[Editor's Note: Today we introduce a new contributor to LFM, The Joker.]

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By The Joker. I’m a comedy writer who works mostly for studios on mainstream movies.  Trust me when I tell you that you’ve seen some of my films.

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Today I want to dispel a major myth about the environment of movie studios, at least when it comes to comedies: that the powers that be are trying to enforce a political agenda.  If you’ve spent any time at all at a studio, you know how ridiculous that sounds. That’s because studio executives are governed by one – and only one – emotion: fear… of losing their jobs.  If Hollywood has one reigning ideology, one overriding “agenda” that governs everything that happens, it’s this fear of being fired.

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Fear is the unified field theory of Hollywood.

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I have great respect for most executives at the studios, because they do generally have a skill set. They 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 towards 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. When in doubt, go to a cliché – a tried and true device – so the executive can point to the market research if the movie bombs. Since the underlying plot of many comedies is usually irrelevant (e.g., who remembers that Happy Gilmore is trying to save his grandmother’s house?), no executive wants to go out on a limb by depicting something out of the ordinary. Go for the safe bad guy (corporations), the pat ending (the divorced couple gets back together), the inoffensive villain (Russians and Nazis okay, Arabs and African-Americans not so much).

The Joker dispenses advice about Hollywood.

This leads to a haphazard situation in terms of the values that are promoted in a mainstream Hollywood comedy.  Sometimes those values will be liberal, but sometimes conservative.  Instead of realistic behavior befitting the year 2010, for example, we’ll substitute family values straight out of the 1950’s – such as the total ban on characters having abortions in studio movies. But sometimes the dice roll the other way, and the cliché is a modern liberal one.  So real estate developers are the bad guys, and homeless people are always white (unless they’re down-on-their-luck geniuses or violin virtuosos). But no matter what, it’s got to be a cliché – because clichés don’t offend anyone (except for people looking for something original).

This reminds me of a romantic comedy I worked on for a major studio, 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 one note was: The girl can’t have sex with another guy.  She can almost have sex (whatever that means), but she can’t go through with it.  I asked, “Okay, so they both ‘almost’ have sex with other people?”  But the studio said,  “Oh, no, the guy can have sex with someone else, just the girl can’t.”  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?

So don’t think that studios are always nefarious cabals with an evil liberal agenda.  It’s more like Office Space, with fearful corporate bureaucrats just trying to keep their jobs – even if it means making comedies dumber and less original.  Because at the end of the day, it’s not that important for an executive’s career advancement to make hit movies. It’s much more important not to make a bomb.  That’s really something to be afraid of.

[Editor's Note: Special thanks to the LA Times' Patrick Goldstein for posting on this piece.]

Posted on August 3rd, 2010 at 10:38am.

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30 Responses to “What Rules Hollywood? Fear”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mr. K, Libertas Film Mag. Libertas Film Mag said: New LFM contributor: Hollywood insider 'The Joker.' See The Joker's first post: What Rules Hollywood? Fear … See: http://bit.ly/a4vfqz [...]

  2. SilverySurfer says:

    Wow … I’d love to know who ‘The Joker’ is. He seems pretty cynical about his Hollywood experiences.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      The Joker’s identity will remained wrapped in mystery, sheathed within an enigma.

  3. [...] the rest of this great post here Comments (0) Posted in Hollywood News [...]

  4. Pong says:

    yes … this is pretty much what I expected. typical corporate culture.

  5. shinsnake says:

    So, your supposition is that like every other type of comedy, the only person left to make fun of is the white male? Doesn’t make it any less ideologically biased just because they are under political pressure from liberals and it still doesn’t explain the fact that every single movie green-lit concerning the war on terror, capitalism, or traditional family values comes down on the liberal side of the argument. There’s a reason why The Kids Are Alright gets the hype it does while City Island gets ignored. It’s why Brothers at War is shuffled far away from the limelight while The Tillman Story is being pushed to the front of the line. Fear also doesn’t explain why studios keep bankrolling the same garbage over and over again and lose money hand over fist while movies like The Blind Side and The Passion come out of nowhere and make money but they decide not to follow that income. If fear drove them, perhaps they would figure out that making money could secure them and keep them in business and in work.

    • Govindini Murty says:

      Shinsnake – Of course we agree with you that there is a political agenda when it comes to dramas, action films, documentaries, and pretty much every other kind of film. It’s what we talk about all the time here.

      I think what the Joker was referring to was his own personal experience on comedies, and I can see where he’s coming from on that. The studio executives often have far more conservative values than they’re willing to admit, and it’s group acceptance (and fear of being not part of the group) that drives them to do the things they do – such as avoiding certain subjects in films and voting the way they do.

      As for the profit motive, the problem is Hollywood is making lots of money doing things exactly the way they are now, and therefore, sadly, they have no motive to change. Hollywood just had a record year in 2009 thanks to movies like “Avatar.” They have no reason to change how they do things.

      That’s why we keep emphasizing that people have to support indie movies like the ones we’re always promoting on this site and develop as many other avenues as possible if the public wants positive change in the film industry.

      • shinsnake says:

        True enough. I can definitely see a driving force in comedy being the desire to not be the one accused of telling a seemingly racist, homophobic or xenophobic joke. Which is ironic because the comics we remember, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy (when he was young), Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kennison and especially George Carlin, they all touched on subjects that weren’t entirely focused on making fun of the straight white male. 30 years from now, no one’s going to remember Sarah SIlverman attacked conservatives, Kevin Smith stumbled into the Red State, or Larry David pissed on a picture of Christ. But the great comics I mentioned, their shows can still be watched today and are still making people money.

        And I agree with the supporting of the indie films. We have to show Hollywood that we’re customers and they just have to tailor some of their product to us to reap the benefits.

    • exapnomapcase says:

      Shinsnake:

      First of all, The Kids Are All Right is a movie about traditional family values. I suspect that the fact that the characters happen to be lesbians is your real complaint. If this is the case, please don’t hide behind the phrase “traditional family values” and say what you mean. Furthermore, for every movie about a lesbian couple doing their best to raise children, there are ten movies featuring straight couples where the father learns the lesson that he should be with his kids more. Have you ever seen a Christmas movie?

      Second, “The Blind Side” was distributed by Warner Brothers and starred Sandra Bullock. You’d be hard pressed to consider that “out of nowhere.” “The Passion of the Christ” was a unique film in that Mel Gibson’s credibility sold the picture in a way no studio could. If a studio could have made a historically inaccurate guilt trip like Gibson and grossed $380M domestic on a $40M budget they would have. Hollywood studios can’t do that because people like yourself have it in their head that Hollywood is an amoral, liberal machine. New Line tried to capitalize on the Passion and produced The Nativity Story. You know what happened? They lost their shirt because Americans didn’t go see it. (I know, it’s one of the reasons I got laid off). There are no sure things. Hollywood used to put out a Bible epic every other week. Why’d they stop? The money dried up, pure and simple.

  6. Steve Wexler says:

    It seems like a grim time to be working in Hollywood right now. The problem is the overall lack of creativity. I’m sure that everybody looking over their shoulder, as you describe, is something that contributes mightily to this problem. So many films come out looking and sounding the same, with the same lame, infantile jokes. I don’t even go to see comedies any more.

  7. lazypadawan says:

    I don’t doubt what you’re saying is true. I’ve heard as much from other people I know who work in the entertainment industry or some periphery related to it. My only question is, if studios are so afraid to offend with their comedies, how come they are not afraid to potentially offend conservatives/Republicans or Christians? I recall movies like “Saved” or a t.v. show from a few years back where there was a running gag about the Holy Eucharist being used like a Ritz cracker at a party.

  8. Sydney says:

    Who is the Joker?? The world would like to know! But seriously, it’s interesting to hear about what really goes on behind the scenes. I always suspected that the liberalism is only skin deep and that there are a lot of other motives going on in Hollywood. As for the women executives saying they’re feminists but then wanting to promote values straight out of the ’50s … that’s very telling, isn’t it? I mean, these people are completely two-faced about everything.

  9. kenmandu says:

    This is not big news – fear of losing a job you barely deserve has always been the raison d’etre of execs. As to refraining from Politics etc, it also has to do with American audiences being thin-skinned and not understanding satire like they do in other countries.. Make a joke about Jesus and everyone’s up in arms… Make a joke about the Right and Mitch O’Connell will have apoplexy… Sorry this country has lost its sense of humor which now consists of an Adam Sandler CU of someone getting hit in the nutz or other juvenalia telegraphed from miles away.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Ken, it’s entirely true that ’satire’ is a lost art – but I think Hollywood has killed it off more so than American audiences. I was at the LA Film Festival recently and saw a brilliant satire called “Four Lions.” Everybody in the audience loved it – it actually won the LAFF’s audience award – but no Hollywood distributor has picked it up, even though it was a big hit at Sundance and has made a lot of money in the UK. Who’s fault is that? American audiences aren’t even being given the chance to weigh in.

      Sascha Baron Cohen’s films certainly do well here in the U.S. when they get released, but otherwise I can barely think of when audiences even get the chance to watch decent satire. What are these mystical, faraway lands where satire is appreciated? China? Iran? Russia? Give me some examples.

  10. Deanna says:

    Sadly, The Joker is right on all counts as I can attest from the personal experience of working as a producer with these studios. Right now, every executive I deal with operates out of fear. Bring back people with the cojones to take a stand, dammit!

  11. Bob Westal says:

    Sorry, but all you have to do to see that this applies to all kinds of movies, not just comedies, is go to them.

    The fact of the matter is that rank and file people in Hollywood tend to lean liberal because creative in general tend to dislike authority figures, restrictions, etc. They also tend to think in usual way so that, when they are conservative, they tend to be either of a libertarian or even a rather quirky, independent, or odd ilk — John Milius, Mel Gibson for example. Sometimes, they come across like relative moderates who seem to want to avoid controversy, like Gary Sinise. The corporations that own the studios, however, lean right for reasons that SHOULD be obvious. So, against this background, avoiding controversy makes a lot of commercial sense. Why risk alienating 30-60% of the audience by taking a stand AND pissing off the bosses.

    Of course, when liberal filmmakers do “take a stand” as you now seem to be calling for here (I thought you wanted us liberals to shut up and sing) you scream bloody murder and call all liberals terrorist sympathizers or what have you. Seems to me that, at least on the comments on this post, Govinda Murty and others here are kind of speaking out of both sides of your mouth when you try to say this only applies to one film or another.

    The only reason James Cameron was able to put in his admittedly rather simplistic (though in my view mostly correct) politics into “Avatar” was that he was James Cameron and can pretty much do what he wants. Same way Mel Gibson has been able to put blatant homophobia in movies going back to “Braveheart” and, in some people’s view, antisemitism into “The Last Temptation of Christ.” (I’ve never seen it, primarily because I’m squeamish and I know not everyone sees it that way, even among liberals.)

    As for why a conservative would put down modern comedians and praise people like Richard Pryor and a true-blue far left borderline extremist like George Carlin (he was great but well to this liberals’s left, I know that), the mind simply boggles. What do you guys want from us? Silence or balls-to-the-wall commitment. Please make up your minds so we know which view to ignore.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Bob, first of all thank you for commenting at such great length. Unfortunately I don’t have the time right now to respond to everything, so here are just a few quick points:

      • I’ve never ’screamed bloody murder’ and called “all liberals terrorist sympathizers.” You must be mistaking this for one of Breitbart’s sites.

      • What I’m in favor of – always – is people making balls-to-the-walls statements in their films. What I don’t like, and what we currently have today, is only one group of people in the Hollywood system getting to make those statements … with just a handful of exceptions. It’s diversity of opinion that’s the issue here as far as I’m concerned.

      • If liberals “tend to dislike authority figures, restrictions, etc.” why are they so in love with politicians like Obama? He’s a classic big government liberal, eager to impose restrictions in all sorts of areas. That’s what the whole health care debate was about.

      • Her name is spelled “Govindini.”

      • Gibson directed “The Passion of the Christ,” not “Last Temptation.” That was the Scorsese flick, which featured Christ having a Brooklyn accent.

  12. Tim Irwin says:

    I think one of the Joker’s comments undermines his thesis, i.e that the “powers that be” are not “trying to enforce a political agenda.” He writes:

    “Go for the safe bad guy (corporations), the pat ending (the divorced couple gets back together), the inoffensive villain (Russians and Nazis okay, Arabs and African-Americans not so much).”

    Why are Arabs and African-Americans off limits as bad guys? The joker doesn’t explain this statement, he simply states it as a matter of fact. Could this be due to a political agenda on the part of “the powers that be?”

    Perhaps comedies and dramas are two different worlds. Despite the back handed dismissal of the “Breitbart sites” I believe there was a very good article about the movies that dealt with Iraq. The overwhelming majority treated the war in negative terms. I don’t deny fear as a factor in any agency, but my sense is the political leanings of the people in the major studious simply won’t allow an old fashioned pro-America war movie to be made. They will continue to fund antiwar films that lose money. So I will have to disagree with the Joker.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Tim, thanks for commenting. We appreciate your thoughtful engagement.

      With respect to this comment of yours: “[T]he major studious simply won’t allow an old fashioned pro-America war movie to be made,” you might want to check out this:

      http://www.libertasfilmmagazine.com/the-red-dawn-remake-the-return-of-the-red-scare/

      Also, did you see Salt? It’s in theaters right now, and is absolutely hard-core anti-communist.

      • Tim Irwin says:

        Jason -

        I did not see the earlier article about Red Dawn. Interesting. I am hoping it is a big hit that leads to other similarly themed movies. But it would seem to be an exception. What’s that old saying – an exception only proves the rule?

        I have not seen salt but will plan to see (or rent it) based on the strength of your review. It may not be for a while, for reasons that have nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the film.

        I absolutely love movies, but the movie going experience these days leaves something to be desired. There are simply too many people who consider theaters an extension of their living room that it is difficult to enjoy a movie. One of the best experiences I ever had was going to see Minority Report with my wife. It was on a Thursday night, the last night of the regular run. No one else in the theater. An excellent movie, and an experience that was perfect because no one else was there to ruin it!

        • Jason Apuzzo says:

          Tim, I completely hear you. Don’t worry – we’re on the same page. The films I’m mentioning are, without a doubt, exceptions … but as we’ve been reporting here recently, the situation is starting to improve. This is especially the case in the independent film world, where the availability of digital technology is giving a completely new group of people the ability to make films.

          By the way, one of the producers of Minority Report is a friend of mine … he’ll be pleased to hear this.

      • kishke says:

        Great, but anti-Communist was the last war, and has been over a few decades now. Where are the pro-America war films depicting today’s war – the one we’ve been fighting the last nine years?

        • Jason Apuzzo says:

          Kishke, here’s the problem: when such movies do get made, they’re usually made by independent filmmakers, and the right wing media refuses to talk about them. They give the snob routine and act like the films don’t exist, just because Kelsey Grammar or Jon Voight might not be starring in them. [But while we're on the subject of such films, why not mention American Carol here? That film was certainly pro-American and dealt with the current war.]

          I’ll believe the right wing media genuinely cares about this stuff when they start covering Chris Morris’ incredible film Four Lions, or The Infidel, or No One Knows About Persian Cats, or The Taqwacores, or my own film Kalifornistan. When Fox News devotes even 5 minutes to covering these films – as opposed to the hours they spend covering Oliver Stone or Roman Polanski – then I’ll believe they actually care about this stuff. Until that happens I will remain skeptical.

  13. [...] force behind most industry decision making is one emotion, and one only: fear. Here’s his key take on the [...]

  14. [...] What Rules Hollywood? Fear (Libertas Film Magazine) [...]

  15. kishke says:

    Jason, the films you mention, although topical to the current war, are not specifically war films. Have there been any pro-American films depicting the our current fights in Iraq and Afghanistan? I can’t think of one. The closest would be Hurt Locker, which was pretty tightly focused on the technicalities of bomb-defusing, and on the psychology of its main character, and was agnostic on the virtue of this war. Better than the others, but in no way an ideal war movie.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Sadly, you’re right.

      I just wish the right wing media would give some of these indie movies a chance, because they all do deal with the war indirectly – even if they’re not technically ‘war films.’

  16. Juliet says:

    Joker,
    Thank you for this eye opening article. I myself work in television and find the same to be true. Although I actually find most executives to be incredibly smart and articulate they act like their hands are tied by a invisible force. That force is what you’re describing, fear. And it trickles down. The creatives are afraid if they don’t comply the show will be canceled, etc. That being said, it feels like television is coming back as a playground of creative freedom. Does anyone agree?
    JOTS

  17. [...] (Full disclosure: I’m one of those crazies.) This time Goldstein gleefully offers up an article from what he calls his “favorite conservative film blog,” Libertas Film Magazine, as [...]

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