Pleasing America

There’s a phrase which keeps cropping up recently:

‘Will the Americans understand it?’

Everything I write has to be understood by Americans who, according to most of the people I’m working with, are stupid, xenophobic and will instantly dislike any film which contains even a single word they don’t understand.

Is this really true?

I know it’s a view popularised by the press over here, but are Americans really that incapable of understanding UK words and colloquialisms?

I read this today in a Monty Python Biography:

TERRY GILLIAM – John would say we’ve got to say canned peaches for America. I would say, ‘No, you’ve got to say tinned peaches. It’s an English word and Americans will have to learn what tinned means. And they will learn and will get excited by the idea of learning.’

And it got me thinking: does any other country go out of its way to kow-tow so much to a foreign market?

Americans don’t, they either: assume everyone knows what they’re talking about; don’t care; or guess most people are clever enough to understand an unknown word when it’s used in context.

Spain, Italy, France, do they re-word things for foreigners? I have no idea. There are certainly phrases in the subtitles I don’t fully understand; but then the majority of them may already have been altered to make more sense to me.

I know America is huge in terms of film markets, and UK films may need to perform well over there to make any money; but still, isn’t part of the joy of seeing a foreign film do to with the country’s culture?

Should we not be celebrating our culture and showing it to the world; instead of hiding it and pretending it’s exactly the same as America’s?

I honestly don’t know.

I do know I feel hamstrung when I’ve written something funny only to be told Americans won’t get it. Especially when I go over there and can’t get them to shut up about how much they love Monty Python.

So what’s the score? Are we under-estimating their intelligence or can they really not understand any reference which doesn’t involve a hamburger? If they have to have every film de-British-ised; why did ‘Shaun of the Dead’ do so well?

I guess what I’m really asking is, do I really have to do another re-write based on what Americans may or may not understand?

Any thoughts?

Categories: Industry Musings | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Pleasing America

  1. I say no. Unless it’s filled with really obscure stuff only UK folk would get, like Devon slang or something. They’ll get most of it, and anything they don’t get, they can ask someone, or pick it up from the context.

    They don’t rewrite their movies to avoid mention of sidewalks, faucets, or Richard Simmons, and yet their movies sell all over the world. I think they appreciate it when a UK movie *doesn’t* try to Americanise itself, because it feels wrong to them.

  2. Speaking as an American (though I’ve been in Britain for almost seven years and have a British passport to go with my American one), the answer is a bit of both.

    There are some Americans — typically the quirkier members of the educated middle class — who love anything British and want the full-on, non-Americanised product. They watch Blackadder and Doctor Who and Red Dwarf on PBS, even though they struggle to decipher more than one word in two of Craig Charles’ Scouse accent. These are the people who saw Shaun of the Dead (which only took $13 million at the US box office — an extremely modest total by Hollywood standards).

    But there are also some Americans who can’t stomach anything more authentically British than Four Weddings and a Funeral. These are the same people who won’t see any film with subtitles, and for whom the American print runs of the early Harry Potter books had all the ‘foreign’ references removed. To be fair, there are plenty of people like this on both sides of the pond.

    My personal feeling is that there are enough Americans who ‘get’ British that you’ll have a reasonable audience without making any adjustments at all. But you’ll pretty much always be Shaun of the Dead rather than Pirates of the Caribbean. Personally, while I’d love to have all the money associated with Pirates of the Caribbean, from a creative standpoint I’d rather be Shaun of the Dead.

  3. Dunno. Are they paying you for another rewrite?

    If it’s any consolation, everyone working in America is told to dumb it down for the Americans as well.

    They’re fighting it too.

  4. Interesting, Phill. America’s like the most popular guy or girl in school, so we’ll always try to ingratiate ourselves a little, I guess. Some of it is reasonable or makes commercial sense, while some decisions to pander to American sensibilities are taken too far.

    Love the new blog layout, by the way.

  5. Rob Pires

    As a matter of principle, you shouldn’t change an integral piece of culture, just because the audience ‘might not get it’. I say, if they don’t, they will if they like the overall thing. If it still doesn’t make sense, they can always google it. How lazy can someone be (even if American) to not pursue new knowledge?

    I was practically raised by tv. I learned to speak english mostly from it, and inevitably from American culture. Like me there will be thousands of others who will agree that this globalisation thing CANNOT be an Americanisation thing.

    good stuff, Phil


  6. Moviequill

    one of the memebers of my former local screenwriter’s group (former because I quit) says they don’t watch British movies unless they are close captioned (I swear that is what she said)

  7. She’s not deaf, is she?

    How does she feel about regional accents in America?

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