You Can’t Fight The Culture War Without Making Movies
Conservatives complain that they are losing the culture wars. And they are right. That won’t change until conservatives actually produce culture, which would be good for everyone. American culture would be enriched by art made by artists with diverse viewpoints and experiences.
Conservatives could start with independent and documentary films; they are increasingly influential but much less expensive than Hollywood movies. Yet, many, on both sides, don’t believe conservatives can make good films.
I disagree, and I am in a position to know. Along with my wife and business partner, Gina Cappo Pack, I have been producing documentaries for many years. Over 15 of our films have been nationally broadcast on PBS. All have won awards and garnered many favorable reviews. (A full list of our films along with clips can be found here.) So, I am a practitioner, a maker of culture, rather than a critic or expert.
In addition, I have run some major cultural institutions, including serving as president of the Claremont Institute, senior vice president for television programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and CEO of the United States Agency for Global Media, our government’s international broadcasters, including Voice of America. So, I also have the perspective of a media executive. Over the years, I have watched numerous conservative efforts to “take back the culture,” all pathetic failures.
Capturing the Culture
How did the left achieve cultural dominance? Not by accident or luck, but by hard work, a clear focus, and talent.
In the late 1960s, the New Left called for a “long march through the institutions,” intending eventually to dominate all the elements of civil society. The phrase is attributed to German Marxist student leader Rudi Dutschke, who was echoing Mao’s famed actual “long march” leading to the Communists’ revolutionary takeover of China. The concept was picked up by the Frankfurt School and has roots in the influential Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who believed that cultural struggle inevitably precedes revolutionary class struggle. Student radicals knew they had failed to foment Marxist revolution in the 60s, so they turned to capturing the West’s cultural institutions.
Their first target was the university, where, as student radicals, they were already well-positioned. They soon expanded to Hollywood. For example, Bert Schneider, one of the producers of “Easy Rider,” helped finance and plan Black Panther leader Huey Newton’s flight to Cuba to evade charges of shooting a 17-year-old prostitute. To the Hollywood elite, Schneider was just earning his street cred.
Today, their success is undeniable – in the universities, in Hollywood, the tech sector, woke corporations, and the permanent government bureaucracy. Along the way, their hard-core Marxism has morphed into a softer wokeism, at least for now.
The left owns the narrative. Their version of contemporary events and history dominates – we are told that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery, the Cold War ended thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, transgender athletes have a civil right to compete in sports with biological women, and the rest of the woke litany.
In the past, conservatives have downplayed the importance of culture, seeing its airy fictions as less serious than economics or politics. After losing many of their children and grandchildren to the progressive left, they have come to see the error of their ways, at least in theory. Many quote Andrew Breitbart’s aphorism that “politics is downstream of culture,” as if this were a new idea. It isn’t: In 1820, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and by “poets” he meant all artists. Plato and Aristotle understood this same idea thousands of years earlier, and they were none too happy about it, or at least ambivalent.
The Importance of Story
Conservatives talk about culture and storytelling all the time. But few of them really get it.
I watch a lot of conservative films, especially documentaries. Few are very good, as I am often told by my friends on the left, and most don’t even coherently tell a story. Preaching at the audience isn’t telling a story. A series of anecdotes is not a story. A story is something that happens to a protagonist, or a group of protagonists, with a beginning, middle, and end. It has a story arc. Characters change and develop. Ideas emerge from the action.
Let me offer two examples of how a story works, drawn from my own films. Our documentary, “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” tells the story of Justice Clarence Thomas, from growing up in the segregated South to the Supreme Court. We let him tell his story himself. He is the only person interviewed, except his wife, Ginni. He looks directly at the camera as if speaking directly to the viewer.
The trailer can be found here.
The film deals with race in America, originalism, the principles of the Founding, being a black conservative, and much more. Not through experts telling us what to think but through Clarence Thomas his own life story. Viewers can see for themselves how his worldview arose from the events of his life. To make a compelling story, we needed to structure the narrative to build to the right climactic moments, employing music, editing rhythms, visual imagery, and the rest of the cinematic toolkit.
Good documentary filmmakers reveal their biases not so much by distorting facts but by the stories they choose to tell. Several progressive filmmakers have chosen to tell the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story. Ginsburg was graced with two documentaries and a fictional feature film and became a pop culture heroine. All three films were widely acclaimed, and Robert Redford invited her to the Sundance Film Festival to celebrate her even more. We chose to tell Clarence Thomas’ story. America needs both.
Our film, “The Last 600 Meters,” tells a different kind of story, depicting the biggest battles of the Iraq war, Fallujah and Najaf, in 2004. A climax is a scene toward the end of the film, one of the most intense firefights of the war, called Hell House. The clip can be found here.
I am gratified that many senior military leaders have praised the film. For example, Gen. James Mattis, who was in charge of the first battle of Fallujah, said:
“The Last 600 Meters reveals the infantry’s world as it has seldom been seen by those who have not experienced it. “This film, uncaptured by politics or ideology, reveals the most bruising ethical environment on Earth and the character of the young men that our nation sends in harm’s way – its infantry. It does so without veneer or apology, and in the tumult shown, understanding builds to respect for those who do our nation’s bidding in the highly unforgiving environment of ‘The Last 600 Meters.’ This film is a classic, unique in its approach and unique in what it reveals.”
However, the film has not yet been released. The reasons reveal how differently the left and right respond to movies and understand stories.
Although the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was the principal funder, PBS rejected the finished film, which had never before happened in my entire career. They said it was too pro-military and too sympathetic to the young soldiers and Marines. They accused me of using selective casting to make them look more attractive and articulate, as if they needed my help. In other words, PBS didn’t like what they took to be its message.
Next, we tried to raise money to release the film in movie theaters hoping to generate audience buzz, and perhaps a good cable or streaming deal. I went around the country screening the film and meeting with wealthy donors. I was accompanied by one of our executive producers, Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon, then a movie guy, and clearly a great salesman). Consistently, these potential donors told us that, while the film was emotionally moving, they didn’t know at the end what they were supposed to think. Was it pro- or anti-war? Why was there no “call to action”? At that time, we failed to raise the necessary funds.
Clearly, the film deals with issues like patriotism, honor, the nature of counterinsurgency warfare, and how the military functions – but through the medium of story. For our potential donors, it was not explicit enough. They were uncomfortable with the ambiguities of the story. But that was part of the point of the film. War is messy, and certainties vanish. (PBS executives, on the other hand, thought they could see past the ambiguities to what they took to be our message.)
We still hope to release the film. Perhaps its moment has come. With the war in Ukraine, the debacle in Afghanistan, and other ongoing worldwide threats, we need to decide how we want to wage war. It would be wise to look back at what happened last time, during the biggest battles since Vietnam, Fallujah and Najaf.
What is wanted is not merely storytelling. Story is the beginning, not the end. The viewer’s mind must be teased to see more than just a rollicking good tale, through ambiguity, metaphor, and the rest. The story must be in the service of ideas.
The Left’s Documentary Ecosystem
Not only does the left have a better intuitive grasp of story, but they are also more serious about developing the institutions to support story-telling culture.
Over the last 50 years, the left has poured time, money, and creativity into this project. Looking only at documentaries and small independent features, I estimate that the left spends tens of billions of dollars annually. For example, the annual budget of public broadcasting, radio, and television is about $2.5 billion. Netflix, according to the Wall Street Journal, spent $17 billion last year on content. Not all of this money is going to left-leaning products, but much of it is. And these are only two out of many left-leaning media enterprises. On the other side, the right spends, maybe, tens of millions of dollars on films and television. So, over 50 years, this gap has grown to hundreds of billions of dollars, which has underwritten a progressive ecosystem of supportive and reinforcing institutions, in addition to many, many powerful films.
The left starts nurturing young filmmakers right from the beginning of their careers and then at every step along the way.
It starts with film schools. Virtually every college and university in America has a film school, and there are about 4,000 colleges. Almost every film school professor is a self-described progressive. I have never met one who is conservative. Every year, these film schools graduate hundreds of thousands of progressive aspiring filmmakers (along with camera operators, editors, film composers, etc.). Only a small percentage have the talent, ambition, and drive to succeed, and they become the basis for the next generation of progressive creative talent. On the right, we have no such winnowing process. We are left with the few filmmakers who fall off the left-wing apple cart.
After film school, there are many training programs for progressive young filmmakers to sharpen their skills and make industry contacts.
Then, when looking for their first job, they can apply to any of the vast networks of progressive film companies, which range from one-man shops to divisions of major studios.
When our budding young progressive filmmakers have acquired enough experience and are ready to make their first big film, they can turn to an extensive network of progressive funding sources. All the largest American foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, have divisions devoted to supporting “social justice” documentaries. The federal government funds documentaries through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation, among others. The staff of these government entities is very focused, explicitly, on social justice and DEI, and their grants reflect that.
For-profit funding is also available. Several boutique distribution and production companies have been created by wealthy leftist billionaires, often from Silicon Valley, to support woke films, such as Participant, bankrolled by eBay founder Jeff Skoll. HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Netflix, and other cable and streaming companies commission woke documentaries and nonfiction series, in addition to acquiring them.
As these young progressives start to produce their films, they can rely on a talent pool of skilled artists and craftsmen, from cameramen and composers to editors and computer graphics artists, who proudly call themselves progressive, too.
When their woke film is finished, how do they make sure a large audience sees it? Our up-and-coming progressive filmmakers have a host of options, especially among cable and streaming services. Years ago, we all hoped that these new companies, like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, would provide a diversity of programming, different from the standard Hollywood fare. This has failed to materialize, in part because they are run by the same progressive Hollywood and New York elites that run the legacy media companies.
Finally, our progressive filmmakers can enter their films in prestigious film festivals, like Sundance or Telluride, or the many smaller ones, including ones dedicated to environmental, LGBT, or other niche markets. Then, they might be lucky enough to get an award, from the Oscars and Emmys to many others, all run by the same woke club.
Not surprisingly, with all this attention and need for content, there is a renaissance of documentary and nonfiction filmmaking. Both feature-length documentary films and short documentaries are being produced in large numbers. Many are of very high quality, but almost all are very progressive, especially in the choice of subject. For example, the proposed Emmy nominees for nonfiction in one year included documentaries and series celebrating Stacey Abrams, Greta Thunberg, progressive Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, and the ’70s black militant group MOVE, a virtual litany of woke causes and progressive heroes and victims. None had voices questioning the saintly nature of their protagonists.
The Myth of the Left’s Artistic Superiority
The left’s dominance of the culture may seem daunting. This should not deter us. To put our problem in perspective, look back at how radical leaders felt when they began their march through the institutions. They, too, were discouraged.
Frankfurt school writers decried the hopelessly bourgeois nature of mid-century America, narcotized, according to them, by TV shows like “Bonanza” and “Father Knows Best.” How would they ever radicalize these comfortable middle-class Americans? But they persisted and are now rewarded with success. We can succeed, too. A restoration is easier than a revolution.
Cowards who want to surrender in the culture wars often claim we can’t fight back because “the left is naturally more artistic and given to storytelling. Our side is more interested in politics and making money.” This may describe our society as it is now, but it is not a natural law.
I am not even sure what this assertion means. Great art and artists are hard to pigeonhole, and the politics of the past are very different from the politics of the present. Just to cite a few examples: Virgil’s Aeneid, the most influential poem in human history, glorified the Roman Emperor Augustus. Dante’s Divine Comedy longed for a reconstituted pan-European monarchy and a universal church. Shakespeare’s history plays celebrated and justified Elizabethan rule.
Whatever you call these works, they are not left-leaning or anti-authoritarian.
The trope of the radical artist defying convention and society is comparatively recent, a creation of the Romantic Movement, with its Byronic rebel artists and its critique of industrialization and the values of the rising bourgeoisie. But, over the last two centuries, there are plenty of exceptions to this Romantic myth, from Robert Frost to T. S. Eliot.
My part of the cultural battlefield is the movies. The movie industry itself is the best rejoinder to the myth of leftist artistic superiority. Hollywood, in its golden age, from the 1920s through the 1950s, consistently made movies with a patriotic subtext, selling the American Dream to audiences here and all over the world. These movies celebrated faith, family, and individual opportunity. Hollywood moguls, like Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and Samuel Goldwyn, were Jewish immigrants who fled oppression and pogroms in Eastern Europe. They prized American liberty and freedom, having bitter memories of its opposite. And, of course, selling the American dream was good business, leading to immensely popular movies, since these movies mirrored the values of their countrymen.
The iconic American genre is the Western, whose greatest director was John Ford, and its greatest star was John Wayne. Ford’s movies, like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” or “The Searchers,” tell complex stories of the settling of the West, which are basically positive but with complicating features. John Wayne often portrays the rugged individualist hero, who is maybe too violent for civilization but necessary for its success. These movies, and icons like Wayne, made people all over the world want to come to America and be Americans.
When it comes to storytelling, in truth, the advantage is all on our side, not on the left’s. Our stories, especially about America, have heroes and villains, and great world-changing adventures. These are stories past generations of Americans have loved hearing. Moreover, they are actually true and reflect even deeper truths. The left has had to turn all this on its head, with anti-heroes, nihilistic postmodern Westerns, dystopian anti-free market fantasies, and the rest. With the help of deep pockets and the control of all cultural institutions, they have done surprisingly well with a weak hand.
America may be in a culture war, but only one side is fighting. The progressive left is making culture. We, on the conservative right, merely complain about it. Imagine a war where one side deploys troops and weapons, and the other side complains about the first group’s inhumane behavior. No wonder we are losing. We haven’t really begun to fight, to get our troops into the field.
We need to start producing culture. To give you an idea of what can be accomplished, let me describe what my team is doing. We have launched a new production company, Palladium Pictures, to help fill this need. We aim to tell stories the progressive left ignores, downplays, or covers in a one-sided fashion. Fortunately, we have a generous multi-year grant to help us get started. Naturally, we will need to fundraise aggressively to realize the grandest of our ambitions.
Our plan has three parts: new long-form documentaries, short documentaries, and an incubator to train the next generation of right-of-center filmmakers.
As is typical for a production company, we have many projects in development and the list is always growing. Let me briefly describe three from this list, without too much detail.
“Seattle 2020” (working title): The protests and riots following the death of George Floyd, whatever their political goals, also led to billions of dollars of property damage and many violent crimes. Yet, there are no major documentaries about those riots, while, according to the Washington Post, there are over a dozen films in production about the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The events in Seattle that summer are a good window into what was happening across the country and into some of the movements and issues that are still with us. Immediately after George Floyd’s killing, protests and riots began, first in downtown Seattle and then in the fashionable Capitol Hill area. Eventually, the police decided to abandon the Capitol Hill police station and permit the protestors to run the six blocks around it as they saw fit, with barriers to entry and their own security force. The protestors first called the area The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) but later changed the name to The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (the CHOP). Police, fire, and EMS were forbidden entry. During the day there was free food, music, and speeches, while nighttime was more violent: Many stores were looted, there were several shootings, and, finally, two murders forced the city to clear the CHOP, though protests continued throughout the year. We will examine the story from all sides, giving all points of view, from protestors to police to city officials, a chance to speak.
“Fracking” (working title): Extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, commonly called “fracking,” has revolutionized energy production in the U.S. We have gone from a net importer of petroleum products to a net exporter, not without controversy. Critics claim fracking is polluting drinking water and releasing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, into the environment. Defenders of the method point to the huge new resources of natural gas that can be reached by horizontal drilling, fueling economic growth in America and around the world. They add that natural gas replacing coal has lowered America’s CO2 emissions.
Rather than feature the argument or profile victims, as is often done, we will follow a few fracking entrepreneurs as they try to drill for natural gas, encountering opposition from regulators, environmentalists, and government at all levels. Although all these people will get a chance to make their case fully, our story will be driven by our entrepreneurs’ ongoing efforts to find the energy the world needs and to pursue the American dream of success through achievement.
“Rediscovering Thomas Jefferson”: America’s Founding Fathers are under attack as never before, from tearing down their statues to the 1619 Project’s claim that the American Revolution was mainly about protecting slavery. So, this seems to us a good time to reexamine our founding. We have done two previous films on founders, “Rediscovering George Washington” and “Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton,” which placed their lives in the context of today’s world.
Next, we want to turn to Thomas Jefferson. These days he is under attack not only for being a slave owner who is believed to have fathered children with an enslaved woman, but also for his Enlightenment ideas, as realized in the Declaration of Independence, whose vision of “equality” differs from contemporary notions of “equity.” We will present him, warts and all, but not just the warts, the brilliance, too.
These are three very different documentaries. Together they can begin to change the debate about the recent past, the present, and our history – and point the way for others to do so, too. A small number of well-crafted, fair-minded films can make a difference.
We are working with a major media organization to put out a series of short documentaries, telling the full story behind news items and recent events. Topics under consideration include aspects of the response to COVID-19, cancel culture, and the parent movement to challenge public schools.
These shorts will deal with issues by finding the human story that reveals the essence of what is at stake, rather than being issue-oriented essays, with a lot of explanation and narration. The format will be closer to the New York Times’ Op-Docs, rather than the video essays popular on conservative websites. Although topical, these films will not be advocacy. While relying on good reporting, presenting a fair consideration of the issues, and featuring all sides, these will be primarily emotional and thought-provoking films. The New York Times’ Op-Docs, and others on the left, do this well. We need to catch up.
Since are partnered with a major media organization and will be producing several every year, these shorts will be able to gradually grow their audience and become a brand. We will use all the new ways of delivering video, from streaming services to X (formerly known as Twitter) to new social media outlets.
These docs will enable us to deal with hot-button issues with a quicker turnaround time, before the conventional wisdom is settled. If the news is the first draft of history, these will be the second draft (and our longer docs, the third draft). In a world bogged down by the 24-hour news cycle, these docs will offer in-depth journalism that captivates as much as it investigates and informs.
In the future, who will make movies that will tell “the other side of the story,” neglected by Hollywood and today’s cultural establishment? How can we create the missing talent pool, cast aside by the progressive left’s ecosystem of institutions from film school to the Oscars?
To solve that problem in the nonfiction realm, we are launching an incubator program to train and nurture a core group of the next generation of right-of-center documentary filmmakers. Through a competitive process, we will select several fellows, whose short film project we will fully fund and distribute. These films will be made under our direct supervision and tutelage, so the filmmakers will receive mentorship and guidance. In the course of making these short films, a new generation of non-woke filmmakers will learn producing skills, narrative techniques, and journalistic judgment.
Each year this network of young, talented filmmakers will grow. They will go on from our incubator to make bigger and better films. They will help and collaborate with each other. We are committed to helping them throughout their careers. Over time, as a group, they will change the documentary film landscape, challenging the notion that conservatives can’t make movies, not in theory, but by producing great films.
The program is outlined here.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, I am much more optimistic about the changing the culture, especially through the story-telling media, than about reforming politics and the government. Sure, conservatives can win elections, but the permanent bureaucracy has spent decades burrowing in and is protected by civil service rules so even victories at the ballot box don’t mean what they once did. Yet, anyone can make a movie. Although all the supporting institutions are on the left, entertainment remains a free market.
We can nurture our own filmmakers and make our own movies. Today, there are many more ways for a non-woke film to reach an audience. You can stream it from your own YouTube site. You can make a deal with one of the several new conservative streaming sites. It’s also possible that you can persuade one of the major streaming services to pick it up. After all, we have been successful for decades in getting our films nationally broadcast in primetime on PBS, hardly a right-wing outlet. The key is to have truly excellent content, whose value cannot be denied. Content is indeed king.
We can also build cultural institutions of our own – and create an alternative ecosystem, modeled on the successful one the left has built over the decades. By learning from their experience, we can do it all much faster, using newer technology.
America, it is often said, is roughly divided into thirds: one-third on the left, one-third on the right, and one-third in the middle. I believe the latter two-thirds would support and welcome documentaries and feature films that present a positive, but accurate, portrait of America, reflecting traditional values without preaching and without distortion.
We need to summon the will to do it – and the funding.
Michael Pack is a documentary filmmaker, who has produced over 15 award-winning documentaries which were nationally broadcast on public television, most recently “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.” He has also served as a media, government, and non-profit executive.
Thu, 09/14/2023 – 23:40