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SPOILER ALERT: This is not really a How-To Guide.
I wish it were. Man, do I wish I could delightedly bullet point a #1-5 list on exactly how to make a viral activist film. I want to tell you that, after a decade of working on conscious projects in Hollywood, I’ve got it all figured out. My community is a conscious cinema circle that has done such films as The Secret, Neurons to Nirvana, Fuel, Fast Food Nation, Last Call at the Oasis, Eating Animals, Awake: The Life of Yogananda, Racing Extinction, What the Bleep Do We Know, Who Killed the Electric Car, and Thrive. One of my longtime friends just went viral with over 100 million views. All projects had different ways of being born.
Hollywood has always been a struggle between art and commerce, but recently it’s gotten crazy.
A top executive behind Jerry Maguire and Gladiator described former Hollywood as “a community of people who really liked movies.” Michael Douglas, who grew up in this biz, said:
It seemed like a small town in the old days. Now you’ve got a bunch of huge multi-national corporations trying to cannibalize each other to a fair degree in the movie business. I think commerce is winning out, big time. You’re seeing a quarterly profits mentality creeping in, more and more. There’s talk of this vertical integration, acquisitions of all different types of companies under one umbrella. It’s a much riskier business now, and so big business is trying to make it much more cost efficient.
Peter Bart, the editor of Variety film magazine, agreed:
It’s become a corporate town. Reduced to one sentence, a very corporate town. It was not a corporate town 10, 15 years ago. What big corporations want most is risk-averse pictures. Now, one might say whether that in itself is a completely false aspiration. Because any work of art, or pop art, by definition, is risky. So, you have corporate suits trying to make projects that don’t entail risk. …
And so what you have, according to Michael Cieply, is the conglomerates trying to “tame” the studios, figuring out how to get them predictable and reliable, to get anticipated amounts of profit year to year. That sets the tone for the movie industry now. You wouldn’t believe how many people have told me to take the “green” pitch out of Fifth Sacred.
So where does that leave the filmmakers trying to change minds, and ultimately the world?
Quite frankly, unless you go the indie route and become a hit at a film festival, it means you usually have an uphill battle with executives unless there is a critical mass of consumers pushing for a topic. Here are a few behind-the-scenes moments in Maya’s experiences in Hollywood where money has clashed with the subject matter:
- Fundraising diligently for a documentary about an oil spill, and finding out that the director had spent a big chunk of $5million of the donation money on his wedding, rather than on post production.
- Pitching a project to Participant Media (the Oscar-winning “activist” media company in Hollywood), and realizing that the social change education of everyone running the Narrative Department was zero.
- Seeing friends work tediously to film a beloved and critically acclaimed tv show for months, only to have it cancel after one episode.
- My So-Called Life, quite possibly the best tv show of the 90s, getting canceled despite critical acclaim, and making Maya mourn the Jordan-and-Angela cliffhanger for time immemorial.
There are degrees of selling out, of course, and everyone has to make a living. Working on a documentary will likely gross you not even a quarter of what working on a popular tv show would. The fluffier your subject matter becomes, often the more astronomical the salaries. (Some of my friends who work in tv make between 80-120 thousand an episode, and they’re not even household names.) And not every social action film creates the change it originally intended. For example:
The Academy Award-winning, Hayden Panettiere-featuring, 700,000-Facebook follower-strong, did-everything-right The Cove seemingly made little difference to the two dozen dolphin hunters in Taiji who still nonchalantly go about the carnage that is their change-resistant industry. Yet by other yardsticks the film was a resounding triumph, creating a worldwide furor over dolphin hunting and inspiring still-expanding ripples of impassioned energy. As director Louie Psihoyos told The Wall Street Journal, “One person [Judy Bart] saw this film, became a vegan, and decided to get into film. She financed Blackfish.”
The ray of light in this whole thing is: A good story is still a good story. Since its roots in ancient Greek theater, you can’t hold a good story down, especially if well told. Because of the commodification of the industry, audiences are craving and requesting stories of meaning, which can only explain the recent successes of Birdman, Gravity, Boyhood, and Room. The little engine that could, An Inconvenient Truth, is still one of the top grossing documentaries of all time, and it basically told people our actions are messing everything up, but shone a light regardless. Far from fluffy. There are companies set up with their mission statement to inspire positive social change, such as Participant and Vulcan. And the more audiences stand behind stories of meaning rather than the onslaught of wham-bam Marvel movies… and this means buying TICKETS, folks, not illegally streaming… the more corporate media can use those as examples. “See, guys! This made money too!”
The support for The Fifth Sacred Thing has deep community roots continuing to drive it forward while pitching to the Big Pockets, despite its portrayal of seemingly fringe, anti-consumer societies. Ironically, anti-consumer can be consumer if enough people want it.
One of my favorite moments on this TFST journey was at a screening of The East (an excellent activist film, see it), where I met the director Zal Batmanglij and the star, Ellen Page, who you know as the ingenue from Juno and Inception. When I told them about Fifth Sacred, Ellen’s eyes lit up and she said, “OH, I love that novel!” She had recently done a stint at Lost Valley ecovillage learning hands-on permaculture. A top banking Hollywood star loves us.
All is not lost.
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