HOLLYWOOD — Something has happened to the U.S. that has been unthinkable for well-nigh 50 years: The country is no longer at the top of the rankings in just about any competitive category you care to think of.
The dollar is no longer the currency of choice in the world, our schools are no longer the envy of the world, our roads and bridges are dilapidated, our stem cell research is way behind even Korea.
As former Polish prime minister Lech Walesa put it recently in a Wall Street Journal article, “America is a military and economic superpower but not morally or politically anymore.”
The only categories where the U.S. still outshines all other countries are military might — and moviemaking magic.
Hollywood still boasts the only industrial machine that consistently turns out product that disparate people in distant lands — regardless of their politics or cultural predilections — readily embrace.
Bollywood may churn out four times as many movies each year as Tinseltown does, but no one outside India, other than Indian ex-pats, lines up to see these musicalized serials. Egyptian movies do play across the Mideast, but that’s because other Arab countries turn out so few themselves; Hong Kong actioners have a following in Europe and America, but it’s mainly limited to a narrow swathe of young males.
The really big question is: If America no longer is considered a moral authority or a cultural beacon, might that eventually mean shorter lines for Yank pics at overseas moviehouses?
So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
There’s been no well-orchestrated or sustained boycott of American movie product anywhere in the world.”Nor do I think there will be,” one studio exec told me last week. “They may hate our politics, or our government, but they love our movies,” he insists.
Indeed, while all cultures relish their homegrown entertainment, they all also relate to universal themes and strong characters like those that inhabit “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter,” the Shreks, Nemos and Spideys.
Still, there’s no reason to be complacent.
Hollywood’s popcorn fare appeals principally to teenagers, but it has lost its touch with adult-themed movies. With an aging population in Europe, Japan and in the U.S. increasingly hungry for grown-up fare, there’s an opening for other filmmakers to step into the breach.
The European Union may not yet have a shared vision across its 25 distinct countries, linguistic and cultural groups, but that may develop over the next few years. One or more of the strong local moviemaking traditions within specific European territories may become dominant and begin to appeal across borders.
And a European film industry could eventually start challenging U.S. dominance at the wickets.
In China, too, change is afoot. Despite the best efforts of authorities there to keep the lid on, the culture is in ferment.
It’s only a matter of time before the most populous and increasingly dynamic country in the world manages to get its own dream machine in gear.