Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934
by Kristin Thompson, British Film Institute, 1985.
238 pages. Illustrations.
the full PDF]
Preface to the Online Edition
I suspect that most people familiar with my publications—textbooks,
blog entries, historical studies of film style, books of close analysis—are
unaware of the existence of Exporting Entertainment: America in the World
Film Market 1907–1934 . It was published in 1985 by the British Film
Institute. That should have meant that it would be released in the U.S., but
the BFI was then in the process of changing American distributors. As far as
I know, the book slipped through the cracks and never was released in the States,
and it went out of print very quickly in Great Britain. As a result, few copies
were sold, and it quickly achieved the dubious status of a rare book.
Many may be
puzzled as to why someone who specializes in close analysis and the history of
film style wrote Exporting Entertainment. It’s full of statistics
and other sorts of facts and figures, mostly on distribution—not exactly
a specialty of mine. My aim was to explore two questions. First, it has long
been accepted wisdom that American films became dominant on international markets
and have remained so ever since, apart from the occasional country cut off from
foreign films by war or ideological bans. But exactly how and when did American
films achieve that domination?
question related to my interest in what I call the commercial avant-garde movements
of the silent era after World War I: German Expressionism, French Impressionism,
and Soviet Montage. To some extent each style was a reaction against the filmmaking
norms of the day, which one could argue came mainly from Hollywood. In The
Classical Hollywood Cinema, also published in 1985 (Routledge & Kegan
Paul in the U.K., Columbia University Press in the U.S.A.) David Bordwell, Janet
Staiger, and I had tried to establish what those norms were and when they developed.
For my purposes, Exporting Entertainment was a logical follow-up. I
thought that it would help me determine whether filmmakers in Germany, France,
and the Soviet Union had access to a lot of American films by the time those
I set out to determine the basic facts about how far those
films had penetrated specific markets at different points during the silent period.
I extended the period of coverage into the early 1930s, partly because the Montage
movement arguably lasted until 1933 and partly because I wanted to examine how
Hollywood managed to maintain its domination through the economic buffeting of
the Depression. Originally I planned to write only a chapter introducing a study
of the European avant-gardes of the 1920s.
these topics, however, I discovered that the U.S. government had kept extensive
records of imports and exports of film footage, broken down by exposed negatives
and finished positives. During the 1920s, the government also began cooperating
closely with the domestic filmmaking industry to support American exports. As
a result, additional publications reporting on local conditions in many markets
were regularly published. This material, added to industry trade papers both
in the U.S. and abroad, proved a goldmine of information. Since I had to search
through these sources anyway, I decided to make the study worldwide and publish
it as a monograph.
of such evidence was that I was able to establish the point at which American
films tipped over into domination as March 1916. What caused this change. For
one thing, Hollywood companies moved away from selling their films to distributors
abroad and began opening their own offices abroad. In addition, wartime circumstances
led not only to a reduction in production by a few major prewar suppliers, France,
Italy, and Denmark, but also to import-export restrictions that ended London’s
role as a redistribution hub for American films abroad.
A more intriguing
discovery was a concerted effort by European producing nations to form a coalition
aimed at reducing American imports to the continent. The U.S. had a tremendous
advantage in the size of its domestic film market, the largest in the world.
Hollywood films could make back their expenses solely within that market, be
sold at reduced prices abroad, and still make a considerable profit through exporting.
Taken as a bloc, however, the total European market was about the same size.
European producing nations realized that if they could unite, they could perhaps
reduce the dominance of American films there and perhaps around the world.
retrospect the attempt may seem a bit quixotic, but Hollywood’s domination
was still young, and it seemed as if it might be a temporary circumstance resulting
from wartime conditions. From the mid-1920s, major producers in Germany, France,
Britain, and smaller filmmaking nations sought through co-production agreements
and governmental support, to build a unified front, sometimes referred to as “Film
effort was beginning to be effective within a few years, and Hollywood’s
hold in some countries, most notably in Germany, slipped distinctly.
of cooperation was short-lived, however, since the combination of severe depression
and the coming of sound led to more insularity. Economic woes led to every-country-for-itself
policies, and talkies seemed to offer the promise that non-English-speaking countries
could gain protection through language barriers. The Film Europe movement ended.
Once again, the giant American home market, plus the successful introduction
of subtitling and dubbing, allowed Hollywood to survive the crises and flourish
internationally. Since then, governments in individual countries have instituted
quota systems, as with the current strict limitations on the distribution of
American films in China. Many governments have subsidized filmmaking, with the
current French cinema being as strong as it is due in large part to underwriting
through a tax on admissions.
difficult to get hold of, Exporting Entertainment has had some impact
on the field. Ruth Vasey’s award-winning The World According to Hollywood:
1918–1939 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) was, she has told
me, directly inspired by my work. The subject inspired an anthology on the period, Film Europe and
Film America: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–39,
edited by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby (University of Exeter Press, 1999),
which included an essay by me, “The Rise and Fall of Film Europe,” incorporating
material from Exporting. Every now and then someone
undertaking an historical study of American film’s dominance in a specific
country asks me for advice, having been inspired by Exporting Entertainment to
launch their own projects.
of such a specialized book seems unlikely to happen, so I am taking the obvious
course in the internet age and making it available online.
I have not
revised the book at all. The pdf file reproduced here are taken from the original
book. Indeed, the inscription included here pinpoints exactly which copy it originated
from. Many thanks are due to Vito Adriaensens, who scanned the book for his own
research and kindly provided me with a copy of the result.
On the whole
I think the book’s contents remain reasonably accurate twenty-five years
after its publication. Nearly all the sources used were intended for governmental
or film-industry use, and hence there was no puffery aimed at selling films to
I have only
one caveat to add. Accurate information on American films’ circulation
in the U.S.S.R. after 1917 is impossible to obtain on a level that would allow
statistical generalizations of the type given for other countries and areas.
I was too quick to make such generalizations as if they were firmly supported
by the little evidence available. That section of the book should be viewed as
more speculative than I made it seem.
was part of a larger movement toward continental unification that had a brief
currency in the 1920s: the European Idea. Recent decades have witnessed a revival
of that idea and its implementation in the form of the European Community. The
cooperative circulation of all the member countries’ films within a new
continent-wide market is one of the many hopes inspired by that new regional
body. So far the effort has caused only a small increase in the ability of films
to travel widely beyond the borders of their countries of origin. In some ways
the increasing production of multi-national co-productions seems to have benefited
the smaller countries in Latin American and Southeast Asia more than those within
Overall, however, so far the most successful strategy for
creating international hits outside the U.S. is to make them in English. At the
same time, American companies are increasingly investing in foreign-language
productions abroad, often supporting and profiting from films that never show
in the U.S. This tactic makes it difficult to assess just how successful local
films in, say, Mexico really are in capturing larger portions of their own markets;
a significant cut of the income may be flowing back to Hollywood.
for healthy national cinemas abroad reflect shifting approaches to a struggle
that arose nearly a century ago. I hope that fact might make Exporting Entertainment even
more relevant than when it first appeared. I also hope that the book’s
new accessibility will save researchers time and effort and that it will inspire
some to delve into the general topic and explore more specific areas within it.