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'A Nation Engaged': How is America's cultural role changing around the world?

KPCC is participating with other NPR stations in a national week of conversation called "A Nation Engaged." We’re asking this question: “What is America’s role in the world?”

The Frame decided to explore that question regarding America’s role as the world’s leading exporter of pop culture. That role is changing as movie and television producers increasingly cater to foreign audiences.

Someone who’s written about this issue is Alyssa Rosenberg, culture columnist for the Washington Post. When she spoke with The Frame's senior producer, Oscar Garza, she started by telling us how the taste of international audiences has already started to change American storytelling.

Interview Highlights:

The column you wrote had this headline: "How international audiences will change American pop culture." How do you think that's happening?

Well, I think the biggest trend is a general drive towards action storytelling. [Hollywood] wants spectacles that are going to translate, even if the nuances of the character interactions or the dialogue don't land because a foreign audience doesn't use the same idioms, doesn't have the same understanding of courtship or education or social status. So you get a lot of things like the "Fast and Furious" franchise. A building crashing out of one skyscraper and driving into another skyscraper — that translates in any language. 

The international market is crucial for the studios and now there's one big lynchpin and that's China. Why is that?

Simply put, China's building a lot more movie studios. So people simply have access to more movies, but you also have a rising Chinese economy that gives people the disposable income to go see those movies. So you have an incredible hunger for cinema over there, but you also just plain have access to movie theaters in a way that wasn't always true before. 

And I believe this year China is expected to replace the U.S. as the biggest movie market in the world?

I think we'll have to see. Some of that is the slightly anaemic summer box office here in the United States. We've had a couple of big blockbusters that were supposed to go bigger than they did. But these are really semantics. The two markets are really neck-and-neck and I think, in general, [China] continues to be on a really strong upward trajectory.

What are the next biggest foreign markets for the United States after China?

Well, it's a huge drop after that. If you look at the theatrical market statistics report from the last year, you've got the United Kingdom after that, then Japan, India and South Korea. But China is ahead of all of these other markets by almost $5 billion, so there's a big gap. 

China puts a limit on the number of American films that can be released there annually. How many films is that and what sorts of films are generally approved and, maybe more importantly, which are not allowed?

The most recent trade deal, negotiated in 2012, allowed 34 foreign movies, and that includes every market including the United States. To those of us outside of this Byzantine process, it may seem sort of opaque what gets in and what gets out. "Ghostbusters" was a huge product of discussion in the United States this year, but it's a movie that features ghosts, which are one of the subjects that are on Chinese censor's no list. At the same time, television and movies that are perceived as critical of American capitalism may make their way past Chinese censors because they show the West as either decadent or failed. So something like "The Big Short" or Showtime's "Billions" might have a chance of getting into the Chinese market, even if it's not a huge blockbuster, because it appeals to the censor sensibilities. 

The Wanda Group is a huge Chinese conglomerate that owns a big movie theater chain here in the United States. They've been talking openly about wanting to own an American studio. Let's say they succeed. Might that have any effect on the relationship between the two countries and the way films go back-and-forth?

It could potentially be hugely advantageous for the American studio that gets purchased by Wanda. I mean, if one of the American studios gets absorbed by a Chinese company that understands the ins-and-outs of a censorship process that has seemed very opaque to many American executives, that could be a huge financial advantage. I think it's still a really unpredictable environment. I wish it was clearer and I wish I could say exactly what was going to happen. As a critic who cares aboit what we get on screen, and what the aperture is for what American studios can show on screen, I would really like to know what that effect is going to be. It would be great if it produced a more inclusive environment for Asian and Asian-American actors, but I think it would be really deadening if it means that we get fewer mid-budget movies that are dependent on dialogue and human interaction instead of robots that turn into different kinds of robots.

You wrote in your column that catering to international audiences changes movies in significant ways and sometimes that influence shows up in casting. What are some examples you've seen?

Certainly we've seen established Chinese stars like Fan Bingbing are getting cast in American blockbusters. That's partially a way to try to curry favor with Chinese censors or to hope that those movies will catch on in China. At the same time, I think we've also seen some weird, ham-handed efforts to make movies in anticipation of these fairly opaque censorship processes. There was a big controversy this year over the casting for Marvel's "Doctor Strange," which substituted a Tibetan character for a character played by Tilda Swinton, who is a white woman. I think there was a lot of anxiety in Marvel about even having a Tibetan character because that's a controversial subject in China. Are you going to write in a line about how great it is that "Doctor Strange" is undergoing his mystic training in the autonomous region of Tibet? I mean, that's a weird line to have to work into your movie.

You also noted that catering to international audiences means sometimes script changes happen. And in some cases it's necessary just to get access to the theaters especially in China. Is there much of that happening?

"Iron Man 3," for example, had a scene that was written specifically for the Chinese cut of the movie that was not included in the United States release — a really clumsy attempt to work in a Chinese star. And, you know, Chinese audiences often see these efforts as pandering too. So to a certain extent, when we talk about access to the Chinese market, we're talking about a bureaucratic process and about billions of potential viewers whose preferences are not necessarily cleanly aligned. So I think it's important to be very careful not to necessarily tar Chinese audiences as people who can't handle a movie about ghosts. That's a weird thing that shows up in the censorship process, but it doesn't necessarily reflect the sophistication of Chinese consumers.

Discussion of the international market used to be mostly confined to the film industry, but a couple of years ago, the then-chairwoman of CBS Entertainment, Nina Tassler, made some comments that got your attention. What did she say?

She was talking about "NCIS," which was a show that was sort of inexplicable to a lot of observers as the most popular show on television. And Tassler was discussing some criticism that CBS' brand was a little bit old. She said she didn't really care about that [because] "NCIS" is the most watched show in the world. It was really interesting because she wasn't just talking about Nielsen ratings, she was talking about the international reception for that material. In the couple of years since, that conversation has really spiked amongst TV executives. Netflix talks a lot about making programming decisions based on what's popular in various countries. For a streaming service like Netflix, they can get incredibly fine-grained data incredibly quickly about what viewers want. The movie market's a little opaque because you see how people react to what you give them, rather than giving them a huge range of choices all at once and then observing at an individual level what they do. So the television outlets, even more than the movie studios, are going to have incredible insight into what overseas consumers want. And I think they'll program accordingly. 

In your column you also noted that the example of the movies proves that if television is starting to court international audiences heavily, those shows end up looking rather different. Will American audiences notice?

I think sometimes when television companies try to court international audiences and try a little bit too hard, they often make stuff that doesn't resonate either at home or abroad. France just launched "Marseille," and it was presented as a French version of "The Wire." Folks in France hated it because it depicted France as crime-ridden and grubby. And it didn't really catch on with American audiences because we already have our version of "The Wire." So I think that you have to avoid pandering, no matter which audience you are speaking to. And if you pander abroad, you may be seen as pandering at home as well. 

Series: A Nation Engaged

This is NPR and KPCC's coverage of critical issues facing the nation before November's presidential election. The stories seek to build a nationwide conversation around a specific question.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.