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As the World Turns

Globalization comes to Hollywood.

12:00 AM, Apr 13, 2007 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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TWO RECENT STORIES from the Wall Street Journal point to a deep--and unexpected--revelation about the evolving nature of globalization, a term that we hear a lot but understand only dimly.

These stories may seem trivial, but they represent something quite grand: a striking change in the way American entertainment products get made and exported, and a shift in the nature of globalization.

The first article concerns the international airing of Apple's ingenious Mac-and-PC ads, which run in many overseas markets. In Spain, France, Germany and Italy, the ads were simply dubbed in the native language. But in Japan and the United Kingdom, the ads were completely reshot. Native actors were used, and the focus of the ads was changed to reflect local sensitivities.

The U.K. ads poked fun at the European Union's short workweek and long holiday schedule. The Japanese ads avoided making direct comparisons between Macs and PCs, which would have been considered in poor taste in Japanese culture. Instead, they poke fun by making the PC character overly, and unsettlingly, friendly.

The second piece, by Brooks Barnes, details the making of a new TV show in France. The show, Paris Enqu tes Criminelles, is a remake of the successful American program Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, has overseen the careful exporting of the show.

The American versions of Law & Order adhere to a detailed formula: Every show has five acts; information is parceled out in a pattern; detectives and district attorneys act in certain ways. Even the "ca-ching" sound operates by a rule: It is used only between scenes indicating a transition in the story line and no more than twice per act. Wolf compiled the laws of Law & Order into a thousand-page bible, which is being used to construct Paris Enqu tes Criminelles.

The French show's writers have tried to "translate" scripts from the American show--not just the language, but the ideas. Sometimes the translation is straightforward; other times it requires some re-imagining. For instance, they don't do mafia stories (since there is no French mob), and they treat extramarital affairs differently, since sophisticated Frogs do not take such things seriously.

Once upon a time, when we talked about the effects of globalization on culture, we were referring to the export of Hollywood products, dubbed in different languages, to the far corners of the world. The buoyant, but depressing, model was the success of Baywatch, reruns of which were at one point being broadcast in Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Chile, and nearly every place in between.

Today, this traditional model of exporting American TV shows is still big business, last year generating about $8 billion in revenue. (By the by, foreign broadcasters have paid about $500 million for dubbed reruns of the Law & Order franchises over the years.)

Also, the importance of foreign box-office returns has likewise increased for movie studios. Where foreign receipts were once only an afterthought, today, they can account for half--or more--of the total gross of many movies. Indeed, the selling of Hollywood movies abroad has influenced how they are made at home. It's a major factor in the explosion of big-budget, high-concept action movies (which are easier to sell to foreign audiences) over the last 25 years.

Yet much more is going on now than just expansion of markets for American pop-culture products. What we are seeing, with the Apple ads, Paris Enqu tes Criminelles, and a host of other examples, is the globalization of the entertainment industry becoming a two-way street.

Instead of finished entertainment products being pushed out of America and onto the rest of the world, we're seeing artistic ideas being exported in both directions, from Europe and Asia to America, as well as the other way around.

About a decade ago, Hollywood began to rely heavily on importing concepts from foreign TV shows and movies, and remaking them in America. On the small screen, this meant importing and remaking shows such as Survivor, Big Brother, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and The Office. Foreign movies, such as Insomnia, Dark Water and The Grudge, were similarly remade by American studios.

As a sign of how successful this model of production has become, consider that this year's Academy Award winner for best picture, The Departed, was a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs and that American Idol, which Jeff Zucker recently called "the most impactful show in the history of television," began as a British show called Pop Idol.