Following President Obama’s second inauguration and the State of the Union address, shortly before this year’s Oscars, the Motion Picture Association of America’s CEO and former Senator Chris Dodd addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on why movies matter.
Along with making a compelling case for the importance of the film industry to the U.S. economy and culture, Dodd addressed two big issues facing the film industry and the MPAA today –how to protect films against piracy in today’s digital environment, and violence in films, especially in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. A very timely speech, Dodd lent his voice to the impact of the entertainment industry. Dodd says one of the reasons why we love movies is that they dare us to think differently, bringing a sense of awareness into our world while elevating our thinking. This year’s Oscar-nominated films for Best Picture- Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty– each project the paradigm of how movies affect us culturally.
Entertainment exercises freedom of speech and creativity in courageously addressing social causes. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, as Dodd noted, pointing out that throughout history, film has been there to reflect the times. For example, he cited Tom Hank’s character confronting bigotry against people with AIDS in the movie Philadelphia. The best films ground us in common values and ideals regardless of our differences. When we sit down to spend a few hours to see a movie, we are absorbing the vital essence of the story. The social, cultural, economic messages are magnified through a sort of unspoken collaboration with the entertainment industry. The worldwide love of film projects a common human interest in movies. In Argo for example, the mutual human interest in movies helped get us into and out of Iran. Hollywood was the clandestine method or a political disguise of the CIA to fake their filmmaking and hence rescue the Americans.
The Hollywood notion of “faking it to make it” proved to be a valiant utilitarian tool in the form of acting. Furthermore, the fluffy or unrealistic ideas that are made into movies also have a practical everyday impact on our economy. Dodd provided some numbers on the productivity that is churned out in the film industry. Less than 1% of employees in film represent the people with the well paid jobs that we may secretly envy, while the other 99% account for every other person working in entertainment. Dodd states that sometimes we are quick to judge and are “guilty of viewing the film industry through the wrong lens.” In fact, he says more than 2.1 million people work in the industry, which means jobs for a vast majority of Americans who are not necessarily rich and famous. It’s an industry that doesn’t require the costly expense of a higher education, but provides a comfortable living for creative visionaries who work in film hubs all over the country.
Internationally, U.S. movies are also an economic powerhouse. Last year box office receipts from outside the US and Canada totaled $23.1 billion and the export: import ration was 7:1. Dodd claims “No other major American industry has a balance of trade as positive in every nation on the globe in which it does business than the American film industry.” He explains that in China theatres are built everyday, solidifying the common quality we share in moving our countries forward into the future with education and technology. In summary, these numbers produce high quality entertainment at a very low cost to the public.
The intrinsic value of movies is also extrinsic, or the value in them lies in the existence of them. Dodd explained that movies are uniquely handcrafted products sold to consumers who hunger for escape, knowledge, and new ideas. The tremendous variety and accessibility of content threatens the originality of these products. Dodd points out that we are in a new Golden Age where the movie industry and technology are getting bigger and bigger. In other words, there is now more content accessible through more channels. Therefore, the MPAA has had to increase its efforts for the protection and regulation of antipiracy, or even more specifically for the individual work of its creators. However, instead of battling high tech gurus against anti-piracy legislation, Dodd believes the solution is one that should work for everyone in the film industry, the technology companies, and the viewers. A major part of Dodd’s duty is to protect uniqueness, intellectual rights, freedoms, and viability of film as an extrinsic value on the global stage. The ability to educate, inspire, and change lives is at the essence of how we operate as a country, with the freedom of speech and the freedom of press at the core of our nations liberties.
In addition to his role in the MPAA, Dodd believes that movies have a responsibility to help communicate important messages in response to events such as the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. A former Connecticut Senator, father, and a citizen spoke from his heart saying that although it is very difficult for him to even talk about this unimaginable tragedy, he sees hope in the ability of movies to help put the spot light on gun violence and mental health. For a mass event such as this, communication on a large viable platform can educate and shift the current state of consciousness.
Movies entertain and educate viewers who want to listen beyond politicians or finger pointers on their pedestals. After all, Dodd pointed out, people as a whole understand ideas more than they can remember details in history books. He noted that the popularity at Spielberg’s film Lincoln proves there is a vast interest and recognition of the importance of this turning point in history. When asked whether the NRA’s was right in blaming video games and films for the violence at Newtown, Dodd noted that the NRA’s statement was predictable. He further acknowledged that while there is no perfect protection against the negative influence of violence in films, censorship is not the answer. Instead the MPAA advocates a 3-pronged approach: choice, control, and education. For example, the MPAA ratings are there to help people, especially parents, choose appropriate films for themselves and their children. It is also there to help parents control what their children watch. Lastly, the MPAA does its best to educate the public about the ratings system, and the tools available to help make those choices. All three elements help protect filmmaking as a product of freedom of speech and press, both in America and worldwide.
When asked about the political controversy surrounding the film Zero Dark Thirty, Dodd noted that the movie is based on a true story, not the actual story. While filmmakers have the creative freedom of expression to influence change, it is not the MPAA’s responsibility to control storytelling or the distinctions between movies and politics. As Dodd’s voice boldly rang throughout the room, his words resonated with me as both a journalist and employee in the entertainment industry.
Politics and entertainment may not be so far removed from each other. Politicians and filmmakers are two separate divisions, yet both share the ability to ignite change, or shift the patterns of traditional thinking. Despite their differences, they both seem to be equally clever, innovative, critical, comical, amusing, emotional, and passionate vehicles for change.