Hollywood's Disdain for Democracy

by John W. Cones

Thank you _________. I'm going to try to keep my prepared remarks rather short this evening and reserve as much time as possible for questions and answers. That's usually a lot more fun, and should help us come closer to answering your specific concerns anyway.

Some of you in this audience may have heard that there are those who consider my positions on certain issues relating to the Hollywood-based U.S. film industry to be controversial. To me, my views are honest, straightforward, based primarily on facts and entirely logical. So now, we'll give you an opportunity to decide for yourself.

First let me point out the general academic orientation from which I come. My undergraduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin was in communications. So my approach to film has always been one in which I recognize that motion pictures are more than merely entertainment. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in its 1952 Burstyn v. Wilson case, the decision which first applied the First Amendment right of free speech to feature film, the motion picture is a significant medium for the communication of ideas. I agree with the Supreme Court's assessment and consider the motion picture to be one of the most powerful communications media ever devised.

Second, my minor concentration as an undergraduate was in sociology, so quite naturally, I am also concerned about issues relating to whether the ideas communicated through this powerful communications medium of feature film, have an impact on our society, and if so, what is the nature of that impact?

So, these are a couple of important starting points for me, two areas of academic study which still influence my thinking and approach to the study of film. Now, it just so happens that back in 1987, my law practice took me to Los Angeles for the purpose of working with independent feature film producers who sought to raise investor funds with which to develop or produce their movies. That's what I've done professionally for twelve years.

In addition to helping hundreds of independent feature film producers attempt to put their visions on the screen, I've also lectured to thousands of filmmakers, attorneys and others over the years at UCLA, USC, SMU, the American University in Washington, D.C., the American Film Institute, the Loyola, University of Texas and Cal Western schools of law, the Hollywood Film Institute and elsewhere, about this topic of film finance. I developed seminar handouts to accompany those lectures, and the handouts grew into books. So I've published about a half dozen books about the film industry, starting with this area of film finance and then moving on to topics delving into the relationship between film finance and creative control. It turns out that in many real life transactions, it is extremely difficult to separate the source of financing from the power to control what goes on the screen.

As I did more and more research about the film industry I realized that a number of Hollywood observers and commentators were concerned and had written about what they viewed as excessive violence in films, graphic sex, gratuitous foul language, a politically liberal slant and anti-religion themes in Hollywood films, so not wanting to duplicate their work, I took a look at another area of concern to me, and that is the apparent depiction of certain populations in our diverse society in a negative or stereotypical manner.

It just seemed to me that if the motion picture was a significant medium for the communication of ideas, and we recognized that ideas, have always (throughout the history of modern civilization), and will always, influence the thinking, beliefs and attitudes of human beings, then it could not possibly be desirable to allow any powerful communications medium to consistently portray certain groups within our diverse society in a negative or stereotypical manner. But, that apparently is exactly what was happening with Hollywood films. A number of groups have in fact complained from time to time about this phenomenon, but unfortunately, they've not had much success in influencing the way such decisions are made in Hollywood.

So, instead of restricting my research to any particular group victimized by Hollywood films, I considered film portrayals of many populations that co-exist in our modern day society, and confirmed to my satisfaction that at least a half-dozen groups or so were indeed consistently portrayed in Hollywood films in a negative or stereotypical manner. Those groups included Arabs and Arab-Americans, Muslims, Christians, Latinos, Asians and Asian-Americans, Italian Americans and Whites from the American South. My studies indicate that several other population groups have in recent years made some small gains toward more balanced or diverse portrayals in Hollywood films, but still are probably not where they ought to be in that regard and those groups include women and African-Americans, along with gays and lesbians.

Again, keep in mind that my belief and concern is that the consistent portrayal of any population in our diverse society in a negative or stereotypical manner, through a powerful communications mass medium like feature film, will inevitably influence the attitudes, thinking and beliefs of millions of moviegoers, particularly the more unsophisticated younger members of those audiences. And my concern is a serious and legitimate concern.

In any case, once I confirmed that these blatant patterns of bias actually exit in Hollywood films, the next logical question is, why? Why are whole populations in our diverse society consistently portrayed in Hollywood films in a negative or stereotypical manner? Well, again I turned to the literature of the film industry and determined that several observers of Hollywood, including Hortense Powdermaker who had studied the film industry from an anthropological perspective in the middle of the century, had already offered a possible explanation. But, I came up with my own expression of the phenomenon, and that is that movies, to a large extent, tend to mirror the values, interests, cultural perspectives and prejudices of their makers. And, I've yet to find anyone who rejects this thesis statement--that movies, to a large extent, tend to mirror the values, cultural perspectives and prejudices of their makers. So, this leaves of with no other choice, as seekers of truth, but to proceed to the next logical question: who are the makers of Hollywood films?

As any researcher must do, I've tried to narrow the focus of this inquiry, in this instance to those films produced or released by the Hollywood major studio/distributors, because those are the films seen by some 95% of the domestic theatrical moviegoing audience. So, then the question becomes, who has the power to decide which movies are going to be produced or released by the Hollywood major studio/distributors each year.

Again, I primarily relied on my survey of the film industry literature, the published works of several hundred other authors and observers of the Hollywood scene, combined with some original research. I looked at various segments of the film industry (producers, distributors, talent agents, directors, actors, actresses, screenwriters, equipment manufacturers, entertainment attorneys and so forth) and concluded that although in some instances a particularly powerful agent, actor, actress or director may have a considerable amount of influence in helping move a given film project forward, ultimately, those people who actually have the power to greenlight a movie are still the top three studio executives at the vertically integrated major studio/distributors.

So, I limited my study to the top three studio executives at these so-called major studio/distributors, made a list of the names of those executives from the start of operations for each of those companies through the mid-90s when the study was done, and set out to determine as best I could, what about their backgrounds might result in the particular patterns of bias I had observed in Hollywood films. Again, I merely collected from the industry literature, including individual press clippings on these studio executives what they and others had already reported about their backgrounds. I merely conducted an organized study that allowed me to determine that some 60 to 80 percent of these individuals who had greenlight authority over Hollywood films actually shared a common background. And, based on the literature of the industry and using specific descriptions already offered by many other Hollywood observers, that shared background could most accurately be described as politically liberal, not very religious, Jewish males of European heritage.

Now, for some people, this was going too far! But for me, it was merely a logical progression leading to a factual and sociological observation. And, I've seen no study by academics or others offering persuasive evidence that the Hollywood control group could be accurately described in a significantly different manner. It seems that some of the Hollywood apologists simply can't handle the truth.

Now, it is important to note that nowhere in my writing or lectures, have I ever stated, suggested or implied that any of these 20 or so gentlemen at any given time, behaved the way they behaved because they are Jewish. It's just simply not there. Nor, have I ever written, stated, suggested or implied that the behavior of this small group of gentlemen is typical of the much broader Jewish community. Despite the false allegations of some of the so-called Hollywood apologists, including the false accusation of anti-Semitism, those broad generalizations are just not there.

And further, I'm not even suggesting that the consistent negative or stereotypical portrayals of certain populations in our diverse society has any particular connection to the Jewish part of the multi-faceted backgrounds of these studio executives. Rather, I'm suggesting that these particular individuals, the twenty or so studio executives who at any given time have the power to decide which movies will be produced or released by the major studio/distributors each year, have been and continue to be prejudice, or at the very least not very sensitive to the biased portrayals they are consistently putting out through their films. I am also stating with certainty that there is very little diversity at the highest levels in the Hollywood establishment and that lack of diversity is reflected on the screen.

Aside from those few who have chosen to utilize the false accusation of anti- Semitism (what I call the anti-Semitic sword) in their effort to chill my free speech, others have simply taken the position that inquiries into the backgrounds of studio executives is for some reason inappropriate. On the other hand, these same Hollywood apologists readily admit that it is appropriate for the studio executives to utilize the enormous communications power of feature film to make bold, emotionally charged and sometimes outrageous or misleading statements about religion, politics, culture, ethnicity, race, regional populations, sexuality and all manner of other topics. If we accept the fundamental concept that movies, to a large extent, tend to mirror the values, interests, cultural perspectives and prejudices of their makers, then it is completely appropriate to study whether there are positive correlations between what we see on the screen and the backgrounds of those who have the power to determine what is portrayed in movies. Unfortunately, few, if any in our academic community have the courage to undertake such highly relevant studies.

On the other hand, how did the power to determine which movies will be produced or released by the Hollywood major studio/distributors come to be concentrated in the hands of such a narrowly-defined interest group? Again, my studies indicate that it occurred over a 90-year period through the use of hundreds of business practices that can be collectively described as unfair, unethical, unconscionable, anti-competitive, predatory and illegal. Those specific business practices are set forth and discussed in some detail in my two books: How the Movie Wars Were Won and The Feature Film Distribution Deal. Ultimately, I've had to conclude that control of the Hollywood-based U.S. film industry has been obtained illegitimately. It was gained and is maintained through the systematic and arbitrary exclusion from power of most Hollywood outsiders by the consistent patterns of behavior of this Hollywood insider group.

Now, what does this have to do with democracy? Well, the fundamental concepts of democracy and freedom of speech, the very freedom enjoyed by feature film and other media in our society, go hand in hand. They are both based on the underlying principle of a free marketplace of ideas. In other words, the drafters of our Constitution, determined many years ago, that our nation would be more likely to make the best democratic decisions with respect to important issues that face our country if all viewpoints are heard -- if everyone in our society has a fair opportunity to express their views.

Well, times have changed. Now, our national discourse is dominated by the mass media. And, one significant medium for the communication of ideas in our society is feature film. To the extent, that this important communications medium is not equally and fairly open to all groups within our diverse society for the expression of their views, our free marketplace of ideas is severely limited and our democracy is substantially weakened. Members of the Hollywood control group have long been hiding behind the protection of the free speech provision of the First Amendment to our Constitution to communicate whatever its members want to say through film, while at the same time, using other means including employment discrimination and anti-competitive business practices to prevent others from telling their important stories, and communicating their ideas through film.

So, what is it that we need to do in order to bring greater diversity to film, and thereby strengthen our democracy? There are a lot of things that we should be doing including reforming our fraudulent movie ratings system and talking to our Congressional representatives and other government leaders about their failure to insure equal or fair access to this important communications medium, but for the moment, we need to create and permanently fund a film industry research institute to encourage and support ongoing research into what is really going on in Hollywood. Because without this ongoing and current research and the information it develops, the Hollywood establishment will always attempt to dismiss our efforts by claiming that our information is out of date and Hollywood has changed.

The truth is that in many important respects, Hollywood has not changed that much in its 90-year history and we need at the very least to conduct the research and produce annual reports on diversity, or the lack thereof, in the executive suites of the Hollywood major studio/distributors, along with the corresponding level of diversity on the screen. Limited but similar research is already being conducted in the field of television and for some of the film industry guilds and women's groups. It is no less important for the film industry generally.

Recently, the United States joined with its NATO allies to spend billions of dollars and put American lives at risk in fighting for a principle, that is: no nation- state shall be defined primarily by the ethnicity of its people. What I am saying is that this same important principle should be applied here in our own country and democracy so that no industry, certainly not an important communications industry such as feature film, can be allowed to arbitrarily preclude participation at its highest executive levels based on considerations of ethnicity.

Ultimately, as already pointed out by the Supreme Court, the motion picture is a significant medium for the communication of ideas. And, in a democratic society, we cannot afford to stand by and allow any single narrowly-defined interest group to control or even dominate any of our important communications media, because that inaction will inevitably weaken, if not transform our cherished democracy into a fraudulent facsimile. In the absence of a free marketplace of ideas, our democracy is flawed. And, it is impossible to have a free marketplace of ideas, so long as any of our important communications media are controlled by one or even a few, narrowly-defined interest groups. If we want to preserve our democracy and make the world a better place, we need to start with what we communicate to each other, and who gets to communicate.


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