Big Question: Can movies change the world for the better?

As you read this, I am in the final days of a week-long globe-trotting vacation with my family. Toshi and Allen and I will be hang-gliding off George Washington’s nose all day.

While we enjoy that, I’d like to share the fourth of five special vacation articles, where I’ve reached out to a wide array of people I know to answer a different question every day. I sent out the fire questions as part of one big e-mail last week, and I asked people to send me as many of the five responses as they felt like. Some people did one, some people did a few, and several people answered all five.

I would love to hear your responses to these questions as well. When I get back to Los Angeles next weekend, I’m excited to dig in and read all the answers you guys leave, and I hope you end up enjoying this week’s articles in the meantime.

People love to blame the movies for any number of social ills, but it seems to me that if you’re going to blame movies, you also have to credit them for doing good as well. Can you think of any example of movies having a tangible positive impact on the world?

JUDD APATOW (writer, “Raaaaaaaandy!”)
I thinks movies have helped the world.  Richard Pryor spoke the truth about many issues and that had real impact.  He spoke about race, and drug abuse and his struggles in a way that opened people’s hearts while making them laugh really hard.  How can anyone be racist when faced with the smartest, coolest, most honest, funniest man who has ever lived?

Pryor was a genius. I wish his film career equalled the brilliance of his stand-up comedy, but I think Hollywood was afraid of just how raw the truth was that he shared. His stand-up films remain the greatest record of just how good he could be at character and comedy and drama.

JASON FLEMYNG (actor, “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button”)
Having been in one of the Chucky films (“Seed of Chucky”), I’m desperate to believe that movies can make a real change in people. I think all Michael Moore’s movies are real eye openers, “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko,” especially. “Super-Size Me” blew a lot of people away, and changed the way a generation ate fast food. But for pure joy that lasted longer than the end credits, “The Full Monty,” and I’ll admit begrudgingly, “Slumdog Millionaire,” which nicked 13 Oscars off “Benjamin Button”!

GERRY DUGGAN (podcaster, “Nerd Poker”)
One of my more memorable failed attempts at a getting a film off the ground came with Gianni Nunnari, who pointed out “Every movie that gets made is a miracle.” The shittiest movie in any given year changes the entire world for someone. Maybe it’s writer, the director, or some actor getting their big break. I realize I probably sound like Jiminy Cricket on Jim Beam, but it’s the truth. So few films are getting made, and so few of them are even watchable. I know that’s not the answer you asked for, but that’s what you’re getting. Movies used to be the products of dreams. Now they’re just products.

That’s an angle on this question that I never would have imagined, but it’s true. Getting a film made can change someone’s personal world completely, and I think one of the great privileges of being a filmmaker is knowing that your thoughts are being shared with people all over the world in an incredibly direct and persuasive manner.

PAUL SCHEER (actor, “Piranha 3DD)
Friendship. Think of how many amazing friends you made growing up simply because they liked the same movie as you. On the playground that was the only way to form a connection and still to this day, one of the best feelings is sitting down and talking about movies that you love, hate or just don’t know what to make of.

Another answer I didn’t anticipate, and another great point. So many of the people who are in my life are people who I initially bonded over because of films that we loved, and especially weird films that I loved. It’s one thing to run into someone who tells you that they loved “Star Wars” just as much as you did, but it’s quite another thing to run into someone who tells you that they love “Brazil” the same way you do.

DAVID MANDEL (writer, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”)
“Pay it Forward.”

ALBERT PYUN (director, “Cyborg”)
“Dr. Strangelove” for ending the nuclear war threat singlehandedly.
“2001: Space Odyssey”  because it proved the existence of God and his name was Kubrick.

These are both acceptable answers.

DAVID HAYTER (screenwriter, “X2”)
I think movies like “42,” or (Lee Daniel’s) “The Butler” help Caucasian audiences relate to African American stories on a personal level, which ideally helps racism recede into historic obscurity. And I think mainstream films like “La Cage Aux Folles” provide the same positive perspective for sexual orientation issues. The purpose of war movies, on the whole, is to try to illustrate the utter tragedy, and ultimate futility, of war. And of course, documentaries like “Gasland” can bring the plight of helpless people to the forefront of the public’s mind.

That, to me, is the primary point of what we do as filmmakers.  The adventures are fun, and the distractions are entertaining, but if you can bring a new perspective to an important issue, as we tried to do with the “X-Men” films vis a vis racism and bigotry, then I firmly believe that you are providing an invaluable public service.

Also, “District 9” made me nicer to bugs.

MARK DUPLASS (writer/director, “Cyrus”)

SCOTT DERRICKSON (writer/director, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”)
The obvious answer is that the art and entertainment of cinema are an absolute good in and of themselves – for many people (like us), movies are are a major part of what makes life worth living.  As for more tangible social influences, I think Alan Renais’ documentary “Night and Fog” was hugely influential – the graphic images from that film changed the way generations thought about the atrocities of the holocaust.  And I can’t think of a single film that has raised more awareness of a critical issue than “An Inconvenient Truth.”

DEREK HAAS (co-creator, “Chicago Fire”)
I think “Tremors” did a great job of pretty much ridding the world of pogo sticks.

KEITH CALDER (producer, “The Wackness”)
Documentaries can and have changed the world. They have freed the wrongly imprisoned, launched the careers of the talented, revived the careers of the forgotten, reform education, changed consumption habits, and brought down the unjust. Even the smallest of documentaries can have a huge positive impact on the lives of the subjects, as I learned when I produced “Thunder Soul.” Years later I still get notes from the band members and Conrad Johnson’s family telling me how much the film changed their lives for the better.

I think there used to be far more of a hard line between filmmakers who worked on documentaries and filmmakers who made fiction, but that seems to have vanished, and Keith is a good example of a guy who will get involved with any story he finds worth telling, whether it’s true or scripted.

GEOFF LATULIPPE (director, “Yom Kippur At WME”)
Please reference my “Karate Kid” story. Also, I always thought it was crazy that Navy recruiters set up shop outside “Top Gun” screenings and Naval enrollment skyrocketed after the film in general. Can you imagine that shit happening today? The answer is no. You can’t.

Also also, I assume we’re excluding documentaries from this question.

Nope, and for many people, documentaries seem to be the go-to answer for this question.

SCOTT FRANK (screenwriter, “Minority Report”)
While I know that there are many movies that brought certain important “issues” to light, I think to find the single biggest impact is to go back to the Depression, when movie attendance was high. For me, moves are at their best when they make us forget the world we just stepped out of and mesmerize us with the new one we just walked into.

This is the one that lands closest to my feeling on the subject. In general, I think the good (and the bad) that films can do is fairly limited in terms of one individual film. But taken as a whole, film has absolutely transformed the world, and anyone who grumbles about how bad movies are today misses the larger point. Movies are a shared language that is spoken around the world. Any idea, feeling, emotion, or story you would ever want to convey to someone, you can do with film, and the idea that I can understand what life is like growing up in a favela in Rio or that I can empathize with someone who has nothing in common with me in any way or that I can feel real emotion for a gorilla that was created using stop-motion animation… all of that is magic. Film does that, and it’s the reason I happily gave my life over to the understanding, creation, and sharing of films.

TRAVIS STEVENS (producer, “A Horrible Way To Die”)
That’s a tough question.  Because all the good that comes from a group of strangers sharing the communal experience of watching a great movie in a dark room together is probably off-set by the sheer number of awful cinematic atrocities that get made and released. This is a question for alien archeologists.

DAVID PRIOR (DVD producer, “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button”)
It’s as hard to make the case for one as the other. Did any of the war movies in the 40s improve morale for us and our troops? Undoubtedly. But I don’t know if that’s quantifiable in any tangible way. The makers of “The China Syndrome” were awfully proud of themselves, and take a lot of credit for the “no nukes” movement, but I’m not even sure that’s a positive. Ultimately movies tend to fail when they become dogmatic, and outside dogma any positive net effects are subjective immeasurables, like an increase in joy. Movies are their own reward.

DOUG TENNAPEL (creator, “Earthworm Jim”)
I know of people who committed their life to Christ after seeing “The Passion of the Christ,” and that’s a pretty significant thing for a film to do. But I think “It’s A Wonderful Life” has cast a powerful spell across generations of viewers. It’s a grand positive message that doesn’t feel preachy yet judges suicide as bad, makes the average Joe seem irreplaceable, and even demonstrates that our lives have far reaching significance beyond what we might imagine on our worst days.

I am fascinated by the way people treat “It’s A Wonderful Life” like it’s some sort of feel-good movie, because that is one seriously dark-ass “feel-good” movie, a film that only could have been made by Capra and Stewart after returning from WWII, still grappling with the horrors they witnessed and participated in, and the power of it comes from the idea that each of us impacts the world in ways that we may never even understand.

LUCKY MCKEE (writer/director, “Sick Girl”)

I joke.


Movies that bring laughter into our lives are critical in helping us through hard times.

The world as a whole or my world? I think of movies as a very personal experience and if I had to cite one that’s impacted mine it would have to be “Magnolia”.  I find it very a brutally honest portrayal of individuals and all the good and bad they carry with them.  It all comes down to accepting the idea that “we may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us”.   A close close second is a documentary-ish film called “What The Bleep Do We Know?” – it’s a fascinating look at human behavior and what can ultimately be defined as our emotional addictions.

This one, more than any of the other questions this week, was not an easy one to tackle, and I appreciate all of the people who took the time to respond to it.

What I hope this does, more than anything, is spur you to share your own thoughts on the subject. I still feel like out of the literally millions of you who read our site every month, we only ever hear from a small percentage of you, and I would love to change that.