Baz Luhrmann’s epic film Australia has been criticized by many, and most vociferously by Germaine Greer, for sanitizing the country’s colonial history. At the same time it has served the purpose of making Australia look like a great place to go on holiday – its release was accompanied by reams of coverage in the travel sections of newspapers and a lavish advertising campaign by the Australian tourist board. This kind of marketing is hardly new; throughout cinematic history, films have served political and social ends. But in order to understand the influences at play in Hollywood today it is still worth asking in more detail: what prompted 20th Century Fox to produce this kind of material? The answer becomes clearer when we learn that the studio’s parent company is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which worked hand in hand throughout the film’s production with the Australian government. The arrangement works well for both parties: the government benefits from the increase in tourism and, in turn, Murdoch received tens of millions of dollars in tax rebates.
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.
This is just one example of how the content of Hollywood movies is determined not only by the demands of the box office and the vision of studio “creatives,” but also by those higher up the economic food chain. Indeed, in its cinema power list the Hollywood Reporter placed Rupert Murdoch at number one. Steven Spielberg, at number three, was the only director in the top ten.
The economic structure of the film industry is built around the dominant Hollywood studios (“the majors”), each of which is a subsidiary of a much larger corporation. Each studio is therefore not a separate or independent business, but rather just one of a great many sources of revenue in its parent company’s wider financial empire. So, just as 20th Century Fox is owned by News Corp, Paramount is a subsidiary of the media conglomerate Viacom. Universal is owned by General Electric/Vivendi, Disney by the Walt Disney Corporation and so on. These parent companies are huge corporations and their economic interests are sometimes closely tied to politicized areas, such as the armaments industry. They also depend on governments, which have the power to regulate in their favor and grant them tax breaks.
"Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy."
Alford & Graham
This is not to say that the content of a studio’s films is determined entirely by the political and economic interests of its parent company; studio CEOs typically have considerable leeway to make the pictures they want to make, without any direct interference. But it is important to understand how and why Hollywood studios are tied into these wider corporate interests. At best, such interests contribute to a culture of deradicalized filmmaking. At worst, it is certainly not unknown for parent companies to take a conscious and deliberate interest in certain films.
To take one example: the Walt Disney Company tried to withhold Miramax’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), the Michael Moore blockbuster. Miramax insisted Disney had no right to block it from releasing the film since its budget was well below the level requiring Disney’s approval. Disney representatives responded that they could veto any Miramax film if it appeared that its distribution would be counterproductive to the interests of the company. Ari Emanuel, Moore’s agent, alleged that Disney’s boss Michael Eisner had told him he wanted to back out of the deal due to concerns about political fallout from conservative politicians, especially regarding tax breaks given to Disney properties, including Walt Disney World in Florida (Florida’s governor was the then-president’s brother, Jeb Bush). Disney denied any such high political ball game, explaining that they were worried about being “dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle” and alienating customers.
When Disney released Pearl Harbor – a simplistic mega-budget movie, which celebrated the American nationalist resurgence following that “day of infamy” – it received lamentable reviews. Nevertheless, Disney unexpectedly decided in August 2001 to extend the film’s nationwide release window from the standard two to four months to seven months, meaning that this “summer” blockbuster would be screening until December. In addition, Disney expanded the number of theaters in which the film was showing from 116 to 1,036.
While such fare finds an easy route into the world’s multiplexes, more politically challenging films are left to flounder for funding. Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) was a graphic exposé of the Salvadoran civil war; its narrative was broadly sympathetic toward the left wing peasant revolutionaries and explicitly critical of US foreign policy, condemning the United States’ support of Salvador’s right wing military and infamous death squads. Stone’s film was turned down by every major Hollywood studio, and was eventually financed by British and Mexican investors. More recently, controversial documentaries such as Loose Change, which argued that 9/11 was an “inside job,” and Zeitgeist, which presents a frightening picture of global economics, have been viewed by millions through the Internet when corporate media wouldn’t touch them.
GE/Universal’s United 93.
GE/Universal’s United 93 was billed as the “true account” of how heroic passengers on the plane “foiled the terrorist plot” by forcing it to crash prematurely in rural Pennsylvania. At the time, Bush’s official 9/11 story was being seriously questioned by America’s independent news media; according to the results of a 2004 Zogby poll, half of New Yorkers believed “US leaders had foreknowledge of impending 9/11 attacks and ‘consciously failed’ to act”; and just one month prior to the release of United 93, 83 percent of CNN viewers confirmed their belief “that the US government covered up the real events of the 9/11 attacks.” With the official narrative under attack, the US government welcomed the release of United 93 with open arms: the film was a faithful audiovisual translation of the 9/11 Commission Report, with “special thanks” to the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison Phil Strub tucked away discreetly in the end credits. Soon after the film’s nationwide release date, in what might be interpreted as a cynical PR move and as a gesture of official approval, President Bush sat down with some of the victims’ family members for a private screening at the White House.
Munich, Steven Spielberg’s exploration of Israeli vengeance following the Palestinian terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics, could also be understood to reflect the interests of General Electric. Israel is one of GE’s most loyal customers, buying Hellfire II laser missiles as well as propulsion systems for the F-16 Falcon fighter, the F-4 Phantom fighter, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. Spielberg ends his film with a lingering shot of the World Trade Center, its twin towers standing as monolithic reminders of “why we fight,” and casting a shadow over the 167 minutes of running time. Meanwhile, the voice of the Palestinian cause is restricted to just two and a half minutes of dialogue. Far from being an “even-handed cry for peace,” as one critic claimed, Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy.
To understand what might happen if big business interests were less prevalent in the film industry, consider the independent distributor Lions Gate Films. Lions Gate was formed in Canada by an investment banker, but is not beholden to a multi-billion dollar parent corporation with multifarious interests. The result has been some of the most daring and original popular political cinema of the past ten years: American Psycho, which criticized corporate capitalism; Hotel Rwanda, which highlighted the failings of US foreign policy and Lord of War, which focused on the arms trade.
As we peer up from our popcorn, it is worth remembering that behind the magic of the movies lurks the darker power of corporate public relations.
Matthew Alford is the author of the forthcoming Projecting Power: American Foreign Policy and the Hollywood Propaganda System.
Robbie Graham is an associate lecturer in film at Stafford College.