.

The American versions of Law & Order adhere to a detailed formula: Every show has five acts; information is parceled out in a pattern; detectives and district attorneys act in certain ways. Even the “kaching” sound operates by a rule: It is used only between scenes indicating a transition in the story line and no more than twice per act. Wolf compiled the laws of Law & Order into a thousand-page bible, which is being used to construct Paris Enquetes Criminelles.

The French show’s writers have tried to “translate” scripts from the American show—not just the language, but the ideas. Sometimes the translation is straightforward; other times it requires some re-imagining. For instance, they don’t do mafia stories (since there is no French mob), and they treat extramarital affairs differently, since the “sophisticated French” do not take such things seriously.

Once upon a time, when we talked about the effects of globalization on culture, we were referring to the export of Hollywood products, dubbed in different languages, to the far corners of the world. The buoyant, but depressing, model was the success of Baywatch, reruns of which were at one point being broadcast in Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Chile, and nearly every place in between.

Today, this traditional model of exporting American TV shows is still big business, last year generating about $8 billion in revenue. (By the by, foreign broadcasters have paid about $500 million for dubbed reruns of the Law & Order franchises over the years.)

Also, the importance of foreign box-office returns has likewise increased for movie studios. Where foreign receipts were once only an afterthought, today they can account for half—or more—of the total gross of many movies. Indeed, the selling of Hollywood movies abroad has influenced how they are made at home. It’s a major factor in the explosion of big-budget, high-concept action movies (which are easier to sell to foreign audiences) over the last 25 years.

Yet much more is going on now than just expansion of markets for American pop-culture products. What we are seeing, with the Apple ads, Paris Enquetes Criminelles, and a host of other examples, is the globalization of the entertainment industry becoming a two-way street.

Instead of finished entertainment products being pushed out of America and onto the rest of the world, we’re seeing artistic ideas being exported in both directions, from Europe and Asia to America, as well as the other way around.

About a decade ago, Hollywood began to rely heavily on importing concepts from foreign TV shows and movies, and remaking them in America. On the small screen, this meant importing and remaking shows such as Survivor, Big Brother, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and The Office. Foreign movies, such as Insomnia, Dark Water and The Grudge, were similarly remade by American studios.

As a sign of how successful this model of production has become, consider that this year’s Academy Award winner for best picture, The Departed, was a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs and that American Idol, which Jeff Zucker recently called “the most impactful show in the history of television,” began as a British show called Pop Idol.

This trend began as a simple business decision. Entertainment executives, always looking to divine signs that a product will succeed, latched onto the idea of buying properties that someone else had already paid to produce and that audiences had already validated. In other words, they decided to treat foreign markets, such as the Netherlands, or Britain, or Japan, like giant focus groups.

Consider the case of The Ring. The original movie, Ringu, was made in Japan for $1.2 million. It was a success over there, taking in $6.6 million. DreamWorks paid a (relatively) nominal fee to buy the rights to the property, and then remade it for $40 million. It made $129 million in America and $120 million overseas, including, oddly enough, $14 million in Japan.

The remake game isn’t new. For instance, John Sturges’ 1960 movie The Magnificent Seven was a retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece The Seven Samurai, and All in the Family was based on the British series Til Death Do Us Part.

But what is new is the enormous volume of remakes and the fact that the pipeline now runs in both directions. Desperate Housewives will be remade in Ecuador; The Nanny, the long-canceled Fran Drescher sitcom, is set to be remade in Indonesia.

All of which is to say that globalization, at least in the entertainment industry, is evolving to include not just pre-made products, but ideas, formulas and syntax. This is an encouraging development. Having an Indonesian version of The Nanny may not be high art, but it’s probably better, from the standpoint of cultural integrity, than dubbed David Hasselhoff.

Of course, it’s possible to ascribe too much presence of mind to the entertainment industry. In a 2003 article on the remaking of Japanese movies, Tad Friend reported that, in 2001, Miramax executives purchased the rights to a Japanese kung-fu comedy called My Wife Is a Gangster after seeing a tape of the movie that didn’t even have subtitles. The producer who brokered the deal bragged that they bought it “without even knowing what the characters were talking about.”

Nonetheless, the evolution is a reminder that systems are complex; even when change is expected, it is often unpredictable.

Globalization has become one of the mantras of our day, but it is a process, not a thing. And none of us yet knows where it may lead.


Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at jlast AT

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