Foreign Films in America

By Erhardt, Erwin F., III | Film & History, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Foreign Films in America

Erhardt, Erwin F., III, Film & History

Kerry Segrave. Foreign Films in America. McFarland, 2004. 253 pages; $38.50.

Decline in Mortality

Prior to World War I, more foreign films were seen on the American movie screen than anything produced domestically. Following the Great War, the tide was reversed. As Kerry Segrave informs the reader, "The struggle for foreign film producers to increase their screen presence in the United States has been ongoing for close to a century." (1) So what led to such a dire reversal of fortunes? To answer this question, Segrave examines a variety of means Hollywood utilized to keep foreign competition out and maintain control over its own oligopolistic cartel. The book also examines the various ways foreign film producers tried to overcome these barriers, only to find themselves in the same situation some ninety years later.

During the pre-World War I years, foreign films dominated screen time in America. Indeed by 1907, two-thirds of all screenplays being show in American Houses were European. Companies like Lumière and Pathé Frères led the way in the export of films to America. It was at this time that American motion picture and media interests such as Edison and Biograph began experimenting with ways to gain control over the domestic market. As Segrave notes, a number of attempted cartels rose and fell during the early years. By 1922, a strong cartel finally emerged-The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA)-which still exerts strong control over the industry yet today.

By the time the MPPDA had formed, foreign film imports had already decreased significantly. Like so many European industries that had to rebuild after the devastation of World War I, the film industry was no exception. It was during this immediate post-war era, that Hollywood quickly moved to expand production and devise ways to exclude the foreign product from American shores.

One mode of attack against foreign films after 1918 was to charge them with being immoral. Movie reviews of the time, which helped foster public perception, led to charges that foreign films were responsible for the decline in morality in motion pictures. According to the author, "such claims fell disproportionately on foreign films, even to the extent of blaming them for the existence of the entire situation" (18). To be sure, Segrave insists that a disproportionate level of criticism was placed at the doorstep of overseas films.

With the establishment of the MPPDA and the emergence of American film in the domestic market, the industry became determined that foreign pictures must never have any significant presence in the American cinema. Ironically by 1927, the prewar "flow of films" from Europe to America, had been almost completely reversed. In that year, just 5% of the movies shown in France were native productions, 80% were American. Britain also found itself heavily involved in the screening of American films in that country. When nations such as the U.K began passing film quota laws, U.S. producers would buy foreign features to satisfy the laws of the other nation-but with no intent of ever screening them in America.

The European film producers soon began to complain about the poor distribution and showing of their films. Hollywood responded to the issue by charging that imports were of poor quality and would not attract American audiences. Segrave admits that it was true that American audiences did not attend these films, but it was more due to the fact that the public "rarely had the option of going or not going to foreign films since they were almost never an offer" (47). These trends continued into World War II, when the exhibition of foreign film would suffer an even further setback.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was a rapid resurgence in European filmmaking after the Second World War. The British led the way. In Chapter 4, "A Rank Attack, 1946-1949" Segrave focuses on J. Arthur Rank and his attempt to penetrate the American market. …

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