The Global Appeal of Blockbusters

Movie poster courtesy of comicbookmovie.com

Movie poster courtesy of comicbookmovie.com

This past weekend, Avengers: Age of Ultron had its much-anticipated North American opening. Box office experts predicted that Age of Ultron, the sequel to the wildly popular Avengers release in 2012, would exceed the $207 million that its predecessor made in its opening weekend. With the results in, it is official: it didn’t break the record, but the studio shouldn’t be too worried. Age of Ultron almost earned its entire budget back before its US release with countries around the world screening the film a week in advance.

Age of Ultron’s domestic opening weekend brought in an estimated $191 million, a full sixteen million under its first entry, and thirty million under the prediction. This comes as a surprise because the first sequel to a large franchise almost always surpasses the first in terms of opening weekends. To put things in perspective, Transformers 2 improved on Transformers by $40 million, Catching Fire made $6 million more than Hunger Games, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest brought in a whopping $90 million more than the first in the series.

Picture courtesy of destructoid.com

Picture courtesy of destructoid.com

There’s no mystery to why sequels make more money. Audiences are familiar with the characters and the story, and are eager to see what happens next with characters that they are already invested in. Studio executives take full advantage of marketing campaigns so that the next entry can appear to be bigger and better. This strategy was in full swing for Age of Ultron, but even with its massive opening, it failed to meet the original’s $200 million-plus number.

While the North American box office may be plateauing, the rest of the world is certainly not taking a break. As of right now, 70% of ticket sales for Ultron have come from outside of the US. Global audiences have taken quite the liking to US blockbusters; last year’s Transformers made only $245 million overall in the US, but passed $1 billion thanks to international markets. The strength of these numbers indicates a trend in modern film production: moviegoers around the globe are willing to sacrifice well written characters and dialogue for explosive, high octane action sequences with little thought involved. Movies like Transformers play especially well for those who don’t speak English as a first language. With less complicated story and dialogue to follow, audiences can simply enjoy the movie without missing important plot points or misunderstanding dialogue.

This brings up a much talked about concern over the current state of the film industry. This summer’s movie line up consists of a large number of sequels and spinoffs, which forces one to ask: Is our film industry running out of creativity? Is it more business-savvy to cater to international crowds at the expense of quality storytelling?

Avengers: Age of Ultron is almost guaranteed to gross over $1 billion overseas (it already has $400 million in foreign receipts), and Avengers: Infinity War (Part 1 and 2) is scheduled for release in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Oscar’s Pen Pal: The Foreign Language Category

The Oscar Statuette. Photo from thehollywoodreporter.com

The Oscar Statuette. Photo from thehollywoodreporter.com

The Academy Awards telecast is the biggest celebration of film in the United States, watched by millions of viewers every year. They celebrate the highest achievements in film of the year, but also shed light on little-seen productions that deserve wider recognition.

This year’s Best Picture race saw an interesting correlation between critical acclaim and box office returns. American Sniper grossed the total of every other nominee combined, raking in more than $300 million in domestic receipts. The Best Picture winner, Birdman, made about $26 million in thirteen weeks of release before being nominated for Best Picture. The film was screened in over 1,000 theaters for just one week: the week after the Oscars (American Sniper opened on over 3,500 screens).

Poster for Birdman. Photo from rogerebert.com

Poster for Birdman. Photo from rogerebert.com

Some of the movies with the smallest initial reach are the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. The inclusion of this category gives exposure to foreign films that an American audience would have trouble accessing otherwise. In this year’s race, there were nominees from Poland, Russia, Estonia, Argentina, and Mauritania.

Poland’s submission, Ida, was the winner of this year’s race, and Ida also happens to be the single film in the category that I saw. It follows the story of Anna, a Jewish girl brought up in a Polish convent in the 1960s who explores life outside of the convent with her only living relative, her aunt. It’s a story of innocence and discovery that is balanced with the historical and political pressure of growing up in a post-Nazi era.

Poster for Ida. Photo from  screeningnotes.com

Poster for Ida. Photo from screeningnotes.com

Ida’s themes are also reflected in some of its production aspects. The film makes use of unconventional framing techniques to displace the focus of the scene and distance the viewer from the characters. This decision to move the camera and display more negative space reflects the thought that there is always background information that may go unseen, but definitely plays a role in the situation.

Another unique aspect of the production is that the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, had a very hard time finding an actress for the lead role. He decided to have his assistants observe people and look for someone that fit the part, and Agata Trzebuchowska, a student with no acting experience, was spotted in a café and won the part. The inexperience of the young actress, paired with very effective directing, lends to the early naivety of the lead character that is essential for her character development.

Despite some arguably restrictive regulations (countries are allowed to submit one entry to the academy. This means that one movie becomes the representative of each country), the foreign language category provides an outlet in which films like Ida can find their way to an international audience. It remains a small, but accessible portion of the academy exposure; Ida has grossed almost four million in domestic box office, but it is now available through streaming services.

English-ifying the World

english

Group post by Carolin Lehmann, Angie Pi, Connie Liou, Sara Bechtold, and Sam Roth

Communication is one of the most fundamental tools of human existence, and stretching back to the days of Babel, humanity has struggled to fully understand the ideas and intentions of the fellow man. In today’s globalized community, many are experiencing heavy Western influences, particularly the spread of the English language throughout the world. Along with more people learning the language, English words are finding their way into foreign languages. Among those under this “English-ification”, countries in Europe and Asia have expressed strong reactions to the spread of the language.

English is sneaking into the German language, and the criticism is hard to ignore. Many Germans are set on protecting their language, and are not impressed by English words like “cool” being thrown into the mix. New “German” words are even being made up, based off English words. For example, the English word “austerity” has been turned into “austerität” – a completely made up word. The correct German term would be “haushaltskonsolidierung.” To take the issue even farther, Germans like Matthias Nöllke find these English words being said in an American accent even more horrendous. According to Nöllke, Germans who throw an English word with a strong American accent into a sentence want to sound worldly, but really just sound pretentious and laughable. German words are notoriously long, but that may soon be a thing of the past. Words are becoming faster, shorter and more English. “Kontaktieren” has turned into “kontakten.” The infusion of the English language may be thanks to America’s presence in Germany after World War II as well as the popularity of Hollywood worldwide. The American’s role in the creation of the new German government may be one cause of the resentment. The German youth want to sound like their favorite American celebrities, but the older set are still bitter. Apart from this bitterness, many place value on protecting the many different languages found around the world.

English is not the only language sneaking into the German language. In recent years, Western Europe has seen large increases in their immigrant populations, which also plays a factor in changes in the standard language. Many immigrants come from Turkey, Russia, former Soviet Bloc and Arab nations. Immigrants’ native languages play just as big a role in influencing modern German as English by mainly simplifying German grammar. It is not uncommon to also see words from an immigrant’s native language sprinkled in German too, but English words find their way into other native languages as well.

There is huge controversy and discrimination towards immigrants in Germany and other dominant Western European nations. For a long time European nations have always been pretty homogeneous: in Germany they speak German and in France they speak French. German speaking people feel that German has adopted so much English that they feel like they must also learn English to understand what’s happening in the media, advertising, economics and politics. European natives feel, with globalization and multinationalism on the rise, that the uniqueness of their nation is at risk.

The English language did not sneak into the Japanese language. It was invited inside for a drink or four and asked to stay. The Japanese language is no stranger to loanwords, or words that are borrowed from other languages. Japanese can be broken down into three categories: wago (words native to Japan), kango (words native to China), and gairaigo (words native to all other foreign countries. Although gairaigo are originated from many countries such as France and Germany, the Japanese foreign loanwords dictionary is completely dominated by English.
Prior to World War II, Japan lived in isolation. Following the war, Japan opened itself up to trade in the West and became occupied by Americans for the next seven years. Upon doing so, Japan took this as an opportunity to modernize their country, with the United States as one of their models. This sparked Japan’s love of American culture as well as a heavy influence on the Japanese language. Because of Japan’s isolation, they did not have the modern terminology simply because they did not know such things existed. The country adopted English words for compensation.

Since then, the list has spread not only to words out of compensation but words that were already wago. For example, words like “milk” has both the Japanese word gyuunyuu (牛乳) as well as the loanword miruku. The language has also evolved to include tons of loanwords that translate into something completely different from their English origins. For example, the Japanese word for “air conditioner” is kuuraa or “cooler.” This makes translation and understanding of certain words much more confusing, but it also shows that the Japanese language’s influence spread farther than necessity for the word. Some believe that because speaking English was associated with a certain prestige in Japan, using English loanword terminology brought on that same effect. Others may believe that using the loanwords for humor or to lighten the mood of certain subjects.

Although history has shown us that the Japanese very willingly adapted English into their language, today there are more people coming out to criticize the increase of English loanwords for being too overwhelming or for generating confusion. The complaints have gone from blogger digs at the usage of loanwords up to a man suing NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, for distress due to the large usage of English loanwords in their program and thus making Japan more Americanized.

A modern Japan, illustrating American influence (http://dexomega.kinja.com/cultural-diffusion-between-the-united-states-and-japan-1484640071)

A modern Japan, illustrating American influence (http://dexomega.kinja.com/cultural-diffusion-between-the-united-states-and-japan-1484640071)

Similar to Japan, South Korea also uses loanwords. They say “ai syopping”, or 아이 쇼핑, to say “eye shopping” which refers to window shopping. A popular term used by South Koreans that some non-Koreans may recognize is “paiting” or “hwaiting”, a loanword from “fighting”, which is a term South Koreans use to encourage someone as they’re going through a difficult trial. For example, that would be our way of saying, “You got this!” or “Go get ‘em!”

Not only are South Koreans using loanwords, a great number of them are learning English. On the English proficiency index, South Korea is categorized under moderate proficiency, ranked number twenty-four amongst non-English speaking countries, and number three amongst Asian countries. To put it into perspective, China is categorized under low proficiency, ranked number thirty-seven amongst non-English speaking countries, and number eleven amongst Asian countries. What this shows is that South Korea’s English proficiency is much greater than most of its neighboring countries and even those with greater economies and globalization.

So how did South Korea get to this level of English proficiency? It can be attributed to South Korea’s obsession with the attainment of education. This goes back centuries and has ties to Confucian attitudes about education. South Koreans believe that education is a means to status and power and is the most powerful way to achieve upward social mobility and economic prosperity. Being educated in the English language gives Koreans a more advanced education which they believe will have benefits later down the road, so Korean parents are emphasizing, even imposing, English education for their children.

There are people in South Korea who oppose such an emphasis on English. Those who are against it fear that Korea will lose its culture and national identity, especially with the rapidly growing, global economy of South Korea. Discussion about the use of English in Korea is tricky and surrounded by conflict and debate, but in the end, few would argue against its necessity for South Korea’s rapidly expanding economy.

What do you think? Is the English-ification of many countries an acceptance of a global community and cooperative environment, or is it a detriment to the preservation of culture and identity? Comment below.

Truth on Film: Columbia’s True/False Festival

March 5-8, 2015. Photo from truefalse.org

March 5-8, 2015. Logo from truefalse.org

The True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri is a documentary festival that is respected and celebrated for numerous justifiable reasons. Taking place this year from March 5-8, Filmmakers and critics praise the festival for its effective programming and advertising, audiences love the vibrant atmosphere, and the city benefits immensely from the influx in business. Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of calling Columbia home for the last four years, granting me access to one of the world’s most unique film festivals. However, there might be one aspect of the festival that trumps the visible, local flourish. Films at True/False bring attention to current global issues that might otherwise be accessible only through the lens of the media. True/False prides itself on its documentary programming, streamlining urgent topics that demand a reaction.

One such film in this year’s roster is Maidan, a film by Sergei Loznitsa. The film documents aggressive protests that took place from 2013-2014 in and around Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kiev, Ukraine. The film utilizes participatory journalism techniques in order to place the viewer among the front lines of revolution, forcing anyone who sees it to come out talking about the situation in Eastern Europe.

A film that counteracts this urgency is the patient unfolding of a Russian girl’s life in Hanna Polak’s Something Better to Come (Yula’s Dream). This documentary employs the revolutionary concept of extreme production lengths, documenting the life of a girl from age 10 to 24. The film explores adolescence and coming-of-age on the outskirts of urban Russia, a bit outside the reach of the ever-present government.

Moderated conversations with featured filmmakers are another intriguing draw of the festival. One such conversation is titled “Living Rough”, which explores the moral ambiguity of filming and gathering information in dangerous situations or locations. The director of Something Better to Come, Hanna Polak, is one of the featured guests in this discussion.

True/False is quickly becoming a routine stop on the film festival circuit, and its popularity justly matches its acclaim. The documentary emphasis places True/False in a special category of film festivals; the crowd in attendance includes enthusiastic filmmakers and cinephiles that seek truth through real-world subjects. This mutual appreciation for intimate portraits and forward thinking brings festival goers together as a unique, progressive community.

Videos courtesy of youtube.com