If you thought I was kidding about "Empire" . . .

Take a look at this story from Hollywood Reporter. A new overseas box office record for American films set in 2007; all six MPA member studios top $1 billion in foreign box office receipts. I needn't tell you at whose expense those numbers are being rung up.

A free-market type might point out that people go to see the movies that they want to see. And that is certainly true. (I, for one, have never had my finger on the pulse of the American movie-going public and I'd like to keep it that way. ) But that rather simplistic view of economics is based on the mistaken notion that there is a level playing field. In truth, the only times that local film industries thrive outside the U.S. is when national governments take a hand. The obvious example is South Korea, whose high-flying film industry has survived because by law a theater owner has to book a certain percentage of Korean-made films. (Of course, as anyone who has had the misfortune to see any of the '30s British films called "quota quickies" can tell you, such laws can be circumvented when American companies manipulate their foreign subsidiaries for that purpose. )

The playing field isn't equal when one of the players is astronomically more powerful, better funded and more willing to spend than anyone else in the game. If you are a poker player, you know damned well that anyone who comes to a game with significantly less money than the others at the table will need a spectacular run of early luck just to survive.

We've reached the point where, to pick the most disheartening recent example, French filmmakers feel obliged to imitate the worst American examples in order to compete for the domestic audience. How else to explain the unspeakable crap turned out by Luc Besson and his subordinates? Even French box office is now dominated by American product. And when the world economy takes a nosedive, three guesses who will still be at this particular poker table. Hint: they will have little American flags in their lapels.

Thirty years ago, that might not have depressed me as much as it does now. In the 1970s, American film was still vital and exciting, a few of the old masters were still alive and the young filmmakers who were emerging looked promising. But the spectre of a world in which the dominant narrative paradigm is determined by Jerry Bruckheimer and his ilk . . . well, it doesn't bear thinking about.

The problem isn't just that American film ain't what she used to be. The problem is that even at its best -- and that would be pretty damned good -- it was never the only viable film model in the world. Artistic diversity in the medium is as important as biodiversity in the ecosystem. Unhappily, we are losing both.

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