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Coming U.N. attractions

October 24, 2005

A UNITED NATIONS AGENCY smacked Hollywood last week with a rolled-up parchment, adopting a "cultural diversity" convention that says countries may subsidize or shelter their local creative industries. To the U.S. government -- joined only by Israel in voting against the document -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's convention was thinly veiled protectionism. To the 148 countries that voted in favor, it was a rebuke of the American entertainment industry and its aggressive promotions overseas.

A snapshot from Kuala Lumpur last year makes it easy to understand the rest of the world's concern -- and the futility of the U.N.'s convention. To promote the summer blockbuster "Spider-Man 2," Sony Pictures blanketed Malaysia's capital city with larger-than-life-sized posters for the film. It was a blitz that no filmmaker in the fading local movie industry could hope to match, and no U.N. convention could stop.

The convention was sought by Canada and France, two ardent advocates of protecting local film, TV and music industries against the onslaught of tasteless American media. Although the convention says it does not override existing trade agreements, opponents say it could encourage countries to provide more subsidies for domestic artists and crack down further on imported American entertainment.

Yet as much as foreign governments might want to limit the availability of American slasher films and teen road-trip movies, their efforts seem destined to fail. As long as the public wants American movies, TV shows and music, they will find their way into their countries, whether through bootlegged DVDs or the Internet.

Underlying the battle is an important goal that U.S. officials have been pursuing too: promoting cultural diversity as a defense against "inward-looking fundamentalism," as UNESCO said in its Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity.

The key is finding a way to let cultures flow across geographic and ethnic divides without overrunning local creators. For Hollywood, that might mean easing off on the marketing and competing on merit. Then again, "Spider-Man 2" was a pretty good movie.

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