Filmmakers, Think About Your Impact on the World

Start with a commitment to making the towns and countries where you film better places by treating them respectfully and justly

One of my college roommates escaped Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro took power. Given the sensitivity of all things Castro in the 1970s, as well as J. Edgar Hoover’s hovering presence at the FBI even after his death in 1972, my roommate (or one of us) would always declare “J. Edgar Hoover was a great American!” when we talked on the phone.

You know, just in case anyone from the FBI was listening.

OK, so we were kidding. Really, we were, but I would like to state that I have not read any WikiLeaks because it may be illegal to do so. The federal government has clearly warned federal workers that it is illegal for them to read them, and since I occasionally serve in governmental advisory capacities, I’m not taking a chance. So I have to rely on what others have said.

That includes reports stating that Hollywood figures such as George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston project a positive look about America. Well that’s not too surprising. If you’d like to project a face for the U.S. whose face would you prefer to represent us, Clooney and Aniston or, looking to the start of this column, someone like me?

Exactly.

Beyond the faces we offer the world, though, there are larger issues as to whether the American film industry enhances or detracts from the country’s image. Even august academic journals, such as the Journal of Politics and International Affairs, publish empirical studies on this exact point. Apart from what is shown on the silver screen, however, there’s another way to think about the effect of Hollywood on diplomacy and even sustainable peace.

How does the making of films impact a local culture? In studies I and other academics have done in a new and growing field called Business and Peace, there is evidence that ethical business behavior is very similar to the kinds of behavior anthropologically found in relatively non-violent societies.

For example, there are correlations between economic development and peace. Similar correlations show major issues connecting bribery and violence. Cultures where everyone has a “voice” tend to be less warlike. Democracy is one such way to institutionalize protections of citizen voice, and contemporary management strategies (usually under the quality management designation) emphasize that the best way to ensure quality business products and services is to make sure that everyone in the company is free to speak up if they see a defect in the way the business processes work.

Places where people have voice tend to protect human rights and gender equity as well. This research applies to any business, and Hollywood is not exempt.

So, to the extent that filmmakers are providing economic development in a local economy, especially a relatively poor one, they are moving the needle away from violence and toward peace. To the extent they get their permissions to film without being corruption and also to the extent they are supporting “rule of law” kinds of institutions such as contracts and property rights, they again contribute to a culture less likely to be violent.

To the extent filmmakers are being good citizens in the locales where they are filming, they create a good feelings and sentiments. And, if they are also being respectful of their own employees, their rights, their voices, and attending to issues of gender equity, their business behavior contributes to peace.

In this season of peace, I’d like to call on the business end of filmmaking to become better aware of the specific ways their business dealings have an impact on the world. How might they do that? Well, start with a clear mission statement that recognizes that the filmmakers can and desire and are committed to making the towns and countries where they film better places by treating them respectfully and justly.

Enact clear policies inhibiting any employee’s capability of paying (or soliciting) a bribe. Create a monthly (even weekly if possible) forum for key stakeholders to speak out safely if they see an ethical problem. Those are concrete practices that can be institutionalized, which are generally regarded as solid, ethical business practices, and that have been shown to be practices of peaceful societies.

Maybe that could be a belated New Year’s Resolution for Hollywood businesses in 2011.