La Grande Illusion

The first rule in motion picture funding is “never use your own money.” Approach potential investors and get what you can from state and local grants. States pour millions into the movie industry each year. Why should Hollywood receive subsidies with worldwide box office receipts and home entertainment sales turning flops into moneymakers, and with 50 of the largest companies accounting for 80 percent of $55 billion in annual estimated returns? The film business is far from going under.

Don’t tell Hollywood. Armed with powerful lobby, top studios habitually complain before Congress about massive financial losses as a result of piracy, often using data from “independent” firms to support their claims. For example, in 2005 the Motion Picture Association of America commissioned a study reporting 44% decline in revenue due to college student piracy. Two years later, the same firm revealed the percentage was erroneous. Losses were closer to 15%. Other analysts say the actual figure is 3%.

Bureaucrats in city hall bend over backwards to attract production companies with large grants. Films create jobs, bring in valuable income for local businesses, and support tourist industry. But subsidies also come at a high price. According to Luke Malpas of the New Zealand Sunday Star Times, the $45 million in tax subsidies James Cameron received to shoot Avatar in New Zealand cost their taxpayers $50,000 for every employee hired by effects house Weta Digital.

Regardless of how good Weta’s work is (and it is excellent), there is no principled argument to be made for taxpayers subsidising jobs in the film industry and paying film industry salaries, as opposed to any other. Why are those involved in film-making more deserving than those at a forestry mill that might close? Or a rural hospital that could be kept open?

Good question. Film subsidy programs do not reflect significant advantages for employment. According to Livingston Daily, the state of Michigan’s hefty 2008 film tax incentive revealed an almost 10% decline in film employment 17 months after passing legislation.

After describing tax incentives as hand-outs for rich corporations, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore became the happy recipient of a $1 million dollar subsidy from the state of Michigan for the film “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Of course, as a member of the Michigan Film Office Advisory Council, he is responsible for nominating beneficiaries of the subsidy to the Michigan Film Office. Since the controversial story broke out, Moore has become a self-described moderate regarding film subsidies.

Few states are willing to cap tax incentives or use them to favor local production houses. For example, in 2007 the government of Massachusetts eliminated the state’s $7 million subsidy cap per movie in favor of limitless subsidies. According to the website Wicked Local Cambridge,

Supporters of reducing the cap said that the state should not offer subsidies to a wealthy, private entertainment industry while education, human service programs and local aid are still severely underfunded. They noted that the state-funded $5 million portion of Leonardo DiCaprio's estimated $20 million salary for 60 days of work on a movie here would pay $45,045 salaries for 111 teachers for one year. They argued that the state lost $95.5 million in 2008 by subsidizing $113 million for these movies and receiving only $17.5 million in taxes and other revenue generated by the companies.

While profits in Hollywood continue to soar, postproduction expenses for indie filmmakers slimmed down considerably. The cost of CGI animation notwithstanding, the exit of celluloid and the advent of digital cinema allow even inexperienced filmmakers to produce short and full length features for a fraction of the cost. Producers no longer have to tremble at the sight of Kodak price lists as my friends and I did almost eight years ago when making our first movie. Back then even using the cheapest stock and processing cost well over $5,000 just for a ten minute short film; $11,000 considering the price of rentals, permits, and editing costs. Today cameras are affordable and an abundance of software is available targeting the indie filmmaker, including Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Adobe’s After Effects, or the Linux-based Cinelerra.

Of course, filmmaking at the studio level is still far from pedestrian and it would be simplistic to say otherwise. Besides production and postproduction expenses, distribution costs remain challenging for the average professional straight out of film school. But in a world where films are made on shoe-string budgets and Internet marketing becomes increasingly relevant, cinema as art (and as business) enjoys the benefit of wider and healthier competition.

Wouldn’t thousands in subsidies to small or local production houses beat millions spent to court Tinseltown and create seasonal jobs?

Preference given to small production houses, artistic cooperatives, and locally-conceived projects would benefit the local economy on a consistent basis. Cooperatives could flourish using the combined skills of actors, writers, cinematographers, grips, etc.; each member belonging to local guilds reflecting their craft and serving God in their art through a greater diffusion of creativity unattainable in the industry of the status quo. These men and women, in touch with the joys, struggles, virtues, and experiences of their neighbors, would rival existing national guilds that cater to the objectionable content of major production companies, taking care never to glorify indecency and committed to their immaterial intentions. Tax subsidies for these groups could also come with caveats benefitting the local community. Out of state or regional small movie firms might be required to work with local businesses for set construction, sound recording, etc. so as to ensure lodging and catering are not the only industries receiving a boost. Finally, local policy could also stipulate a percentage of box office receipts, DVD sales, and other residuals set aside for the improvement of infrastructure, education, mom and pop business incentives, or dividends for residents in the area.

Difference in Values

Moguls slammed 2004’s The Passion of the Christ for its excessive violence while eagerly cashing in on three decades of blood baths like Halloween, Hellraiser, and psychopathic-comedies such as the A Nightmare on Elm Street series (Interestingly, the very same year Gibson’s film was released the pedophile-friendly Birth was panned by audiences who no doubt were “not ready” to stomach the perversion of adult-child “love”). They resorted to denouncing the film’s graphic content after an A-list actor broke the 30+ year old moratorium on religious-driven stories, a silence allegedly due to the unprofitability of religious films. Mel Gibson’s instincts were vindicated when he turned a $25 million investment into a profitable movie drawing in excess of $370 million domestically ($611M worldwide). Rather than take advantage of this success the studios sat on it. Leonardo Defilippis (director of the film Thérèse) credited Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as “opening the doors for all kinds of religious projects,” but Paramount never came knocking. Lionsgate did not trip over itself to acquire the rights to the lives of the Saints. Quite the opposite, movies attacking Christianity or western culture continue to be greenlit (e.g. The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons, and The Golden Compass).

Capitalizing on successful predecessors – as quickly as possible – is a time honored tradition in Hollywood. With the financial powerhouse of Hollywood these lackluster productions are cheap, relatively easy to make, and turn a modest profit. For example, films featuring Native Americans followed the success of Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. Television remakes blitzed after the success of The Addams Family. In many ways insignificant and formulaic copycats fuel the industry’s more ambitious productions, and sequels like the upcoming The Hobbit fill the pages of trade magazines with buzz. Not so with the $611M earning Passion play.

At the time of The Passion’s debut two further “missed” opportunities may be pointed out. Both of them are common practice. First, there was a failure to reissue classic, religious-themed movies for DVD that were exclusively available on VHS, to coincide with the film’s premiere (e.g. El Cid, Quo Vadis, David and Bathsheba, etc.). Second, competing studios also missed out on the opportunity to scour their inventory for related material and thus capitalize on the genre. For example, with the theatrical release of MGM’s remake of Michael Mann’s Manhunter (Red Dragon), a DVD of the original picture was reissued on DVD by Anchor Bay (MGM has recently acquired Manhunter and has released a DVD versio). So why would the movie industry divest from these typical business practices? The only answer I can come up with is Hollywood’s disconnect with the values and beliefs deeply held by mainstream Americans. “Doors for all kinds of religious projects” should have opened. But they didn’t. Hollywood continues to churn out countercultural films which do not edify or illuminate but degrade and corrupt. The dishonesty is only made worse when taxpayers have to foot the bill.

Machete as Genetically Modified Organism

The city of Austin has recently come under fire for subsidizing what some call a racist movie. Robert Rodriguez’s Machete is a film embroiled in speculation and controversy. Set for a September release, Machete is the story of a former Mexican Federale looking for an honest day’s work in the streets of Texas, who becomes an accessory in the plot to murder a U.S. Senator bent on deporting illegal immigrants. However, Machete is double-crossed in a false flag, tricked into playing patsy to garner public bitterness against Mexicans and support for the anti-immigration laws of the U.S. Senator he was originally hired to kill. With the help of an ethnocentric Catholic priest more interested in nationalism than the salvation of souls, Machete goes on a murderous rampage after the white men who betrayed him.

Machete’s trailer comes in the nick of time. Arizona’s recent no-nonsense anti-immigration legislation even spawned a radical trailer on Cinco de Mayo, with an outraged Machete (actor Danny Trejo) referencing the state saying they, “****** with the wrong Mexican.” No doubt the reference to Arizona and the date was chosen to highlight Mexico’s independence from Spain, a signal to European-Americans that there is going to be trouble for the state or possibly for the country. The trailer continues depicting the protagonist as he leads a mob of machete wielding Mexicans who raise their arms in the air, and prepare for an inevitable revolution.

Whether the trailer was serious or manufactured hype, by playing into the anger of Mexicans over the Arizona law, Robert Rodriguez may be playing with fire he will be unable to control. Ideas have consequences. So do films. Revolutionary U.S. and Mexican-based nationalist front groups know this and are seizing the opportunity to promote their racist and violent agendas.

What a waste. Given the recent Arizona law, a good filmmaker could have taken this opportunity to build solidarity between Latin American workers and their U.S. counterparts, after all NAFTA has indiscriminately wielded a double-edged sword. GMOs like BT Corn have not only devastated American farms but Latin American agriculture as well. Excellent films like Food, Inc demonstrate how billboards and ads were placed in foreign countries to recruit migrant workers by corporations complicit in the smuggling of undocumented workers across the U.S. border. Corruption by central banks, free trade, and collusion between Big Government and Big Business are topics average Americans and Europeans are well acquainted with and, while never condoning illegal behavior, can help build much needed empathy for those desperate in today’s economic climate.

Artistic Freedom and Decency

The film industry is a business when it is convenient to hide behind the corporation and when not, it hides under the immunity of artistic freedom. But it wasn’t always this way. In 1915 the United States Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were a business not covered by the First Amendment. Following several scandals during the industry’s infancy, the public outcry led to the creation of city and state censorship boards. Fearing federal censorship, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (now MPAA) was established as a trade lobby to police its own ranks and stop federal government intervention. Over the years MPAA ratings diminished in relevance and stripped down to the G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings we have today. In time the MPAA reduced its attention to censorship in lieu of the industry’s business interests.

Perhaps we need to have a serious conversation about the elephant in the room one dare not challenge: artistic license. Censorship is an unappealing subject to modern man yet we cannot speak of the ills of economic license and give a free pass to deregulated art, especially when public assistance is used to fund it. Decency standards must not simply be left to market forces any more than the economy should, particularly as art increasingly contributes to the development of our children and the household. Nor should standards be limited to evaluating violence, nudity, language, and sexual content. They must go further. As Archbishop Giovanni Cicognani accurately predicted in the 1930s, motion pictures pose a menace to morals and “massacre the innocence of youth.”

Until such a conversation takes place, and as long as the top studios run the show, the first step towards restructuring the movie industry is to resurrect the National Legion of Decency. This Christian organization successfully opposed and protested against content it objected to on moral grounds. The rise of the Legion caused fear among the trade papers. In 1934, Variety published a warning under the headline,

"CATHOLICS WOULD ENLIST ALL FAITHS—Need for Prompt Action to Avert Drastic Penalties Upon Picture Industry Urged in East—Real Danger—"

And they did. According to a Jun 11, 1934 article for Time Magazine, “Aiming at enlisting at least half the U. S. Catholic population of 20,000,000 as well as all Protestants and Jews who care to sign, the Legion last week claimed 2,000,000 members.” Imagine a number like that one in just one week.

What we need today is an aggressive, unified censor that will impress upon the faithful the need to abstain from art that is detrimental to the soul. Groups should be formed that will act in the capacity of a local Legion chapter, informing both the public at the parish level, the priest in his sermon, and especially women’s groups as mothers are the intelligentsia of the family. We need serious people creating and joining an active association which does more than simply emit pious movie reviews (although this would be a refreshing start.).

As we ponder the potential guilds and cooperatives, the craftsmen, the artists, and all those devoted to St. Gregory the Great, St. Joseph and his adopted son, our Heavenly King, let us recall the original 1933 membership pledge composed by Archbishop John McNicholas:

I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land…Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.

Servire Deo regnare est!


George Carmody Friday, May 28, 2010 at 11:14:00 AM CDT  

Ah, Richard, you take me back to my wide-eyed, idealistic youth when I wanted to be a film-maker (I even made a couple of shorts)! That was just before the digital revolution. Catholics have always been involved in making films and they should be now, but as you rightly point out, the majors would blacklist them! I was speaking to a producer in an independent film outfit in the UK a few weeks back. They are currently shooting a feature with two well known actors, but they are keeping their Catholic identity a secret because, as he said to me, if anyone in the industry found out, the film would be "dead in the water". So its identity will remain a secret...

I've been out of the independent/fringe film scene for quite a few years now, but there must be independent Catholic film-makers out there showing there stuff on YouTube or other internet platforms. Can you (or any others) steer me towards any sites worth checking out?

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