David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934

Film Art

by Kristin Thompson, British Film Institute, 1985.
238 pages. Illustrations.
[go to Amazon]

[download the full PDF]

Preface to the Online Edition

I suspect that most people familiar with my publications—textbooks, blog entries, historical studies of film style, books of close analysis—are unaware of the existence of Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 . It was published in 1985 by the British Film Institute. That should have meant that it would be released in the U.S., but the BFI was then in the process of changing American distributors. As far as I know, the book slipped through the cracks and never was released in the States, and it went out of print very quickly in Great Britain. As a result, few copies were sold, and it quickly achieved the dubious status of a rare book.

Many may be puzzled as to why someone who specializes in close analysis and the history of film style wrote Exporting Entertainment. It’s full of statistics and other sorts of facts and figures, mostly on distribution—not exactly a specialty of mine. My aim was to explore two questions. First, it has long been accepted wisdom that American films became dominant on international markets and have remained so ever since, apart from the occasional country cut off from foreign films by war or ideological bans. But exactly how and when did American films achieve that domination?

My second question related to my interest in what I call the commercial avant-garde movements of the silent era after World War I: German Expressionism, French Impressionism, and Soviet Montage. To some extent each style was a reaction against the filmmaking norms of the day, which one could argue came mainly from Hollywood. In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, also published in 1985 (Routledge & Kegan Paul in the U.K., Columbia University Press in the U.S.A.) David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and I had tried to establish what those norms were and when they developed. For my purposes, Exporting Entertainment was a logical follow-up. I thought that it would help me determine whether filmmakers in Germany, France, and the Soviet Union had access to a lot of American films by the time those movements started.

I set out to determine the basic facts about how far those films had penetrated specific markets at different points during the silent period. I extended the period of coverage into the early 1930s, partly because the Montage movement arguably lasted until 1933 and partly because I wanted to examine how Hollywood managed to maintain its domination through the economic buffeting of the Depression. Originally I planned to write only a chapter introducing a study of the European avant-gardes of the 1920s.

In investigating these topics, however, I discovered that the U.S. government had kept extensive records of imports and exports of film footage, broken down by exposed negatives and finished positives. During the 1920s, the government also began cooperating closely with the domestic filmmaking industry to support American exports. As a result, additional publications reporting on local conditions in many markets were regularly published. This material, added to industry trade papers both in the U.S. and abroad, proved a goldmine of information. Since I had to search through these sources anyway, I decided to make the study worldwide and publish it as a monograph.

One result of such evidence was that I was able to establish the point at which American films tipped over into domination as March 1916. What caused this change. For one thing, Hollywood companies moved away from selling their films to distributors abroad and began opening their own offices abroad. In addition, wartime circumstances led not only to a reduction in production by a few major prewar suppliers, France, Italy, and Denmark, but also to import-export restrictions that ended London’s role as a redistribution hub for American films abroad.

A more intriguing discovery was a concerted effort by European producing nations to form a coalition aimed at reducing American imports to the continent. The U.S. had a tremendous advantage in the size of its domestic film market, the largest in the world. Hollywood films could make back their expenses solely within that market, be sold at reduced prices abroad, and still make a considerable profit through exporting. Taken as a bloc, however, the total European market was about the same size. European producing nations realized that if they could unite, they could perhaps reduce the dominance of American films there and perhaps around the world.

In retrospect the attempt may seem a bit quixotic, but Hollywood’s domination was still young, and it seemed as if it might be a temporary circumstance resulting from wartime conditions. From the mid-1920s, major producers in Germany, France, Britain, and smaller filmmaking nations sought through co-production agreements and governmental support, to build a unified front, sometimes referred to as “Film Europe.” The effort was beginning to be effective within a few years, and Hollywood’s hold in some countries, most notably in Germany, slipped distinctly.

The spirit of cooperation was short-lived, however, since the combination of severe depression and the coming of sound led to more insularity. Economic woes led to every-country-for-itself policies, and talkies seemed to offer the promise that non-English-speaking countries could gain protection through language barriers. The Film Europe movement ended. Once again, the giant American home market, plus the successful introduction of subtitling and dubbing, allowed Hollywood to survive the crises and flourish internationally. Since then, governments in individual countries have instituted quota systems, as with the current strict limitations on the distribution of American films in China. Many governments have subsidized filmmaking, with the current French cinema being as strong as it is due in large part to underwriting through a tax on admissions.

Despite being difficult to get hold of, Exporting Entertainment has had some impact on the field. Ruth Vasey’s award-winning The World According to Hollywood: 1918–1939 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) was, she has told me, directly inspired by my work. The subject inspired an anthology on the period, Film Europe and Film America: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–39, edited by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby (University of Exeter Press, 1999), which included an essay by me, “The Rise and Fall of Film Europe,” incorporating material from Exporting. Every now and then someone undertaking an historical study of American film’s dominance in a specific country asks me for advice, having been inspired by Exporting Entertainment to launch their own projects.

A reprint of such a specialized book seems unlikely to happen, so I am taking the obvious course in the internet age and making it available online.

I have not revised the book at all. The pdf file reproduced here are taken from the original book. Indeed, the inscription included here pinpoints exactly which copy it originated from. Many thanks are due to Vito Adriaensens, who scanned the book for his own research and kindly provided me with a copy of the result.

On the whole I think the book’s contents remain reasonably accurate twenty-five years after its publication. Nearly all the sources used were intended for governmental or film-industry use, and hence there was no puffery aimed at selling films to the public.

I have only one caveat to add. Accurate information on American films’ circulation in the U.S.S.R. after 1917 is impossible to obtain on a level that would allow statistical generalizations of the type given for other countries and areas. I was too quick to make such generalizations as if they were firmly supported by the little evidence available. That section of the book should be viewed as more speculative than I made it seem.

Film Europe was part of a larger movement toward continental unification that had a brief currency in the 1920s: the European Idea. Recent decades have witnessed a revival of that idea and its implementation in the form of the European Community. The cooperative circulation of all the member countries’ films within a new continent-wide market is one of the many hopes inspired by that new regional body. So far the effort has caused only a small increase in the ability of films to travel widely beyond the borders of their countries of origin. In some ways the increasing production of multi-national co-productions seems to have benefited the smaller countries in Latin American and Southeast Asia more than those within Europe.

Overall, however, so far the most successful strategy for creating international hits outside the U.S. is to make them in English. At the same time, American companies are increasingly investing in foreign-language productions abroad, often supporting and profiting from films that never show in the U.S. This tactic makes it difficult to assess just how successful local films in, say, Mexico really are in capturing larger portions of their own markets; a significant cut of the income may be flowing back to Hollywood.

Such struggles for healthy national cinemas abroad reflect shifting approaches to a struggle that arose nearly a century ago. I hope that fact might make Exporting Entertainment even more relevant than when it first appeared. I also hope that the book’s new accessibility will save researchers time and effort and that it will inspire some to delve into the general topic and explore more specific areas within it.

Madison, Wisconsin
February 2010

David Bordwell
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