Despite popularity abroad, Hollywood hits don’t boost views of US

January 29, 2021

The Avengers don't seem to be assembling any better opinions of the U.S. abroad. (AP Photo/Willy Sanjuan)

Recent Hollywood tentpole releases like Marvel’s “Captain America” films do not improve how favorably people in other countries see the U.S., a new study found, even though such flicks have found an increasingly enthusiastic audience in international markets.

In fact, Hollywood’s growing global audience may have “diluted” production elements typically associated with “American movies,” such as scenes distinctly shot in the U.S., thus making them less effective as unofficial diplomatic tools, suggested Travis Nelson, the author of the paper, published jan. 14 in Globalizations, and an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Nelson’s argument builds on Harvard University scholar Joseph Nye’s conception of “soft power” — a state’s ability to indirectly persuade without using threats or violence — and suggests that its strength could be linked to market forces in countries that consume American media the most.

“There’s been an enormous growth over the last 10 to 15 years in the spread of what can be thought of as the American blockbuster,” Nelson told The Academic Times. “You can take a reading of Nye and say that means that America’s soft power is growing ever more powerful … But the counterintuitive part is that maybe that has some unintended consequences, and it actually weirdly dilutes American power.”

The paper, the first to single out film as an extension of American soft power, contributes to the scholarly debate around the existence of soft power through empirical research and review of existing literature on film’s political influence.

Since soft power theory was coined in 1990, scholars have looked to it to provide a more “nuanced understanding” of America’s dominant diplomatic position in the world, Nelson wrote, though Nye himself did not delve into the particular impact of cinema.

Though film’s potential to move public opinion on policy is intangible and often difficult to measure, film scholars like Carlo Celli have argued that cinema not only reflects one’s own society but has the ability to shape society itself and how it is viewed by outside groups.

In this vein, Nelson hypothesized that the increased export of films made by American studios would increase the overall favorability of the U.S. in the markets where those films perform well financially.

Overseas ticket sales for the highest-grossing films by American studios have ballooned to more than $12.6 billion in 2018, or 64.4% of all box office sales, from $2 billion, or 46.6%, in 1989, Nelson found. At the same time, the number of top 30 Hollywood flicks that earned a majority of their money domestically dropped to just five from 22.

However, a comparison with 2015 Pew survey data on international public opinion found a positive but weak correlation of just 0.106 between global box office sales and general favorability of the U.S., a key measure of soft power’s strength in the University of Southern California’s Soft Power 30 Index.

Critics of soft power have argued that the theory relies on measures that are too general to conclusively imply a relationship between increased soft power and improved outcomes for U.S. foreign policy. 

Additionally, Nelson said that his data may be limited, since individuals who took the Pew survey may not be the same individuals going out to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster at their local cinema.

But through further analysis, Nelson contended that his findings are no death blow to Nye’s idea that states can indirectly appeal to other countries via cultural and ideological appeal. Rather, he said, it could imply that American soft power with respect to film has diminished as other countries gain more economic hard power, which is used to directly coerce or incentivize another state to affect an outcome.

“That conclusion is one of several possible conclusions,” Nelson said, including the possibility that he and Nye are both incorrect about soft power, or that it is too closely tied to how a nation exercises its hard power. 

“But I do think that this illusion of a delusion is correct,” he added. “It feels right among other things, but it’s difficult to find an empirical relationship between the broadening of blockbuster box office and American public opinion.”

In particular, Nelson notes that China’s growing purchasing power has simultaneously embraced new American-made media while incentivizing American producers to tweak their content to more broadly appeal in a culturally different market.

The film market in China, which only accepts a set number of foreign films each year, has undergone rapid expansion, reaching more than $2.1 billion in box office sales of Hollywood films in 2015 from just $65 million a decade earlier.

“China has had such an enormous effect on the film industry because producers want to get into China and to have that marketplace,” Nelson said. “So they’re willing to adjust the content.”

For example, Nelson observed on a trip to China in recent years that movies in the “Avengers” franchise like “Thor: The Dark World,” which was primarily shot in London, were released in the country with additional scenes set in China. And in cases like “Looper,” an action film starring Bruce Willis, certain scenes were entirely reshot in China in a bid to guarantee entry past the country’s quota system.

Nelson said this trend also tracks with Hollywood’s growing preference for action and animated films over comedy and drama, which tend to translate poorly in Asian markets such as China and South Korea.

Films like “Captain America: Civil War,” which counts production companies from over 20 countries in its credits, increasingly tend to have a “globalized” set of fingerprints that muddle the idea that a particular film is “American”-made in an economic sense.

“Some of the traditional American blockbuster movies from 30 years ago just don’t translate in that way … [There are] movies that just flop in the U.S. but then succeed internationally and end up having sequels that you wouldn’t expect,” Nelson said.

Furthermore, Nelson found that the average number of top-grossing Hollywood films that are entirely set in the U.S. fell to 6.2 between the years 2014 and 2018, compared to 20.6 between 1989 and 1993. At the same time, the average number of blockbusters that are not set in the U.S. at all grew to 13.6 from just three.

“A strong majority of [Hollywood blockbusters] used to be set partially or all in the U.S. and now, very, very few are,” Nelson said. “I was expecting there to be some trend, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this much, [similar to] the extent to which comedy has just fallen almost entirely out of the top blockbuster movies.”

It's also unclear whether the advent of video streaming services like Netflix helps to mitigate the diminished soft power effect of globalized media production, given that such services tend to offer more culturally unique content. Nelson said this may be the angle for his next research project."

“I think in the streaming world, you can identify some very ‘American’ kind of productions or very ‘Korean’ kind of productions,” he said. “You get more of that individuality, but it feels like that’s been stripped away and kind of lost in some of the blockbusters.”

The paper, “Captain America? On the relationship between Hollywood blockbusters and American soft power,” was published online on Jan. 14 in Globalizations. It was authored by Travis Nelson, an associate professor of political science and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

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