Maastricht, NAFTA, GATT…. As the complex struggle over the globalization of the capitalist market proceeds, the debate surrounding it gets more tortuous and the linguistic hypocrisy defies even Orwell’s imagination. Freedom to work means the right to be exploited, and internationalism is identified with the movement of capital in search of profit and universality with the reign of merchandise throughout the world. The result is not so much strange alliances (these would have happened in any case because of the multiplicity of the interests involved) as a dangerous confusion. Thus, resistance against the expansion of big business may well be taken for narrow nationalism. The only remedy for this is to put each action in its context and explain its motive and the vision of society by which it is inspired. But doing this is not always easy.
How difficult it is to clarify matters is illustrated by a fierce fight during the recent GATT negotiations, a struggle over money that is insignificant in its immediate effects yet may be crucial in the long run, as it will shape our dreams, our thoughts and, therefore, our acts. The battle is over Europe’s insistence that it continue subjecting American movies and audiovisual materials to quotas and other restrictions–the so-called “cultural exception.” In the European, and particularly the French, press the issue was portrayed as being largely a fight by greedy Hollywood producers for a heftier share of foreign film revenues. This clashed with the US. version, which was that hypocritical, elitist Euros are protecting a dying industry from more popular US. products. But behind such silly contradictions there is a serious question. To put it succinctly: Should culture be treated like any other commodity?
Imperialist! Protectionist! Joan of Arc! The right of people freely to choose! When such high-sounding words are tossed around–often to conceal less exalted interests–one is tempted to paraphrase: “When they hear the word culture they reach for their checkbook.” In fact, a great deal of money is involved. What is at stake is the removal of obstacles hindering the export offensive of the mighty American film industry. Not that Western Europe is now a Zhdanovian fortress tightly protected against the wicked products of Hollywood. Last year, U.S. audiovisual exports to the European Community (with films, TV and videotapes accounting for about one-third each) amounted to roughly $4 billion. They have much more than ‘doubled in the past ten years and dwarf shipments in the opposite direction, estimated at around $250 million.
The dominant position of the U.S. media industry is even more striking if one looks only at the subject of greatest controversy, the cinema. Out of the total film revenue earned within the E.C., nearly three-quarters now goes to American companies, the proportion ranging from about 60 percent in France to 90 percent in Britain. Last fall, as Federico Fellini’s coffin was lying in state in a Cinecittà studio, people were really mourning the virtual death of the Italian cinema. They could have extended their rites to Western Europe’s film industry as a whole. France, with its 150 or so movies a year, provides the only quantitative exception, The French, not surprisingly, were also the main inspirers of the campaign to keep film and television out of GATT negotiations, a crusade fought with great passion by European directors, actors, writers and technicians.
Which obstacles do the Americans want removed? Essentially two: film subsidies and quotas for television. For the first, let us take the French example. France has a National Center of Cinematography, which levies a tax on cinema tickets (11 percent), TV revenue (5.5 percent) and videotapes (2 percent). From this it raises nearly $80 million a year, which it plows back into the trade, notably through credits to filmmakers as an advance on their future earnings. About a third of French films get such credits, which provide for a substantial portion of their budgets; without such aid many quality films would not be made. The French say the levy is an internal matter of the profession. The Americans retort that it is state sponsored and that, though foreign films are taxed, only the French ones get credits.