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In a recent post, we revisited fifty years ago, a cultural turning point with many similarities to today’s, a tumultuous, angry year when much of Hollywood saw mass audiences respond to Easy Rider and M.A.S.H. But inadvertently, it triggered a powerful law-and-order backlash whose inexhaustible fury would ensure that Archie Bunker, General Patton, Dirty Harry, Popeye Doyle, Vito Corleone, and Charles Bronson would provide the most iconic screen moments of the early Seventies.
To understate things, it sure seems today like a lot of people in this country, tens of millions of media consumers, are frustrated by their relative powerlessness. The Woke Market is not as big or bigger than the rest of America put together, and yet you’d never know that if you looked at a list of current films or TV shows. We can debate the reasons why, but there’s clearly an unsatisfied need to hotwire a path to cultural change, because whatever market mechanism is sending a corrective signal to the media, it’s not reaching enough of a real response.
The two articles so far in “You Say You Want a Revolution,” which began in June, and continued with part 2 in July, are invitations to imagine how to move towards a healthier culture, unabashedly aiming at putting ideas into practice, not proving them in theory. It’s an ongoing Ricochet conversation that seeks to move the ball a little farther down the field each time. We suggest specific examples of possible projects and ask you to dream up other, better ones.
Praise and shame; it never goes out of style. The Left’s playbook is a strong one: Attach your story to emotion, to a lasting, if not inextinguishable cause that nearly everyone can understand: For example, hard-line prewar segregation versus the rise of an oppressed people. Or women finally getting an equal chance at work, but at a time when they were more sexualized than ever. It’s not tough getting dramatic and colorful stories out of those raw ingredients, which have persisted as film material for roughly half a century. There are conservative variations on the stories just described, but by and large, they are considered liberal stories. They’ve proven that they have staying power, like it or not. They could be milked almost indefinitely.
What could be the equivalent on the Right? There are plenty of possibilities and you’ve already seen many of them discussed on Ricochet. Resentment over endless generations after generations of identity politics. Questions about the continuing relevance of affirmative action. Or even the seemingly incurable social-cultural abyss between groups of American whites who might as well live on different planets.
Not: Abstractions about the free market. “You didn’t build this.” “Ownership society.”
Those are only some of the deep and lasting emotions that a new direction in culture could turn into powerful screen stories. We’ve identified a few “causes”; now, we have to create or choose the specific projects that will embody them. When I posted the first in the series, @SkipSul said that in an age of many fragmented media choices, we’d be foolish to swing for the fences and bet everything, tentpole-style, on a handful of once-in-a-lifetime, win or lose it all kind of message-laden films. SkipSul, as usual, was right.
Nobody knows what will “hit,” so produce dramas, comedies, action pictures, documentaries, even dating movies appropriate to the chosen mission. A production slate is always needed. For a century, a studio putting everything on a single roll of the dice has been a prescription for disaster: Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate, and Waterworld. Yes, Mel Gibson (a troubled man with undeniable gifts) got away with it on The Passion. No, that doesn’t mean you’re a sure thing to get away with it when your current project finally meets its audience in 2021 or 2022.
Netflix, despite its financial ups and downs, is becoming Hollywood’s new business model. The Industry has a suicidal tendency to go with bet-the-house tentpoles, but Netflix and Amazon focus on an annual collection of lower-budget productions with growth potential if any one of them should catch on.
This new scattershot approach should have some relevance to social conservatives. Bluntly, if you were, for example, devoted towards extending the beneficial effects of the LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) and a wealthy member of the church donated a lot of money towards its media ministry, you could produce one mid-sized theatrical movie about Martin Luther. For the same sum, you could present an array of online “products” at as many levels as possible—kids, pre-teens, teens, young adults, families, and the elderly.
So you’ve decided what movie projects are missing from American life, and you’ve got writers and actors who are ready to make them. At this stage, to get them made and sold, it’s not like you’d need a rich pal: It’s worse. You’d probably need a couple of them, with different skill sets that don’t always overlap. The impresario, the super-salesman, and the keeper of the faith are not usually the same guy, and you need them all. The impresario is the showman, the braggart, the dynamo with a thousand contacts who can keep a production pipeline organized. He or she works in collaboration, and creative tension, with the head of sales. The impresario knows what artists and entertainers want to do; the sales boss only cares what people want to buy. Sales bring in the money, production spends it. You’d also be wise to have a Keeper of the Flame; someone of eminence who deals with Wall Street, the banks, the lawyers and the auditors.
Where could you even start such a process? Do it the way the pros did it—and by the pros, I mean the progressive Left. Make a handful of successful small projects and prove that developing a wider market is possible. That’s how the Sundance Institute changed Hollywood. It started with a “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” symbiosis. Robert Redford was the handsome prince. Harvey Weinstein was the ugly hunchback behind the throne. Redford’s holy, immaculate non-profit created a forum; Harvey’s down-and-dirty Miramax skillfully exploited the opportunity. The two were inseparable. Think of the synergy of Intel and Microsoft, or (once upon a time) Apple and Motorola, Sundance, and Miramax. Sundance discovered and encouraged new social trends; Miramax weaponized them and made a fortune.
My electronics analogies aren’t up to @hankrhody quality, but here goes: you know how amplification works? In a heated vacuum tube, or a transistor, a strong flow of electricity is interrupted and shaped, controlled by a much weaker one. Studios, TV networks, streaming platforms capable of serving millions of simultaneous streams; that’s big money by anyone’s standards. Yet, rather like the Church acting as a throttle (at the best of times) on Medieval kings, intellectual institutions like AFI (the American Film Institute), AMPAS, (the motion picture academy) and the Sundance Institute, all with a relatively modest financial profile, manage to lead the big money boys around by the nose. Prestige, praise, blame, and shame; that’s how the non-profit “clergy” of Hollywood work their cultural magic. I’ve got no right to distance myself; for decades, I was in it up to my neck. There’s no more efficient way to change Hollywood movies than to be in charge of praise and shame.
When Leonard Nimoy read about the astonishing grosses of Star Wars in 1977, he would recount later, he smiled and waited for the phone call, knowing that Paramount Pictures would suddenly realize, “Hey, we’ve got one of those!” When you look at the AFI or other cultural arbiters, conservatives should remember, “Hey, we’ve got one of those!” and work with @titustechera to make it a more powerful instrument of change.