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The Problem of the Media: An Interview with Robert McChesney



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Look at US film consumption in the last 40 years. How old are you, Brian?

BKM: I am 33.

RM: So you're a young guy.

BKM: Indeed.

RM: I'm 51. When I went to college 30-some years ago, by the mid-1970s say, over 10 percent of the movies shown in American movie theaters were foreign-language films. Over 10 percent. I lived in Seattle, Washington, and we had 10, 12, 15 theaters that showed foreign-language films.

BKM: Wow.

RM: Manhattan had 25 theaters that showed nothing but foreign language films in 1975. Twenty-five theaters. That was standard in this country. And college kids in the 1970s, probably half the films we went to were foreign-language films. We knew French actors, Norwegian directors, German actresses, as well as we did Hollywood figures. By the late 1980s, foreign-language films went down to three percent or so of screen time. Nowadays, if you discount Aramaic, it's down to maybe one-half of one percent of screen time. What that would suggest is that sometime starting in the mid-1970s, American people stood up, en masse, smashed their fists on the table, and said, "Get those foreign-language films out of our theaters! We don't want them! Get those foreign films outta here!" That's the only way you could explain it. Right?

BKM: Based on the demand-driven consumption theory, yes.

RM: But that isn't what happened. What happened was in fact supply-driven, not demand-driven. With the rise of the multiplex theater in the late seventies, you had seven or ten screens operating with one projectionist, one ticket-taker, one popcorn-maker, and it basically drove the single-screen theaters out of business in a very short period of time. And then, when foreign film producers came to the United States, they had to go through a whole new network of distribution. They tended to end up talking to some big chain company that owned a bunch of megaplexes and found out that if they wanted to get their French or German film aired in the United States, they had to work out a deal with some megaplex to get on a hundred screens. And to get screen space they had to pay for a huge television advertising campaign three days before the film premiered to generate enough ticket sales to justify giving up the screen space. Some foreign filmmakers continued to do that, but over time increasingly they dropped out because the costs were too high, and by the 1990s, the market had dried up for foreign-language films as well.

I had students in my class at the University of Wisconsin in 1990 and one said to me innocently - we were talking about films and the film industry - "You mean they make movies in France?" There's no notion that films are even made outside the United States, so this guy would never think of going to a foreign film. He has no demand for it because he's never been exposed to it. When he goes into a video store he probably whips right by the foreign-language section to the extent that they even have a foreign-language section anymore in video stores -

BKM: You don't actually pass the foreign-language section in the video store - it's buried in the back of the store next to the adult section.

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