Lights, camera, economy!

How cinema shapes up nations and drives prosperity

Tazrian Iqbal | Sunday, 26 November 2023

Historically, the arts have been indicators of societal progress, with their roots going as far back as ancient Greece. But why does this timeless partnership between art and development continue to persist? Historians and economists alike agree that art tends to mirror a society's current standing and its shared aspirations. In the context of the Bangladeshi film industry, although modest in stature, we can recognise a common factor- its potential for profitability and exponential growth. Art isn't merely a creative endeavour; it's a dynamic force that can sculpt not just culture but also the economic landscape it thrives within.
In the early 20th century, a transformation began brewing in the Old California. The American film industry was emerging as a global phenomenon, and Hollywood was where the magic happened. But what compelled filmmakers to choose Southern California? Hollywood's allure stemmed from multiple factors, including reasonably priced real estate property, an arid climate conducive to on-site shooting, and its scenic panoramas. From sandy beaches to deserts and mountains, Southern California offered a variety of settings for filmmakers to bring their stories to life. The result? A creative explosion that catapulted Hollywood into an international cinematic powerhouse.
As filmmakers flocked to Hollywood land, a thriving industry emerged. Studios like WarnerBros., Paramount, Universal, and MGM established themselves within the region of Los Angeles. Thanks to the Hollywood studio system, known for its large-scale production and innovative storytelling, it became the foundation of the American film industry. This industry standard brought in investments, and became an economic engine, creating jobs for thousands, fostering infrastructure development and real estate industries, and propelling the hospitality sector as tourists came to get a taste of the Hollywood dream.
Hollywood continues to hold their reputation as a high roller till the present day. According to the Motion Pictures Association, Marvel's Black Panther involved more than 3,100 local workers in the state of Georgia who took home more than US$26 million in wages, while 20th Century Fox's popular television series This Is Us contributed more than US$61 million to the California economy. Oscar-nominated films, The Post and The Greatest Showman contributed more than US$108 million to New York's local economy. On an international scale, production accounts for US$14.4 billion annually in film exports and registers a positive trade balance with every country, globally. These major, privatised film studios are the primary source of the most ticket-selling and commercially successful movies in the world. As the spotlight shines on Hollywood, government interests remain in the shadows allowing room for both creative and investment freedom amongst artists.
Beyond its economic capacity, Hollywood's creative vision and application quickly turned into a symbol for America. Innovation and creativity flourished. It has become a soft power tool, exporting American culture to the world. Hollywood's influence on global pop culture, fashion, and language cannot be denied, further enhancing the United States' prestige and reach.
This aspect of national prestige and reach was further utilised by one of the oldest film industries in the world, Japan, on an international stage too. The devastation of World War II left Japan in shambles, both economically and spiritually. The nation was in dire need of a narrative that could instill hope and unity. Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) were narratives based on the economic and spiritual crises during the time period. Even in the underlying plot of Godzilla (1954), common themes can be drawn. With a lack of comedy and romance in art, these motion pictures delved into the post-war trauma, resonating with a nation in need of healing. Now studied in university courses, critics emphasise Kurosawa's ability to showcase the power of cinema in inspiring a nation's revival. They are used as a case study on how films stand as a beacon of hope to help rebuild a nation.
Many films of this era depict themes of despair, vengeance, and pursuit of justice, ultimately leading characters to confront the absence of a functional justice system.
Rooted in Japanese culture yet accessible globally, they embody Japan's transformation, bridging the gap between its past and a hopeful future. Many of the works produced at this time are a testament to cinema's ability to heal and rejuvenate, leaving an unforgettable mark on Japan's cultural and economic resurgence.
Rashomon's critical acclaim and international success not only revitalised Japan's film industry but also helped boost its economy. The film's accolades at the Venice Film Festival and its Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film drew global attention to Japan's artistic potential. This recognition brought investment to the Japanese film industry, leading to the growth of studios and the creation of a new generation of filmmakers. Moreover, Rashomon's success contributed to Japan's burgeoning post-war tourism industry, attracting film enthusiasts and tourists from around the world.
Bangladesh's film industry is also experiencing such recognition on global platforms. Moshari (2022), a horror and short film by Nuhash Humayun, won the Atlanta Film Festival Jury Prize for Best Narrative Short, an Oscar-qualifying award. Similarly, cinemas like Live From Dhaka (2016), Saturday Afternoon (2019), and Rickshaw Girl (2021), shed light on Bangla films in international film festivals. Similar to Hollywood and Japan, such national prestige almost always brings potential private investments as well as donations to the creative sector. This injects funding, allowing skilled craftsmen the incentive to further hone the art of filmmaking in a sincere and authentic manner. Securing capital is crucial as revenue is primarily generated through ticket sales, television rights, Over The Top (OTT) platform rights, and some from music. However, there are two sides to this: While TV and online streaming platforms (OTT) like Bioscope, Banglaflix, and Chorki allow non-resident Bengalis and international audiences to enjoy Deshi contents in the comfort of their own home, it also discourages audiences from physically visiting cinema halls where Bangla films are being shown.
After the Covid-19 pandemic, cinema halls are on a global decline. As of 2023, Bangladesh only has 176 halls remaining. This decline is merely the symptom of the problem.
According to the director of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), Martin Scorsese, "Cinema is gone." Scorsese further added, "The cinema I grew up with and that I'm making, it's gone."
His statement reflected a worldwide cry for help for cinema. According to the veteran filmmaker, Hollywood's over-reliance on superficial techniques like
computer-generated imagery (CGI) is detrimental to the art that connects humans directly to the emotions of a stranger's story. Artistically, this lack of reliance on technology potentially shifts the spotlight to stories generated from underrepresented communities of Bangladesh. It's simply because our films capture the audience group seeking human and cultural connection. In fact, the commercial success of Hawa (2022) is telling of this. The authenticity channeled through classic fishermen's folklore of Bangladesh gave it that unique storytelling quality that earned approval and protected cultural heritage. Its release
in theatres overseas generated foreign income into our national economy. As economists predict, this income, if invested into art education, will pull up the economy coupled with social welfare, job creation and infrastructure development. These contribute to the development of a highly skilled workforce and also create opportunities for educational businesses. Recently, the crime thriller Shurongo (2023) was released in the United States of America, Canada, and Australia. Their commercial success only proves one thing: The Bangladeshi film industry has just begun unlocking its potential as a long road of achievements lies ahead.
From the Mask of Zorro to Mukh o Mukhosh, the world of cinema continues to offer us more than just entertainment; we find the sparks of economic growth, national transformation, and social identity. When the essence of storytelling is vibrant and compelling, it has the power to rekindle the flickering flame of Bangla cinema's golden era. From Hollywood's glamorous triumphs to Japan's post-war renaissance and Bangladesh's blossoming industry, the silver screen is a powerful force that has recognised and harnessed its potential to shape the world we live in. As the credits roll on each film, we witness the profound impact of cinema on the economies, hearts, and societies it touches, leaving us with the enduring message that stories told on screen can drive the development of nations and the dreams of individuals.

Tazrian is an aspiring researcher in economics and a part of the Youth Policy Forum Environmental Team.
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