The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Showbiz shocker: Hollywood is really ruled by ... fear!

August 3, 2010 |  1:50 pm

The_joker My favorite conservative film blog is Libertas Film Magazine, since they actually love movies and (unlike the crazies over at Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood) don't view every film through the prism of how it's furthering a cunning Hollywood socialist plot to undermine American values. So I guess it's a tribute to Libertas' free-thinking conservatism that the site's new regular contributor is a successful comedy screenwriter who in his debut post dispels the conservative myth that Hollywood studios are always trying to enforce a political agenda.

In fact, says the screenwriter--who goes by the nom de plume the Joker--the real driving force behind most industry decision making is one emotion, and one only: fear. Here's his key take on the subject:

"If Hollywood has one reigning ideology, one overriding 'agenda' that governs everything that happens, it's this fear of being fired. Fear is the unified field theory of Hollywood. [Studio execs] are fairly good with story structure, and give surprisingly well-thought-out notes. But on certain issues, the political ones, the notes tend to gravitate toward the absurd because their Number One Rule of Comedy is: Offend No One. Why? Because executives are basically afraid. So given the mandate of 'offending no one,' comedy writers are generally asked to excise all politics from the plot, characters and themes.... Go for the safe bad guy (corporations), the pat ending (the divorced couple get back together), the inoffensive villain (Russians and Nazis okay, Arabs and African-Americans not so much)." 

This safety first description jibes with stories I have heard from screenwriters over the years, but what gives it a fresh spin is the way the Joker relates it to Hollywood politics. He points out that political agendas can break both ways in the business. Liberal cliches abound in scripts that routinely portray real estate developers as the bad guys, while on the other hand there is a virtual ban on characters having abortions in studio movies.

He also makes a shrewd point about Girl Power--or the lack of it--in studio circles. The Joker worked on a big studio romantic comedy in which the couple has sex with other people during a break in their relationship, only to get back together in the end. The studio's big note: The woman can't have sex with another guy, though she could :"almost" have sex, as long as she didn't actually do the dirty deed. When the writer asked for clarification--"Okay, so they both 'almost' have sex with other people?"--he was told that of course, the guy could have sex, just not the girl.

The punch line? "And the executive giving the note was a woman. So was her boss and the head of the studio. How's that for progressive Hollywood feminism?" How's that indeed. The clear point here being that even though Hollywood may be loaded with liberals and self-styled feminists of all stripes, when it comes to assembling a commercial movie, everyone tends to check their ideas at the door. Having a hit is always far more important than making a statement. As Sam Goldwyn used to tell his screenwriters oh-so-many eons ago: If you want to send a message, call Western Union. 

Photo: Heath Ledger as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." Credit: Stephen Vaughn / Warner Bros. Pictures