The Great Hollywood Debate
by Laura Macdonald
"Does Hollywood have a Social Conscience?" This topic was passionately
supported on April 23rd, at Boston University's Great Debate, by a team
lead by producer Peter Guber-"Batman", "Rain Man" (exec), "Batman Returns" (exec), and opposed by a team led by Academy Award winning British
producer Sir David Puttnam ("Chariots of Fire"). The affirmative deftly argued
that the ballot box for film is the ticket office, by which society
dictates what it wants to see and Hollywood then responds, while Puttnam
lead the negative by arguing that Hollywood has immense global power and
shirks the responsibilities that accompany that power. Following the
presentation of the Pros and Cons, the audience of 500 students,
faculty, media and the general public, overwhelmingly voted that
Hollywood indeed has no social conscience.
Guber argued that in a Hollywood film "the values of the filmmaker and
the public mesh to make a unique engine" and discussed the huge average
cost of a Hollywood film (estimated by him to be $45 million), asking
"How many of you say 'Let's go down to the Cheri theatre, I heard a film
came in on budget!?," He created the vision of a collaborative art form
for the audience that consisted of fiercely independent filmmakers on
one end, and then the other being the public, also fiercely independent.
The second largest export from the United States is film, he said, and
he asked everyone not to judge the whole industry by it's bad
components, but to be positive and look at the best.
Speaking next, Puttnam struck a considerable chord with the audience by
stating his belief that film "is not just a business" but that stories
and images are how society has communicated social values throughout
time, and yet Hollywood continually denies this responsibility. The only
point he said he agreed with Guber on was that "we both want to work for
an industry of which we can be unequivocally proud".
Puttnam asked the audience what they thought the most powerful country
in the world was, politically and culturally. Having established the
United States as the answer, he then went on to describe the era that we
all now live in to be pregnant with the potential for disaster or
success. Responsibility, therefore, is the key requirement, he said, as
film and other images "have colossal power... affecting us emotionally
and intellectually at every stage of our lives". To treat them just as
community industries, when they have such a profound global reach is
dangerous. He finished by saying that films carry universal dreams,
treasured ambitions and the power to speak great truths, debunk myths,
as well as generate them, and that Hollywood must recognize and respond
The remaining speakers for the affirmative were William Roth and Brett
Newkirk. Roth is a BU graduate whose film, "Floating", was shown at the
recent Berlin Film Festival, and Newkirk is a senior at BU majoring in
law. Roth claimed that no one movie has changed his life and said that
Hollywood is not a social service institution, going on to say that
"Hollywood just wants to make money, nothing constrains Hollywood except
what we want to see." While Newkirk asked: "Do you really think films
have big an effect on our lives?" He had said that he had no aspirations
to be involved with the film industry in the future, and claimed to
represent the perspective of the American public. He felt that it would
be "darn frightening if people went to the movies to be educated!"
Finally, he stated that it was an elitist view that the filmmaker has
his own vision and society be damned.
Puttnam's team wrapped up with Tom Danon, a BU alum whose debut film
"Bleached" showed at the recently completed Los Angeles International Film
Festival, and David Waldman, a film student finishing his degree at BU
this semester. Danon called Hollywood a "frustrated smoggy bird," and
claimed that "if you can't trust the stars to turn a profit, and you
can't trust the morphing twisters, you scrape at the bottom of the
barrel and what have you got left....the script and the vision". He also
warned against the powerful propaganda tool cinema can be. Waldman
remarked that films where the audience says "ooh it's big and shiny and
it blows up, finish where they start - nowhere". He compared King
Hollywood to King Elvis, who was exploited, lost his ability to create
and, on his death, had become a parody of what he once was. He asked
Hollywood: "What is the legacy that you want to leave behind?"
In summing up, Puttnam quoted civil rights pioneer Eldridge Cleaver, "If
you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem". While
Guber made a final appeal saying "Hollywood isn't some demonic industry
on the coast of California trying to make crap".
Laura Macdonald is a screenwriting student at Boston University.