The US film industry desperately needs the rest of the world. International takings now account for around half of the theatrical revenue of the US majors, and substantially more for most US indie producers or studio specialty divisions. As United Artists CEO Paula Wagner told Mipcom delegates last October, the once all-important North American market 'has become just a territory' in Hollywood's new business plan.
One would expect this economic paradigm shift to have had a major effect on stories, genres, casting and styles - all those parts of the beast that today are lumped under the clunky heading of 'content'. But, curiously, the new cinematic world order seems, so far, to have had very little impact on the type of US films that are released in multiplexes in Buenos Aires, Moscow or Seoul.
Perhaps this is partly because it's difficult to determine what a world-friendly cinematic idiom might look like. Is it in the multi-linear, multi-linguistic, multi-location style of a film like Babel, with lots of desaturated colour and global angst' Or is it - paradoxically - firmly American in setting and style'
Films as disparate as Knocked Up, Die Hard 4.0 or The Simpsons Movie might be termed 'neo-colonial', in that, in time-honoured fashion, they export all-American lifestyles, traumas and haircuts to countries without the resources to make films with such slick production values.
Sure, there are concessions to the outside world; a 1980s action movie as nonchalantly gung-ho as Rambo: First Blood Part II, with its cardboard cut-out Vietnamese and Russian baddies, would be unthinkable today outside of the straight-to-video sector.
It's no coincidence that the chief villains in Die Hard 4.0 and the Bourne trilogy are American. This is probably a post-9/11 guilt trauma thing, but I like to think of it as an olive branch extended to those nations or races that were once traditional providers of screen baddies.
It's telling, too, that the current Rambo, the belated fourth film in the franchise, has our muscle-bound hero living peacefully among the natives as a river boatman in Northern Thailand; when he is dragged into a mission across the border into Burma - perhaps one of the few remaining territories that can be safely vilified without fear of commercial backlash - it's not to rescue US POWs, but to save a group of Christian aid workers.
The fact remains, though, that beneath these cosmetic, knee-jerk PC correctives, no clear alternative has yet emerged to the all-American model. And it's not just the studios' financial muscle that keeps things this way. Hollywood style isn't only a cultural bully; just as often, it's a safe, comfortable international currency.
The terrific thing about cine-capitalism is that when Hollywood finally shakes off the neo-colonial model and opens up to the world in its styles, characters, locations and themes, it will do so because it stands to make more money that way. Already, certain productions are overseas-weighted, designed specifically (like Ratatouille or The Golden Compass) to clean up internationally.
So it's hardly rocket science to predict that in the next decade or so we are going to see:
- More streetwise multi-location action films like the Bourne trilogy, Syriana and Casino Royale;
- A flow of money away from mainstream US comedy and rom-coms (which are risky in the international arena) towards quirky indie products along the lines of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno;
- More foreign characters who actually speak their own language, and behave like real people;
- Continued mining of a seam of fantasy (The Lord Of The Rings, Narnia) and legend (Beowulf) that resonates across cultures;
- More flattering, feelgood international references in genres that range from documentary (Canada, France and the UK in Sicko) to animation (France in Ratatouille);
- A slow but sure decline in A-list movie-star pulling power (which did nothing for Lions For Lambs, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford or A Mighty Heart) and a slow but sure increase in high-adrenalin starless films like 300;
- The demise of the weepy melodrama (unless it stars Will Smith) and the definitive consecration of urban dramas that combine sentiment with irony (American Gangster, The Devil Wears Prada).
And, of course, we can expect more franchise-based threequels, fourquels and fivequels in the future. It seems we all love to collect the set, whether we're in Baltimore or Baku.