When Hollywood Filmmaking Gets Political — in Real Time

When Hollywood Filmmaking Gets Political — in Real Time
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Why you should care

Because good storytelling can move people to action.

Slick-tongued lawyers and black-robed justices are one thing. A tearful Texas abortion provider explaining why she had to turn away a 13-year-old rape victim is quite another. Trapped, a 2016 documentary film about state regulations that target abortion clinics, was meant to tug on the heartstrings. But it was also designed to galvanize activists to preserve access to abortion.

The film’s release was timed to U.S. Supreme Court arguments over restrictions on Texas abortion providers, and while the filmmakers can’t really take credit for Justice Anthony Kennedy swinging their way in a 5-3 decision, they did raise the issue’s profile. Now, in Los Angeles, Scott Budnick is taking the notion that films can inspire political action and supercharging it with big money and Hollywood star power: The producer with credits that include The Hangover is raising money — $300 million is his lofty goal — to launch a company called Good Films, which will finance films with a political strategy attached.

Political propaganda is as old as film itself, and Hollywood has been intertwined with politics from its early days. But shifts in media distribution are buffeting the genre, allowing for more real-time political impact. Whereas political films have long addressed broader social themes of their times, films like Trapped, and the movies producers like Budnick want to make, are part of a trend of projects that are more sharply timed. The Netflix model can make release dates more nimble, an important quality when politics moves at the speed of Twitter.

The streaming platform isn’t a panacea necessarily. Annie Roney, founder of Ro*Co Films, one of Trapped’s distributors, says Netflix has a tight grip on how its documentaries are marketed, so “they strongly restrict educational and campaign-style screenings.” But Roney too turned to digital tools for the educational promotion this year of Al Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Sequel. Roney says more than 100 universities hosted screenings that were followed by a web chat with the former vice president. In all, they reached 10,000 college students. The impact of timing was evident to her after Trapped’s success.

We’re aligning three different worlds that don’t speak at all — entertainment, philanthropy and policy and legislation.

Scott Budnick, Hollywood producer

“The film, and the mountains of press that came with it, not only galvanized organizations already in the trenches with this issue of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers [TRAP laws],” says Roney about Trapped. “It opened the eyes for people on the sidelines who had no idea this was happening in other states.”

The mutual obsession Hollywood and politics have shared has spanned a century. Louisiana State University history professor David Culbert points to the famously anti-Black 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, but also the 1946 feature The Best Years of Our Lives, which delivered what Culbert calls “a comforting and supportive message” in the wake of World War II. More recently, America’s leftward shift on social policy has played out on screen: Think of how Will and Grace and Ellen shifted attitudes around gay marriage.

And then there are the overtly political films, from Michael Moore’s left-wing oeuvre to Citizens United, the nonprofit which has partnered with the likes of Andrew Breitbart and Newt Gingrich on right-slanted documentaries. Hillary: The Movie was the genesis of a landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, about whether the movie was subject to campaign finance rules as electioneering against Hillary Clinton. The sweeping court decision helped knock down limits to outside corporate money in campaigns.

But doing what Budnick wants to do is now far easier than it was in the days of Charlie Chaplin. In tackling inequality from education to gender, Budnick says he wants to time projects strategically for political debates and turn the usual big marketing splash on its head. Good Films will coordinate with advocacy groups to make sure the projects get in front of influential eyeballs in Washington and around the country, with a mobilization campaign that could even push specific bills. “We’re aligning three different worlds that don’t speak at all — entertainment, philanthropy and policy and legislation,” Budnick says. They could be movies, but Budnick is medium-agnostic. He raves about the Oscar-nominated immigrant tale Lion, but he’d also love to imitate the cultural impact of the Serial podcasts or the Hamilton stage production.

Political filmmakers may have a hard time breaking out of their respective bubbles. Many Donald Trump fans are eager to dismiss Hollywood, and the aggressive denunciations of the president at this year’s award shows do not help matters. But Budnick thinks there is an opening to cross-partisan communion on issues like criminal justice reform — the cause that prompted him to leave bro comedies behind. After working with juvenile offenders as a volunteer, he left a lucrative job at Green Hat Films to found an anti-recidivism advocacy group pushing for solutions to America’s mass incarceration problem — a fight with support in conservative and liberal corners. Budnick, who in true Hollywood style slips the names of stars and moguls into his conversation with OZY, notes he met with the son of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim shortly after Trump’s election to discuss a way to tell more positive stories about Mexico.

“Just like gay marriage humanized gay couples, we can humanize refugees and immigrants,” Budnick says. “I really see this as a bipartisan company. There’s people on both sides that are in full agreement that we need to tell these stories. I have a lot of conservatives on board with telling stories that inspire people to act differently and live differently.” It’s a lofty vision for a cynical time. He will soon find out whether there’s a market for it.

OZY’s Libby Coleman contributed to this story.

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