SM: I don’t have any disagreement that the human condition is universal. What is it that these other cultures can learn from the craft that Hollywood seems to have mastered to build their own film industries? Bollywood is unpalatable for anyone outside of a segment of the Indian consumer base.
RM: Let me mention two filmmakers. Satyajit Ray and Zhang Yimou. Ray is the Ingmar Bergman of India, and nobody in India knows who he is.
SM: I think that he is widely known in India.
RM: I have many friends from India, and they say that only intellectuals know who he is. Do you think that people who watch Bollywood in India have ever seen a Satyajit Ray film?
SM: Probably not.
RM: The same thing is true in China. We know Zhang Yimou. He is a huge success outside of China, but nobody in China watches his films. The premise that other cultures need to learn from Hollywood in order to market their films the way Hollywood does may not be a good premise. Zhang Yimou obviously does not need Hollywood to teach him how to make a film. As far as the art audience goes Zhang Yimou is a huge international success, but he will never be successful in the Hollywood sense of things. We are kind of arguing apples and oranges.
SM: Let me give another example to illustrate the business opportunity I am trying to get at. “Slumdog Millionaire” turned out to be a huge commercial success in a mainstream Hollywood way. It is a film made by an Englishman who knows very sophisticated filmmaking.
RM: I lectured in Singapore. The government would love to be able to develop a Singapore film industry. They would love to have that presence in the world. I have seen their films and of course in many ways they are amateur. I saw a couple of very good films that portray Singaporean society as a nightmare. These films were made by somebody who is personally very wealthy and could afford to spend a million dollars to make those films.
I asked the Singapore government if I were to teach people to make films of that quality, would they support it? Of course the answer was no. Hollywood, as an industry and business, is based upon the myth that everything will turn out for the best, that good triumphs evil, that hard work and perseverance will pay off, and that everyone has a soul mate. Hollywood as an industry is based upon a lie. All popular culture is based upon a lie that life is not what it seems to be, that it is full of hope and optimism.
Do we seriously want to encourage film cultures around the world to continue telling that lie?
SM: Bollywood is a perfect example of that.
RM: And everybody is happy with that. The kind of film industry that you would like to see transplanted elsewhere in the world will only reach the mass market if they are prepared to lie.
RM: “Slumdog Millionaire” is a hideous lie. When you get artists in countries such as Japan who are serious and sophisticated, they won’t lie. The business model that you are proposing is based on the ability to lie. That is how you reach the mass audience. The reason that Hollywood as a business model does not work in these other cultures is that in these other cultures the filmmakers want to be artists.
Argentinian films have occasionally been brilliant over the years. I will do my best to teach storytelling skills, but I know how they think in South America. They want to make the commercial art movie. They want to make “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Babel”.