My mother-in-law, who lives in Warsaw, is always complaining that Polish cinemas are being flooded by American junk movies. I keep reminding her, however, that what we call American, has, in fact, stopped being American a long time ago.
Let’s take The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as an example. Walt Disney, one of the Hollywood‘s giants, was its distributor. Therefore, in theory, the film came to us from the US. Analysis of various production elements presents a different picture. The film’s script writer comes from South Africa, the director is from New Zealand, shooting took place in New Zealand, Tasmania, Czech Republic and Poland, special effects were made in the US, Australia, Guatemala and God only knows where else, sound and music – Great Britain and Ireland.
There are no American film studios any more. Maybe there never were. It is a matter of interpretation. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was started by Marcus Loew and Nicholas Schenck. Loew was born in New York but his parents were from Austro-Hungarian Galicia. Schenck came from Rybinsk and Louis B. Mayer, who was running the studio, was from Minsk. Goldwyn was born in Warsaw. Three out of four Warner brothers, funders of Warner Brothers studio, were from Krasnosielc near Maków Mazowiecki. 20th Century Fox was created by William Fox who originally came from Hungary and the Czech Republic border area. His real name was Vilmos Fuchs or Wilhelm Fried. Universal Studios was started by three co-founders: Carl Laemmle from Wirttemberg, Patrick Powers from Ireland and Mark M. Dintenfass from Tarnów. Columbia Pictures was in the hands of Harry Cohn, whose mother was Polish and father German. What is more, Paramount was run by a Hungarian, Adolph Zukor. It was those Americans who gave rise to American cinematography.
20th Century Fox belongs to News Corporation, an Australian media corporation controlled by an Australian with a recently acquired American passport, Rupert Murdoch. Despite the fact that the company‘s offices are in New York, News Corporation has over 150 newspapers in Australia and only 10 in the US. When it comes to weekly magazines, the proportions are even more one sided: 28 magazines in Australia and one in the US. In the case of TV stations, the list of companies that belong to Murdoch resembles the United Nations – over 100 countries. The corporation’s structure is pyramidal. News Corp is the owner of 20th Century Fox and the studio has a dozen other studios all over the world. Films usually regarded as quintessentially American, (The Great Gatsby, The Quiet American, directed by Australians, Baz Luhrmann and Philip Noyce, some of the Lucas‘ Star Wars movies or Wachowski brothers‘ Matrix) were not even shot in the US but in Australia. Abe Stern, an American producer, once said, in regard to location for a western movie set in Wild West: “A rock is a rock; a tree is a tree – shoot it in Griffiths Park!” For those who are not privy to the information, Griffiths Park is located in the centre of Los Angeles.
Columbia Pictures, created by Harry Cohn, has, since 1989, been part of SONY, a huge Japanese electronics conglomerate. When SONY was in the process of buying out Columbia Pictures, preparations for my film, Eminent Domain, were in progress. By the way, the film features Donald Sutherland and Anne Archer and was shot in Poland. SONY was one of Eminent Domain’s investors. Therefore, the result of the transaction was of great importance to us. After taking over the studio and filling the managerial positions with their own people – in this case Peter Guber and Jon Peters – a routine review of all the projects took place.
From the SONY list, only two survived the consolidation, our Eminent Domain and By the Sword, directed by Jeremy Kagan. Columbia also discarded many projects, including Milos Forman’s Hell Camp. The film was to tell a story of a friendship between two Americans who were fascinated with Japanese culture. The men go to Japan to learn more about sumo wrestling. One of the protagonists falls in love with a Japanese woman, the other one manages to realise his dream and becomes a wrestler. The shooting was supposed to take place in New York and Tokyo. When local newspapers published information of the upcoming production, the Japanese sumo wrestling association protested, claiming that the film did not portray sumo wrestling favourably. Columbia quickly discontinued the project. I am sure that if the studio had been in the hands of SONY, the film would have been made and most probably, as other Forman’s works, would have been a great success. The multinational company, apparently, could not have afforded criticism from its shareholders. Even the fact that Columbia’s offices and studios were in California did not help.
At the time when SONY was taking over Columbia, Panasonic bought Universal Studios for 6.6 billion dollars, only to sell it to Canadians five years later with a billion-dollar loss. Seagram, one of the largest distillers of alcoholic beverages in the world, was the buyer. After another five years, Seagram was bought by Parisian Vivendi. The French company became, at the same time, the owner of one of the oldest American film studios. Since 2004, Universal has belonged to the multinational conglomerate corporation GE, just like NBC broadcast network or, scattered around the world, factories producing airplane engines and turbines, wires, lightbulbs, stoves and fridges.
Nevertheless, the American film industry does exist. Mostly in the form of independent cinema. Unfortunately, it is not shown in Poland, just as European cinematography does not reach US. It is not distributed because the industry is not run by the producers but by advertisers and cinema owners. And they are only interested in profits from popcorn and fizzy drink sales, not the quality of the films offered. As long as this continues, independent cinema doesn’t stand a chance of reaching cinema screens.
There are no one-country companies in the global economy. Europization of the US is progressing as quickly as Americanization of Europe. I remind my mother-in-law of that fact each time she starts complaining about American junk movies showed in Warsaw cinemas.
Andrzej Krakowski, New York
Sutherland at the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire London Premiere
The above article is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the Film Magazine in March 2013. Some of the information cited has changed in the meantime, however, it only supports my viewpoint. Sadly, I have to add that while I’m writing this neither Film magazine nor my mother-in-law are with us any more.