Risky Business

There’s an old adage in the business world that you should never risk offending a client by talking about religion or politics. What to make of the film industry, then, which in recent months appears to be dispensing with that particular rule of etiquette? A series of controversial films is testing the notion that politically and religiously neutral material is required to attract large audiences. This volatile fusion between politics, religion, and success at the box office may in fact be leading to a revival of risk taking among filmmakers.

Three films in particular have recently offered fodder for everything from newspaper editorials to senate hearings: The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s violent depiction of Christ’s crucifixion; The Day After Tomorrow, a thriller based on a hypothetical environmental disaster brought on by massive global climate change; and Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s new documentary focusing on the relationship between the Bush family, Osama bin Laden, and the Saudi royals.

None of these, on the surface, would seem to have much potential for commercial success. But each film—engendering accusations of, respectively, anti-Semitism, bad science, and corporate censorship—is poised to produce fabulous returns on investment by addressing tough political issues in a country that is as politically and religiously polarized as it has ever been.

Major political figures and organizations are engaging in vocal battles over these productions, battles that used to be reserved for the stage during a political debate or a candidate’s press releases. So what does this mean for film?

Many in the film community have spoken out about the consolidation of media companies reducing the number of intellectually challenging films that actually reach audiences. Mel Gibson made a big deal out of having to fund The Passion of the Christ with his own resources. Michael Moore had a temper tantrum when Disney refused to distribute his film, linking Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s decision to expected tax benefits from the state of Florida. Eisner, while denying such an obvious political quid pro quo, did state that his decision was made to avoid offending the broad political spectrum that makes up Disney’s customer base.

The controversy over The Day After Tomorrow, released in May by 20th Century Fox, initially led to studio spokespeople attempting to distance themselves from the efforts of former vice-president and environmental spokesman Al Gore to attach himself to the film. The stories surrounding these blow-ups have inevitably referenced other corporate censorship decisions—including CBS’s choice earlier this year to decline an anti-Bush advertisement from the nationwide grassroots network, MoveOn.org, and to pull the miniseries, The Reagans, after protests from family.

These issues have brought about fresh self-reflection within the industry, such as whether or not writers and directors are starting to self-censor in order to make a living. David Mamet has been quoted as saying, "We have, as a nation, become our own thought police; but instead of calling the process by which we limit our expression of dissent and wonder ‘censorship,’ we call it ‘concern for commercial viability.’" Others, including environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., have likened the new steps taken by corporations to McCarthy era blacklists.

While concern over censorship, either political or corporate, is a real issue today, the recent controversy may actually be the harbinger of a renewal of politically and socially charged productions, making Gibson’s and Moore’s films poised to enjoy unprecedented commercial success. Many are suggesting that they are simply redefining the film industry business model to match the new polarized American audience. Gibson’s private previews to religious leaders who were then sworn to secrecy suggest a sophisticated marketing strategy to prime the pump of the fiery debate that followed. In Moore’s case, it has become evident that he knew that Disney would not distribute his film over a year ago, but launched his outrage just in time for the Cannes Film Festival, where he was awarded the top jury prize.

Gore, interestingly, is taking a slightly different road by attaching political meaning to a non-political enterprise—The Day After Tomorrow—in order to get his message out to a new audience. Regardless of the quality of the film (and the science behind it), Gore and MoveOn.org readily admit that its importance lies in the twenty million potential voters who are expected to see it, even before the added publicity. The business model makes all kinds of sense. An environmental film festival would be lucky to get an audience of 500 and would be limited to only the converted, whereas Gore and MoveOn.org can reasonably hope that all kinds of people will flock to see New York City engulfed by a giant tidal wave.

Shortly after Gore’s press release announcing his efforts to hand out materials related to global warming at cinemas showing the film, the spin doctors of the Bush administration immediately ordered that no NASA scientists were allowed to comment on the film. Only after a copy of the missive was leaked to The New York Times was the order withdrawn. Despite public statements from the RNC dismissing Gore’s antics, someone in the White House was worried it might work.

Unlike Disney, however, 20th Century Fox saw the opportunity for financial gain and moved quickly to reverse its initial statements and embrace the grassroots effort surrounding the film. In an uncomfortable moment, Kennedy was so quick to deliver a seemingly prepared speech on the irresponsibility of the corporate executives at Fox that he had not heard that the media giant was no longer resisting the partnership. Thinly veiling his delight at finding such a marketing windfall, Fox spokesman Jeffrey Godsick told The New York Times, "Clearly the movie is entertainment, but all of this activity creates additional interest, making it more topical. It’s been wonderful."

There is another rule of thumb in business: successful business models are quickly imitated. Through the anger over censorship, we may in fact be finding a willingness and market for bringing the forces of film and politics/religion back together.

Filmmakers concerned about self-censoring their films into blandness may soon have to worry about injecting controversy in order to make them economically viable. But if this is in fact the trend, the future may at last be bright for those with a message to convey and a willingness to do so without fear. This would be good news for the best of independent filmmakers and, perhaps more importantly, for democracy.

Speak out loudly against censorship. It is the right thing to do, gets the public’s attention, and might just create a market again for political film and discourse that can make America think.

About :

Matt Dunne is the Democratic state senator of Vermont, and founder of the Vermont Film Commission. Previously, he served two and a half years as National Director of AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), and four terms as a Vermont state representative.