TCS Daily

Bad Economics, Bad Movies

By Martino Pillitteri - January 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Even in Italy, Christmas spurred a cultural debate. Anti-capitalist activists complained that the traditional holiday spirit has been overtaken by commercial fervor. It's a time of year, they say, when American cultural imperialism reaches its peak. A prime example of this can be seen in the second most appreciated American present to the world (after freedom): movies.

The dominance of American movies in Italian theaters is undeniable. They outnumber domestic productions 8 to 2. Anti-globalists claim that American culture has waged a war on Italian identity and values. It's part of a counterproductive but still very popular argument made in Italy and Europe in general: blame America for its success and pity Europe for its failures or lack of achievements. It's the same approach for foreign policy, economic deregulation, liberalization and so on. Those who are against liberalization policies avoid proposing an alternative and try to limit collateral damage to themselves by just claiming we can't copy the American system.

The Italian economic system is still the product of a leftist political culture highly regulated with an unbearable tax burden that encourages black markets and fiscal fraud. But Italy is still famous for its art. It has successfully exported its made in Italy brand, style and taste. In the 1950s and 60s Italian movies were acclaimed worldwide. They were in fact the best ambassadors of the Italian culture. Today though, movie theaters are filled with American movies. The Italian ones fare poorly with the public and with critics. Is this the result of American cultural imperialism? Decision makers recognize the answer is no, and the are very conscious of the cause behind the moribund Italian motion picture business. Regrettably they don't take the necessary steps to cure the malaise.

The problem is government subsidies. In Italy, a lot of talent-less actors, inexperienced directors, and flower-children writers can count on €123 million a year to produce, shoot, market and distribute movies. That's the paradox: there are movies, but there is no movie industry. There is only a group of friends of the friends in the political establishment who receive subsidies to produce movies that only a very limited audience will see.

American show business did not Italian cinema. Rather it is our own government's policy. Subsidizing movies encourages producers not to put up capital to invest in good ideas, it does not motivate actors, nor inspire writers to come up with anything beyond their own radical political philosophies. Since the state is basically sponsoring production costs, most of the sums allocated to each movie are kept by producers to pay their salaries, support their mistresses and fund various kickbacks. Since the money is not expected to be returned, nobody is particularly concerned about the quality of the final product.

The government tries to promote Italian culture by supporting the production of movies reflecting national identity. This sounds like a worthy pursuit. In reality, it accomplishes the very opposite goal. It kills creativity and stifles entrepreneurship. Without facing financial risks, Italian movie producers are not motivated to make a decent product.

Subsidies in general are a hot topic around the world right now. But they're neglected by the Italian mass media. This is because most of the Italian news entities would not survive without government subsidies and nevertheless they are experiencing a decline in readership and audience.

When the current Italian government, led by a pro-reforms coalition, hinted recently it would reduce subsidies for farmers and cut tariffs, chambers of commerce and unions mobilized thousands of people to hit the streets. They blocked trains and access to airports. The government, instead of encouraging a national debate on the benefits of subsidies-free markets and free trade zones, ultimately gave in. Many politicians and even people in the private sector sympathized with the farmers.

Farmers may be excused slightly for a lack of economic knowledge. But it is indefensible that unions representing a privileged elite of mediocre but acclaimed actors, wealthy movie directors and perma-tanned screenplay writers, could go on strike to lobby against cuts in film subsidies. These subsides are leading Italian cinema down its "sunset boulevard", and soon it and other sectors could see THE END.

The author is a journalist living in Milan who writes for the Opinione delle Libertà



Cinecitta Shenanigans
Not a lot of people know that the Italian film industry was built up by Mussolini, motivated just like the French, who have done the same thing, to try to promote nationalism. But the appeal of American cinema was too powerful. We knew quite well one of the most important men in Italy for distributing American movies after WWII. There simply was no comparison in terms of market appeal.

Now look, Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, Bertolucci, come on, these are simply great artists.

We would add Dario Argento. Every time we hear the ice cream truck go by we get a shiver up our spine.

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Ciao belli!

It's the same in Australia
Just substitute 'Australia' for 'Italy' and the article remains correct. Government-sponsored films, stage productions, books and paintings have produced a turgid, boring output that most people aren't interested in; they are of interest only to a tiny but vocal art elite.

And the same 'arts luvvies' (as we call them) squeal like stuck pigs about US cultural imperialism and demand restrictions be slapped on US film and television products. It doesn't occur to the elite that the reason the US output is popular is not because (as they believe) Australians are Philistines, but because the US product is actually better.

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