Market Success: 'Terminating' the Competition


Washington. -- Today's lesson in economics, culture, foreign policy -- and the future of personkind! -- comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger and the astonishing science-fiction movie "Terminator 2."

Consider: Pop culture is America's biggest export earner. Movies are the largest part of pop culture exports. Ahhnold is the world's grandest movie star. Should Arnold be secretary of Commerce?

And beyond trade: Culture yields national influence. Influence yields power. A global culture is forming. It is dominated by America. Should Arnold be secretary of State?

The plot: Arnold Schwarzenegger is a charmingly violent cyborg who tries to protect a California boy from termination by another cyborg. (A cyborg is a robot that looks human.) If Arnold succeeds in protecting the boy, 3 billion people will be saved from nuclear war in 1997.

"Terminator 2," already filling theaters here, will soon roll out worldwide. Expect boffo foreign box office: American movies are already near-dominant in most foreign places. In Europe, American films provide 80 percent of the movie receipts.

Why are American movies so popular?

European producers say they can't compete economically because the American domestic audience is so large it allows producers to earn back big costs in familiar local markets. American movies (or television series) which earn out costs at home can be offered cheaply overseas. But European producers can't recoup big investments in their small home markets.

Moreover, Americans run the distribution organizations, do global publicity best, are technical virtuosos (the special effects in "Terminator 2" are incredible) and, perhaps most important, make movies in English, the near-universal audience language.

All true; but there is more. European producers say, "Ah, Americans know how to tell a story!" (Huh? Shakespeare couldn't tell a story? Dickens? Dumas? Verdi couldn't do musicals?)

Many French producers admit that French movies are, uh, boring. (It takes an hour, they say, for a French peasant to explain the anguish in his soul.) French movies, they say, typically tell about something French.

That's not the American way. Take "Terminator 2." Without pushing it all too far, it is universal (even galactic). If the cyborgs came to France, the movie could be about cyborgs eating escargot, but it couldn't be about saving the whole darn world. The place to save the world is California.

Hollywood also sometimes feeds global fear of American power. Only America threatens the world, according to loonie-leftievision. Thus, in "Terminator 2," a Star Wars-type system called "Skynet" goes berserk and starts a nuclear war. (Unlikely; the Srategic Defense Initiative only intercepts if the United States is attacked.) France doesn't have SDI; nor could a sanctimonious feminist (Linda Hamilton) trash French males for inventing nuclear weapons. (But Linda, suppose the Nazis or Soviets got nukes first?)

More reasons for global appeal: Arnold Schwarzenegger is an immigrant. The American movie industry was started by immigrants. "Terminator 2" is about an alien adapting to a new culture. The oft-intoned free-will theme of the movie ("There is no fate but what we make for ourselves") is America's most appealing aspect. Science fiction, an American-dominated field, has become a mythic setting (another one, some Europeans say, is the American Western).

And, simply, people everywhere are intrigued by America. (If "Dallas" was called "Stuttgart," would a global audience have tuned in?)

There are lessons. Another European with the initials "A.S." explained some of it. Adam Smith said that nations do best when exporting goods they can produce at a "comparative advantage."

America has remarkable advantages. Size is one; "the economy of scale" is still relevant. It helps movie-makers and other manufacturers with new products. The global spread of English gives us a leg up. Multiculturalism is an advantage. America itself yields comparative advantage: Because people are entranced with America, American consumer brand names move products. We shouldn't be spooked that we can't compete.

America's most unique product is influence. We shape the world, and profit from it.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist.

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