U.N. Panel Approves Protections for Foreign Films

American filmmakers are not pleased about a proposed international treaty. UNESCO, the United Nations body concerned with cultural matters, has endorsed a measure designed to protect countries' indigenous film industries.

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Protecting local culture--For a few years now, that's been the subject of debate at UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO recently adopted a cultural convention, a treaty that would protect a country's indigenous movies, music, television and the like. Most of UNESCO's members support it. Only the United States and Israel voted against it. And some in Hollywood fear it could mean losing business overseas. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR reporting:

Take a look at a few of the recent top-grossing films in countries around the world. Often they're produced by an American company. In Canada, it's "King Kong," "Narnia" and "Harry Potter." In Russia, "Aeon Flux," "Just Like Heaven" and "Cry Wolf." Hollywood Studios often count on foreign markets more than they do on the domestic box office. One example: Warner Bros. epic "Troy."

(Soundbite of "Troy")

Unidentified Man #1: Do you know what you've done? Do you know how many years our father worked for peace?

Unidentified Man #2: I love her.

Unidentified Man #1: Agh!

BLAIR: "Troy" made about $135 million at the box office here. Overseas, it did much better, more than $350 million. So when UNESCO approved the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions in October, Hollywood winced.

Mr. DAN GLICKMAN (Motion Picture Association of America): That treaty basically took a shot at the United States, as far as I was concerned.

BLAIR: Dan Glickman is head of the Motion Picture Association of America, the trade group that represents Hollywood Studios and other film companies. He says his members are all for cultural diversity, but they don't want countries to use the UNESCO treaty to limit the number of American movies allowed on their screens.

Mr. GLICKMAN: ...we want to make sure is is that culture, the protecting of culture, doesn't become an actual trade barrier to keep our products out. And our studios, I think, would be very worried if they thought that countries were going to keep our products out just to protect their own indigenous film industry.

BLAIR: The UNESCO debate over the cultural treaty, which is sponsored by France and Canada, has been emotional, says Louise Oliver, the US ambassador to UNESCO. In the end, she could not support it because, she says, the language was too vague.

Ambassador LOUISE OLIVER (US Ambassador To UNESCO): The convention states that cultural goods and services have a dual nature, economic and culture. Well, who decides whether it's economic, and who decides whether it's culture? No definition in that. We wanted clarity as to the relationship of this legally binding document with other international obligations. So we tried over and over again to get the phrase consistent with international obligations, and that was rejected over and over again.

BLAIR: Just how the treaty would be used if it's ratified is unclear. What is clear is that UNESCO officials have different views on the treaty's intent. Timothy Craddock, the United Kingdom's ambassador to UNESCO, insists the cultural convention is largely symbolic and not about trade at all.

Ambassador TIMOTHY CRADDOCK (United Kingdom Ambassador To UNESCO): This convention is simply promoting the capacity of particularly the poorest countries, which are the ones where the threat's the greatest, to promote their own culture and to help countries promote their own creative industries in a way that's set down in law for the first time.

BLAIR: In other words, it codifies on an international level a belief that culture is not only about economics but also national identity. But culture and commerce are intertwined, and there's concern in the US over how a country might use the UNESCO treaty to its advantage. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal said China could use it to close newspapers and pull international satellite TV off the air. Other countries might introduce screen quotas, already in place in countries such as Argentina and Korea.

Mr. JONATHAN KIM (Film Producer): We didn't have that much money. We didn't have--few stars. We really didn't have an industry. But the thing is, we were able to keep the Korean movies because of the quota.

BLAIR: Jonathan Kim, a film producer in Korea who supports the UNESCO treaty, says in the 1970s and '80s, American movies were much more popular than anything made in Korea. But a government-imposed quota requiring theaters to show Korean movies 146 days per year kept the small industry alive, he says. Eventually, the acting and production quality of the films improved. In 1999, for the first time, a Korean movie surpassed an American one at the box office there. "Titanic" was sunk, by a film called "Shiri," the name of a small fish.

(Soundbite of "Shiri")

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of Men: (Foreign language spoken in unison)

BLAIR: "Shiri" is a romantic thriller centered around the tensions between the north and south. Other films in this new wave touch on feelings about modern Korean culture and self-identity in the face of political division. And this is the crux of the matter for many of the supporters of the UNESCO treaty. Filmmakers want to tell their own stories to their own people in ways that are as popular as a story like "Titanic" is to Americans. Today Korean films have more than 50 percent of the Korean market. The US wants Korea to end the screen quota, especially now that their films are competitive. But Jonathan Kim says Korean filmmakers aren't ready to give it up.

Mr. KIM: It's like saying, `Oh, there's no more accidents at the intersection. Let's get rid of the lights.' That's how we feel, because we do not know how long this will last. We could go back to 1980s if we don't do things right.

Mr. STEVE SOLOT (Motion Picture Association, Latin America): They would rather resort to possibly out-of-date mechanisms to protect their industries.

BLAIR: Steve Solot heads up the Motion Picture Association's Latin American office in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Protectionist measures, he says, are not the best ways to stimulate and sustain local film industries. Through training and production coordination, his office has helped launch a number of successful films: "City of God," from Brazil, "The Crime of Padre Amaro" from Mexico. Solot says international partnerships are becoming more common, a trend brought on by market forces.

Mr. SOLOT: Entertainment product must be ...(unintelligible). It must be diversified. And more and more local content is needed to offer the consumer everywhere around the world diversified product. No consumer in any country can subsist only on American Hollywood fare.

BLAIR: On that, both sides of the culture vs. commerce debate seem to agree. The UNESCO treaty is going through the ratification process. Thirty countries need to sign it before it can go into effect. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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