The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, December 06, 2007

America talks, Hollywood listens

A couple of recent responses to my last post, suggesting that "Hollywood doesn't reflect American values." And so forth...
And pointing out that Mel Gibson bankrolled "Passion of the Christ" with his own bucks.

Mel Gibson used his own money, and it paid off hugely. And Rosie O'Donnell pretty much went bust backing "Taboo" on Broadway, and Sherman Hemsley lost all the money he'd made on the "Jeffersons" backing HIS little movie. Mel's film was a stupendous fluke that people are still blinking at. Doesn't change the rule: spread the risk among many investors, or go broke. BOY did Mel pull off a stunner! And made about half a billion dollars.
No, I don't think that Hollywood is an island unto itself, separate from the rest of America. I've sat in their offices, gone to their parties, eaten dinner, swum in their pools, dated their daughters, been in their homes. And just never saw any special difference between them and folks across the country. I do think it represents the creative mind more than the average industry, however--but creative people are scattered throughout the country. Do they tend toward say, the Left more than the Right? Not sure, but a best guess might say yes. I won't speculate on why: it would be possible to come up with both positive and negative reasons. But I WOULD agree that it is more to the Left. Of course, believing as I do that racism is more a disease of the Right (while, let's say, Anti-Americanism might be more a disease of the Left) the racism I see in Hollywood is perceived, by me, as actually LESS than America feels in general. If you feel that that racism is MORE found on the Left, you amuse me, because, since most blacks are Democrats, in essence you're saying black people are too stupid to know which side of the bread their butter is on. I think its reasonable to suggest that people vote what they consider to be in their best interests, and I'm not sure how you can say different without prejudice on your own you'd kinda be making my point for me, wouldn't you?
Why no Pro-Iraq movies? Good question. Hollywood has made tons of pro-war films, showing American soldiers as great heroes, so it isn't just some wish to demonize America. And there are certainly plenty of Right-wing Hollywood types with mega power: Stallone, Willis and Eastwood come most quickly to mind. Why aren't they doing anything about Iraq? Ask them. I really don't know--maybe the percentage of Americans who are proud of what we're doing there isn't even close to 40%, but despite the pain, they want to validate the sacrifice of our soldiers, or don't want America to "lose" another one or something--mixed with real guilt and fear about a million dead Iraqis and a couple of Trillion dollars in debt to come. Maybe privately, they're praying for forgiveness. I really don't know.
But yes, while tilting a bit to the left (which is balanced somewhat by the multinational corporations influencing all top-level decisions) I remind you of a basic thing: Hollywood is just a capital machine without ethics or morals, although the PEOPLE within it have ethics and morals. And they're just people. You think they're less ethical than the average American? Less than, say Government in general? Or less than Industry in general? If you want to privatize America, and you think THAT, you are in for a big, big surprise. These people are pure capital, all the way, and I see no difference on the average between them and people at their income level across the board: faintly superior, convinced that they deserve their success, and dealing with a bit of Impostor Syndrome. That's the top. The craftsmen and office workers at the middle level? The same as craftsmen and office workers anywhere else. The sanitation guys and people who work in the cafeterias and drive trucks? The same. It's a money machine. America votes with its dollars. What is the movie that made a ton that didn't instantly trigger knock-offs? America buys, Hollywood listens. It's really pretty much that simple. I can understand why looking at the collective Id might be a bit disturbing, but if you think these people are deliberately turning out movies they know people don't want to buy, or if you think that the images are somehow different than those found in books, comic books and so forth published across the country, that there isn't a cross-section of attitudes and accomplishments in the executive rooms, then I suggest to you that you've learned what you know of Hollywood at a distance, and not by actually interacting with the people at all. If I'm wrong, please let me know.


Mike R said...

One thing Steve; I remember you once commenting that one reason you thought that a movie with a black male love-scene had never broken the 100 million mark was that movie-making was a cooperative effort. To really shine it needs everyone to be on board, and if enough people don't care about the subject matter and just give their "C" game because the were put off by a black male lover (or whatever), the movie won't do as well as if everyone believed in the material and gave it their all.

Now think about that in terms of an pro-Iraq War film. How easy would it be to find a big star who would be willing to star in a pro-war film and would believe in the pro-war message? Co-stars? Scriptwriters? Directors? Everyone on down? And if enough of them didn't believe in the good in making such a film, and just phoned it in . . . well who would want to risk their money to a bunch of people who wouldn't believe in what they are doing?

Mike R said...

>-maybe the percentage of Americans who are proud of what we're doing there isn't even close to 40%,<

One minute of googling turned up a 30% of Americans were proud of it back in march of 2007. "Similarly, 30 percent of those polled this month said they were proud of the war, as opposed to 65 percent who expressed that sentiment in 2003."

That was before the perceived success of the surge, so I can only imagine it's gone up since then. But even if it has remained the same 30% is almost 100 million people. That's a big market to appeal to (bigger than the combined Black, Latino, Asian, Native-American, Gay, Muslim, and Jewish populations of America, for instance) and yet no one has gone after that large market in a big way. I really doubt this is just an amazing coincidence, especially given the popularity of action films.

Similarly, a fairly large majority of Americans are against legalizing gay marriage. I personally don't agree with that position, but I find it very odd that given that the majority are against it I've never seen a TV show or Movie take an anti-gay marriage line in the last decade or so, but I have seen a bunch who take a pro-gay marriage line, either overtly or covertly. Have you ever seen a film or TV show that took an anti-gay marriage line? Can you even imagine a big budget film that "shows the evils of gay marriage" ever getting the green light? If not, doesn't that also say something about the nature of Hollywood?

Steven Barnes said...

That's a good point. Like I said, I know that California is more to the Left than most of America, and that L.A. is one of the most liberal parts of California. Whether the Industry swings further Left than that, I don't know. And if the war were more popular, I'd guess that some of the Leftist actors and directors WOULD make movies about it. I honestly feel that there are a ton of folks on the Right who are political beasts, and will support their team (just as there were Feminists who supported Clinton, for instance) even if they are sick at heart. I think that they can't privately put their heart and soul behind this war. If it had gone well, if the war plans...and the plans to win the peace...had been well executed, sure. One of the reasons I could never be too political is that I see political types, on both sides, willing to lie, or shut up, or demonize the Other Team to protect their guys. But Mike...I kind of like that idea. You may be onto something.

Anonymous said...

mike said:
That was before the perceived success of the surge, so I can only imagine it's gone up since then. But even if it has remained the same 30% is almost 100 million people

according to the census bureau figures for 2005
24.8% of the USA population
was under 18 (not voting age)
so that 30% being around 100 million
is probably too high


Mike R said...

We're talking about movie-going audiences here, not numbers of voters. A pro-war movie would have to appeal to the under-18 crowd to some extent, if it wanted to be successful.

Steven Barnes said...

Mike, you're not looking. Has a single Hollywood film taken a really pro-Gay stance? That is, really? Shown a gay relationship with a happy ending? Two men falling in love, making love, ending up together, without tragedy anchored to it? (Well, maybe the film "Making Love" in 1982. A marriage broke up but that's the extent of the damage. That was 25 years ago. One movie, and they never tried it again. Where's your gay Hollywood agenda, man?) "Brokeback Mountain"? Oh, pleeze. The guy died. Perfectly natural tragic morality fable: "don't do this!" like the pain that gets anchored to black men who have sex outside their race. Don't kid yourself--Hollywood has LOTS of gays, many of whom are in positions of power, and make decisions. And THEY can't get a movie that reflects them, because America won't buy it.

Steven Barnes said...

Wait a minute: there are more of two groups than in the average American city, and I just realized it.
1) gays. There are a disproportunate number of gays in the arts community, in any art community I've ever been a part of. MAYBE that's just gays who will be open about it, but I don't know. There are more artists in Hollywood than in most places, for certain.
2) Jews. No question, there are more Jews in positions of power in Hollywood than average. It may not be PC to mention it, but my Jewish friends laugh about how this is "our town" all the time. No big deal.
I don't know how this helps either side of the argument about Iraq, though. You'd think Jews would be more likely to promote anything that would help Israel--does our presence in the Middle East help Israel? THERE'S a debate for you. But the number of Jewish actors who "play Jewish" in movies is a hell of a lot smaller than the actual number of Jews. Ask Captain Kirk. And a lot fewer Hanukkah movies get made than their statistical presence would call for--let alone than the number of Christmas films. It's about the bucks. It's an industry. And anyone who behaves differently doesn't last in his job very long.

Anonymous said...

"... mixed with real guilt and fear about a million dead Iraqis and a couple of Trillion dollars in debt to come. Maybe privately, they're praying for forgiveness."

Or maybe they don't agree with your premises, and are simply not being represented by Hollywood today.

First, those numbers. The "million dead" number comes out of one study in the Lancet whose methodology was, at the least, debatable. No other estimate by any government or NGO, even the U.N.'s, comes close to that. The consensus estimate of Iraqi dead after five years of war that I've seen is something like 200,000, and that counts every single Al Qaeda figher as "Iraqi".

Likewise, the "Trillions" in the budget is simply not supportable by any economic analysis that I know of anybody being willing to cite. We do have a serious federal debt in this country and it is getting worse; but the Iraqi war, for better or worse, is not driving it. In 2007, our spending on the military is lower in proportion to our national GDP than it was in the early 1980s, and our military is considerably smaller -- we had several hundred thousand troops available for Gulf War I, a force level that we can apparently only dream of now.

Meanwhile, in every quantitative assessment of federal spending that I've seen, the budget items breaking the bank are, in order: Social Security; Medicare; interest on the past federal debt; the tax cuts of 2002 come about fourth; and the entire Iraq war comes fifth!

So much for the assumption that everybody supporting the Iraqi war is just writhing in secret guilt. They're not, any more than opponents of the war are writhing in guilt over, in effect, having supported leaving Iraqis to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein per saecula saeculorum. Neither side sees itself as being anything but on the side of the angels, and it's silly to assume that people on the opposite side from oneself "secretly" feel guilty.

And now for Hollywood. I'll defer to your knowledge of it; but I can't help noticing that it seems to be releasing anti-war movie after anti-war movie, all of which seem to be doing rather poorly at the box office. This is how Hollywood demonstrates its amoral committment to profit over ideology? Really?

--Erich Schwarz

Steven Barnes said...

No, "Hollywood" doesn't release these movies, individuals within the structure expend their capital at the studios releasing them. You do have liberals with a track record who can get movies made, and are willing to defer their salaries to do it. But as you notice--they aren't making money. So they can do it once, and they seem to be doing it because they really believe they're helping to educate the public. There are certainly Right-wing stars, but either they're not as committed, or don't believe the audience is there...or SOMETHING. Not sure what.
And we'll see about those numbers regarding Iraq, Erich. No, I don't think that everyone anywhere feels anything. I DO feel that anyone who is strongly political will keep negative comments about "their own" side private until the opposing team can't use their comments to whip them with. I think both sides do that. And that means that a lot of people who strongly disagree with Bush and his policies will remain quiet about it until after the election. Wait and see if I'm right.

Mike R said...

>Has a single Hollywood film taken a really pro-Gay stance? That is, really? Shown a gay relationship with a happy ending?<

Sure, I'd say the Birdcage does that.

Anonymous said...

"I DO feel that anyone who is strongly political will keep negative comments about "their own" side private until the opposing team can't use their comments to whip them with."

Check out National Review Online: it's got both a conservative pro-life technophobic Catholic (Ramesh Ponnuru) and a neoconservative pro-choice technophilic agnostic (John Derbyshire). They don't agree about all that much.

Outside of NRO, you've got the paleocons (like your friend Jerry Pournelle) who pretty much detest the neocons; "crunchy cons" who could be defined as "pro-life Ecotopians"; the small and beleagured but unsinkable libertarians (e.g., David Friedman, a friend of Jerry Pournelle's); and a fair number of "9-11 Democrats" (such as myself, basically).

None of these guys are all that happy with Bush; they just disagree in what they're unhappy about.

Maybe the Left's a cheerfully unanimous monolith; but the Right ain't. Quite a few of them are anti-Iraq War and have been all along.

Conversely, the ones who are pro-war, are pro-war in a social atmosphere where being pro-war is anything but fun and fashionable. Assuming that they'll change their views on Jan. 20th, 2009 is somewhat unreliable.

--Erich Schwarz

Steven Barnes said...


Your points are generally well made, save the snipe about "maybe the Left is a monolith." I'll assume you were joking: you're way too smart for that.

Frank said...

For Gay movies, what about The Bird Cage where Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play a gay couple who are happy in their relationship and neither dies at the end. The movie also starred Gene Hackman, was directed by Mike Nichols and made over 100 million at the box office. ($124 million)

For Iraq movies: The fist out of the box of which I am aware is the screen adaptation of "Bing" West's No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah. It stars Harrison Ford as the Warrior Monk General Gen. Jim Mattis.

Meanwhile, a whole slew of recent anti-war films have tanked at the box office many with big names. Movies like Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs and with stars like Reese Witherspoon, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep.

They could just be poor films, but one would have to wonder why the big names were involved with poor films.

Sometimes it just happens I guess.

Or perhaps people just don't have an appetite for this stuff.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't want to think the Left's a monolith, and am happy to take your word it isn't; but I see the ideological lockstep-itude of the Right assumed so often by the Left, that it's hard to not wonder if there's some projection going on.

The "Right" doesn't agree about whether we should have gone to war in Iraq, and whether we should have an interventionist or an isolationist foreign policy; it doesn't agree about whether innovation in genomics, or technological and economic expansion generally, is good or bad; and it includes people like Glenn Reynolds ("Instapundit") who are pro-gay marriage non-churchgoers whose sole claim to being right-wing is that they support the U.S. in the Iraq war. Yet commentary I see about the Right and Iraq always seems to assume:

1. Everybody on the Right supports the Iraq War.

2. Everybody who supports the Iraq War is doing so in some sort of ideological hothouse where they never have to hear the arguments why they were wrong.

In my observation and experience, (1) and (2) are both untrue.

Note that I've said nowhere whether those of us who supported, and continue to support the war, are correct to have done so, or not: maybe, given God-like infallibility, we'd all suddenly realize that we'd been wrong. But what I do think I can say is that there aren't too many war supporters in 2007 who aren't vividly aware that their viewpoint's debatable, and, moreover, that there are sane arguments against our point of view. We'd have to not merely be convinced of our viewpoint but catatonic to not know that, by now.

So if somebody still supports the war in December 2007, it's not too likely that they're going to suddenly renounce their views when the political weathervane swings. Nor are they likely to be feeling secretly guilty about having made the best moral decision they could about what was bound to be a bad choice, either way -- any more than most anti-war folks are likely to secretly feel bad about how Saddam Hussein would still be ruling Iraq, if they'd gotten their way.

Not all decisions in real life are perfect, and guaranteed to have no bad consequences. I wish they were, but they're not. And that cuts very much both ways in the pro-vs.-anti-war debate.

--Erich Schwarz

Unknown said...

"but I see the ideological lockstep-itude of the Right assumed so often by the Left, that it's hard to not wonder if there's some projection going on."

I think it's human nature to attribute a certain amount of lockstep-itude to the other side (whatever the other side of an issue may be), just as it's human nature to assume the other side is stupider than you. I sometimes have the same sense of the Right (that I hear so much from them about the lockstep-itude of the Left that I wonder if there isn't some projection going on), but then I look at other people on the Right that aren't quite so much into presuming lockstep-itude and tell myself that I'm just noticing a universal human tendency more when it involves other people making false assumptions about me than when the false assumptions are going in another direction.

On the anti-war films tanking in the box office, I think the thing is that even a lot of us who are anti-war don't necessarily want the downer of watching a movie in the theater about just how bad it all is. My husband and I talked about Rendition, and decided, despite liking Reese Witherspoon, that we would wait till it came out on DVD, so that we could shut it off if we decided we needed a break.

It's different if a criticism of the war is veiled in fantasy, or if you're watching a movie about a past war that's safely over. One can see The Crucible as Arthur Miller's commentary on the McCarthy Era, but I suspect it got better reception for being more directly about the Salem Witch Trials.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Maybe the reason we don't have a pro-Iraq war movie is that Americans like happy endings and the Iraq war doesn't offer one.

Even if you tried to end it with an up note with a school built or a neighborhood safe or a group of bad guys killed, viewers would know the gains could be destroyed the next day. (The bad guys wouldn't come back to life, but there could easily be a new group.) (Sidetrack in poor taste: are there any zombie movies that were set in actual wars?)

More generally, doing something new is hard--hard to think of and hard to push through to completion. (This is probably partly my problems with inertia talking, but there's a reason Hollywood does so many spinoffs and sequels.) While there have been many pro-war movies, figuring out how to make one for Iraq might count as a new thing.

Also, I don't get the impression Hollywood is especially fond of making highly polarizing movies. Have there been any where an abortion was the best choice?

Steven Barnes said...

Yeah, "The Birdcage" was supposedly about a couple of gay men. If they kissed once, I blinked and missed it. Gay men are defined by their sexuality, aren't they? Was there anything even vaguely approaching a PG-13 or even PG love scene? No? Then you had gay men being parodied for straight audiences. I would day that has little to no relationship to what gays would create for themselves. They get even less honesty in depiction than blacks or Asians.

Steve Perry said...

What I know about Hollywood makes me want to keep my distance.

I always think about Indy looking into the pit and saying "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?"

Frank said...

Steve says

Was there anything even vaguely approaching a PG-13 or even PG love scene? No? Then you had gay men being parodied for straight audiences. I would day that has little to no relationship to what gays would create for themselves. They get even less honesty in depiction than blacks or Asians.

Well one could say precisely the same thing about Conservatives. The couple played by Gene Hackman and Dianne West is parodied for liberal audiences.

How often are Conservatives heroes? For that matter, how often are CEOs or large corporations shown as honest and heroic?

And how many sex scenes to conservatives get in movies?