Saturday, January 29, 2011

Will Hollywood Be Outsourced Soon?

Why the Chinese and Indian film industries will not be overtaking Hollywood - for now

Everything is made in China nowadays. Everyone is talking about China nowadays too. Some businesses and politicians decry China’s unfair trade practices, others like Walmart take advantage of the cost savings they can derive from outsourcing production to China. Educators want to learn China’s secrets to its lead in math and science education of its young. Even the entertainment industry have jumped into the fray, as in the case of the producers of the television comedy hit series The Office which made an entire episode of out Michael’s Scott’s obsession and fear of China earlier this season.

India is another Asian giant which is heavily talked about. Bollywood makes more movies than Hollywood does. The call center industry has outsourced a lot of work to India. So have the legal, medical and technology sectors.

Even as more manufacturing activities and services get outsourced to India and China, there are at least two industries which will remain relatively safe from the threat of outsourcing in the next 20 or so years.

They are the higher education and entertainment industries.

In one of my articles, Why Academe is NOT a Dead End For One's Career, I argued that American higher education is still highly regarded, and that is basically why it won’t be outsourced. For now. I will blog about that in greater detail in a later article.

What about Hollywood, the metonym for the film industry in the United States?

Part of the answer to that question lies in another question: Why are Hollywood movies so popular around the world?


The first and most obvious reason is language. Hollywood makes films in (non-accented) English, which is spoken by many people either as a first language or otherwise. Outside of India, relatively few people – other than those who are of Indian descent and recent immigrants – speak Hindi, which is the language of Bollywood films. The same can be said of Mandarin and China. That is to say, Bollywood, as well as Shanghai and Hong Kong (which have traditionally been the centers of Chinese cinema) can hardly find a market for their films outside of Asia.

The American Dream

Between 1980 and 2008, more than 24 million people obtained legal permanent residency status in the United States (i.e. green cards). That is 24 million in 29 years, or about 827,500 per year, which translates to more than 2000 a day.

Congress currently allows up to 65,000 H-1B visas (that’s the authorization for someone to work in the United States, sponsored by an employer) to be taken up each fiscal year. That excludes foreign employees who work at universities and research facilities, which aren’t subject to the limit. Except for the fiscal year ending in 2010, the H-1B cap in the last decade was generally reached within days of the opening of the filing date in October. Obviously, a lot more applications are filed than are approved.

These numbers are testament to the lure of the American Dream.

Teens around the world dig shows like American Pie and Beverly Hills 90210, not necessarily because they agree with or espouse the same values as those displayed by the characters in those films, but because it is fun and amusing – to say the least – to watch teens living in suburban, middle-class America drive around freely, go to college, and have fun in school.

In contrast, and relatively few people know or care enough about the typical middle class Indian or Chinese lifestyle. Do you envy the typical middle-class Chinese or Indian teenager enough, or even understand the struggles and issues s/he face, to want to watch a movie about him/her?

What do Indian and Chinese cinemas export then? Mostly love stories (about unrequited love or some version of Romeo and Juliet), rags-to-riches stories like Slumdog Millionaire, or history. Scripts with stories belonging to the first two categories cater mainly to those who understand the beliefs, values and struggles portrayed in the movies, i.e. domestic markets, and not the international one.

Lack of Censorship

The First Amendment in the United States Constitution allows American film makers a lot of room to express their creativity. That is one of the important reasons why Hollywood is so successful today. Studios can cater to the taste of the consumer, and they have evolved from cowboy films in the 1950s to Grease in the 1970s to reality TV of the 2000s.

Media censorship in China is alive and well, courtesy of the Communist Party. The lack of freedom of expression curtails the creativity of film makers and restricts the genres of films that are financed and produced to a few. It is difficult for film makers in China to cater to the taste of the consumer and toe the Communist Party’s line at the same time. Guess which way they're likely to lean?

International Audience’s Ignorance of Historical Contexts

What about history films? Surely India and China, both with glorious cultures and histories dating back thousands of years, have got lots to offer to the international audience?

I watched the international version of Red Cliff last year. I caught the Asian version in Singapore just before I moved to Rochester, NY for graduate school. As I watched the international version with English subtitles (I couldn’t turn it off on Netflix), I couldn’t help but compare the two versions scene by scene. More importantly, as a communication major, I wondered at every other scene if a European or American audience would understand some of the scenes, and in fact, the context of the battle itself.

For example, there is the scene where Guan Yu comes close to killing Cao Cao, commander-in-chief of the enemy's army, but holds back and instead, merely saves the flag of his sworn brother and lord, Liu Bei. Cao Cao stops his generals from fighting Guan Yu, and allows him to pass without harrassment, commenting that Guan Yu is a man of honor. Huh? How does Cao Cao know so much about Guan Yu? And by the way, Cao Cao addresses Guan Yu by the latter’s courtesy name, Yun Chang, in that scene. Does anyone who’s unfamiliar with Chinese names and culture understand what courtesy names are? (See part of that scene in 0:45-0:53.)

Here’s the background information which you wouldn’t get from the film: Guan Yu had served Cao Cao for a brief period of time. Cao Cao had treated Guan Yu very kindly during Guan Yu’s short tenure. Would viewers without any background knowledge of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or of context of the Battle of the Red Cliff be able to make any sense of this?

The Indians and the Chinese do not lack the talents or the budgets to produce scripts and films at the same standard as Hollywood. It is just that they aren’t able to penetrate the international market because of general ignorance about their histories and cultures.

On the other hand, everyone around the world knows American history. American film makers can produce a movie like The Patriot, and only a few would not get the context of the American Revolutionary War. America's superpower status is why many people study and know about the history of America. Hollywood is able to benefit from America's 100-year-old superpower status and its relatively short Euro-centric history (which wouldn't confuse international audiences).


The advantages that Hollywood enjoys over its rivals in Bollywood and China are unlikely to go away easily or any time soon. Hollywood does have another problem on its hands though – piracy. Its films are enjoyed by many throughout the world, but the advantages mentioned above aren’t going to mean anything if they can’t reap the fruits of their efforts in the world's biggest markets.

When Indian and Chinese histories and cultures are more widely studied and understood by the world at large and as their economic situations improve, international consumers' interest and knowledge of their histories, cultures, values and struggles might change, just like what happened with the United States in the last 60 years. Until then, I guess I'll just have to watch Chinese films by myself, or resort to explaining the context of every other scene in a Chinese film to my lovely wife, who's American.

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