As Hollywood's behemoth hit "Titanic" continues its worldwide conquest, the industry that produced it is running into its own iceberg: an increasingly organized resistance to all American culture.
Exactly how deep the sentiments run remains to be seen, but the tip of this berg was evident in a first-time Canadian-sponsored meeting earlier this summer. The two-day International Meeting on Cultural Policy drew 19 culture ministers and observers from around the world. The main focus: promoting indigenous culture. But how to limit the worldwide reach and impact of US culture (especially film and TV) was the undeniable undercurrent.
The meeting wrapped up with few actions beyond an agreement to cooperate more in international broadcasting and to create Web sites for more cross-cultural dialogue. More dates were set for Mexico in 1999 and in Greece a year later. Canada ruffled US feathers by not inviting its neighbor to attend, and only after US diplomats complained were two observers invited.
Response from within Hollywood has been mixed. The industry's international trade organization, the Motion Picture Association (MPA), says this is a trade, not a cultural dispute, best regulated by market forces, not governments.
The MPA's William Baker, who addressed a group of Asian lawyers on this topic last week, says the toughest issue is to encourage governments that wish to promote culture to pay attention to commercial realities. "Attempts to promote culture while ignoring the demands of the market are doomed to fail," he adds.
He points to Korea, which has the most restrictive quota of any country that imports US entertainment: 40 percent of its country's screen time is reserved for Korean-made films - 146 days are set aside to officially protect Korean culture.
Baker says this is counterproductive. Instead of encouraging local culture, he explains, the safety net is so high that it actually chokes local investment. Many of Korean theaters go empty for lack of product.
Reaction from the creative community, not surprisingly, has been more sympathetic.
Producer Mark Johnson, who was responsible for the American film version of the classic British children's novel "A Little Princess," empathizes with both sides of the issue. He says he has felt the heavy hand of an American-centric culture himself, while making that film.
"The first thing Warner Bros. said to us was, 'We've got to have an American heroine. And it has to take place in America,' " he groans, adding that "America is the most provincial nation in the world," unable to appreciate anything that doesn't look familiar.
He likens the various countries' efforts to those of a watchful parent, who has a responsibility to police what children watch. "If I thought everything we produced were so much better than what anyone made, I'd say 'Let the best man win,' but that's not the case," he observes. It's simply the size and predominance of American technology and business that powers much of its intrusion into other cultures, he adds, not necessarily the quality.
To which CBS Television president Leslie Moonves barks, "That's patently absurd. I don't think these countries' ministers even watch our shows," adding that this is nothing short of America-bashing.
Fred Silverman is an industry veteran with the unique perspective of having directed programming at all three major television networks. He, too, wonders if these countries' cultural decisions are made on the basis of actual show content or for political reasons.
"I'm not sure what the real rationale is," he muses, adding that the audience desire for popular films and TV shows such as "Baywatch" has been amply demonstrated.
Fox Entertainment Group president Peter Roth echoes this concern with a frustration he feels is shared by many in the creative community. "I wonder if [the attendees] are really aware of what we're doing," he says, suggesting that if they were they might be less critical of the products turned out by the American entertainment industry.
British transplant actress Angela Lansbury says the whole issue has the whiff of sour grapes. "The whole world is fascinated with us and wants to see us," muses the performer whose most well-known television show, "Murder, She Wrote," airs around the world and is a particular hit in Italy. She maintains that nothing is stopping local industries from offering competition to the American culture; they just have to start developing the business structure to do so.
Ms. Lansbury dubs these attitudes a sort of self-defeating nationalism and adds, "Steven Spielberg had to shoot in Ireland because the French wouldn't let him shoot a film in English." This, she notes, shaking her head, helps neither the local economy nor culture.
Indeed, conference sponsor Canada has a long history of prickly negotiations over US intrusion into its cultural life, from television to business ownership. It has restrictions designed to protect local cultural institutions, including a limit on foreign ownership of its communications and cultural institutions.
But Martin Franks, senior vice president of CBS in New York, wonders whether this is just an empty exercise in domestic politicking, given the sophistication and reach of today's technology. "How are you going to stop the retransmission of satellite signals to anywhere in the world?" he questions - and answers his own query, "You can't."