Outsmarting Japan

Ben Wattenberg

December 05, 1990|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON — Washington.

VISUALIZE a corporate outrage:

An American corporation announces that it will pay $7 billion of green American money to Japanese shareholders, to buy a Japanese company, at inflated share prices. The American company will invest additional billions, in Japan, to pay high sums to Japanese citizens, to write, direct, produce and act in Japanese movies. Those Japanese movies, in turn, will be exhibited globally, to the greater glory of Japan.

That is a good deal for the Japanese. Their shareholders get big bucks, their creator-bees and worker-bees get big fees and good wages. Their well-financed movies would make the world think about Japan.

Many Americans would say it's an outrage. Unions would demand that the American company invest in America, creating American jobs. Liberal economistic historians would declaim that America was in decline. Movie-makers would go ballistic, decrying corporate treachery.

Of course, it didn't happen that way. It was the other way around. A Japanese company (Matsushita) bought an American company (MCA, which owns Universal Studios, from whence came ''E.T.'' and ''Jaws'').

But there is no applause for what seems to be a daring Yankee heist. We hear reverse-outrage. It's outrageous, we are told, because those Japanese will dilute the nature of American movies. Those Japanese, we are told, are only interested in tawdry, bottom-line, blockbuster, internationally oriented, Schwarzeneggeraian, Rambonian films. That means that indigenous American cinematic artists, so subtle and poignant, will suffer, the little dears.

Further, it is said, Hollywood will fear to make movies critical of Japan.

Ho ho. Who invented Rambo? Was it Tokyo -- or Hollywood?

Japan-bashing movies? Hardly a major genre, even before the Japanese started paying billions to be allowed to bid for &L American talent.

(More important: Will a Japanese-owned studio allow its American subsidiary to make America-bashing movies, of the sort Hollywood produces reflexively? Universal did ''Born on the Fourth of July.'' Might Japanese owners be afraid of such an anti-establishment movie? Might Yahoos in Congress retaliate against their manufactured exports?)

To get the picture, look at the picture business. There are two kinds of movies: those that have already been made, and those that will be made in the future. Consider each in light of the M&M deal:

Movies already made can't be changed. So the Japanese will be spending lots to further promote the sales of American popular culture around the world. (Like Universal's nice multiseries ''Back to the Future.'') Thanks, Japanese.

What of movies yet to be made? Will Japanese owners, perhaps subtly, perhaps unwittingly, gnaw away at the nature of the American product? Doubtful.

What is Matsushita buying? Unlike machine tools, or cars, it's a product they can't make themselves -- American movies. Those are the only kind the world is interested in seeing (90 percent of the movie tickets sold in Italy are for American-made movies.) Would crowds flock to see a Japanese Rambo? Or Schwarzenegger-san? Would Japanese spend billions to buy a company in order to destroy its value? Doubtful.

But could they do it unwittingly, or purposefully, even if foolishly?

The most important role the big Hollywood studios play are as banks and distributors to a large, diverse and fractionated film industry. The studios no longer typically ''own'' the stars, writers and directors. Those folks are ''independents,'' shrewdly advised by piranhas called ''agents.''

If Robert Redford wants to make a movie critical of Japan, and MCA-Universal doesn't want to play, Redford's agent goes down the street to Warner, Disney or Paramount (American-owned), MGM-Pathe (Italian-owned), or 20th Century Fox (owned by a former Australian, now a raving American nationalist, Rupert Murdoch.)

There is a word for the process: M-A-R-K-E-T, as in what Hollywood alumnus Ronald Reagan likes to call ''the magic of the market.''

Of course, the dominant political culture in Hollywood often snickers at Reaganisms, but in real life and real time, the American entertainment industry, perhaps our most important industry, is a fine (not perfect) example of a healthy capitalist market.

That's one reason it will survive this non-outrage. And flourish.

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