Studios tackle hot-button themes with pix like 'Syriana'

The days of politics being taboo in Hollywood films appear to be ending.

George Clooney is tackling two issues that studios may have once considered potentially prickly this fall, questioning the state of American journalism in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which he helmed, co-wrote and stars in, as well as critiquing the country’s dependence on Middle East oil in Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana.”

Warner Independent released “Good Night” on Oct. 7, while Warner Bros. starts “Syriana” in limited relase on Nov. 23.

Clooney says it was tough at first to interest studios in the pics. “When we were first setting these films up, there was no one encouraging us. There was no studio that was going to touch them,” Clooney says. “I think they would now.”

Those two pics join a cavalcade of others that touch on topical issues. Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” about Israel’s secret campaign to kill the terrorists who murdered their Olympic team, has strong resonance with the issues of the current war on terror.

Focus Features is releasing Ang Lee’s story of a homosexual relationship between two cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain.”

And there are no fewer than three pics based on the Sept. 11 attacks headed to screens: Oliver Stone’s Nicolas Cage starrer about the World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass’ “Flight 93″ and the recently announced Adam Sandler/Don Cheadle collaboration “Reign O’er Me.”

The big question facing the industry is whether these sorts of films are a good business.

Lions Gate saw Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” which was made for around $6 million, gross $53 million this year. And “Good Night” has taken in $15 million in six weeks of release, more than double its $7 million production budget.

Both pics have done well to demonstrate the business case for topical films, but it’s the fate of the pics coming down the pike that will decide the future of the genre.

To a filmmaker like Clooney, the spurt of topical films is merely a reflection of a politically charged time. The apathetic ’90s, culminated by a 2000 presidential campaign where commentators debated whether there was any real difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore, have given way to an era when everything from the Iraq war to the congressional cafeteria menu (freedom fries, please) is seen through a political prism.

“The movies tend to reflect what’s going on in society,” he says. And he sees similarities between the new rush of topical films to the sort of fare Hollywood produced in a previous period of political turbulence, the 1960s and 1970s.

But fundamentally, Hollywood studios are running businesses. And if more films are going to deal with hot-button issues, Clooney says this first batch needs to succeed. “What it will require is these films making money. Filmmakers have to be fiscally responsible.”

To keep the “Syriana” budget around $50 million, the stars deferred their salaries. Clooney says, “Matt (Damon) and I did it for virtually nothing.”

Both pics, along with Charlize Theron starrer “North Country,” were co-financed by Participant Prods., a shingle established by eBay founder Jeffrey Skoll.

Participant’s mission is partly to be a for-profit film production company, but it also seeks to make films that advance social causes.

“The mission statement is we believe good stories well told can make a difference,” says prexy Ricky Strauss. With each of the films it’s released, Participant has also launched a public awareness campaign through its Web site Participate.net.

For example, with “Syriana,” the company is partnering with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club on several initiatives, including a congressional letter-writing campaign in favor of stricter fuel efficiency standards and encouraging people to purchase carbon offsets through Terra Path, which invests money in projects that reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Meredith Blake, an exec VP in charge of the political components of the movies, says: “When people see the movie and are inspired and come to the point where they ask, ‘What can I do?’ we want to have a place for them to go and see ways they can make a difference.”

Strauss points out the campaigns can also help activists become moviegoers. “These initiatives may turn on people who are not frequent moviegoers but care about these issues.”

The ability for pics to draw people who are not normally filmgoers was amply demonstrated by two of last year’s biggest moneymakers: Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

“A lot of people in the film industry were really impressed and affected by the performance of ‘The Passion,’” says Allan Mayer, managing director of crisis PR firm Sitrick & Co., who has been hired by Universal to consult on the release of “Munich” as well as by Sony for “The Da Vinci Code.”

Controversy has long been a vital tool in show business. But in recent years, as studios have been absorbed by media congloms, they have steered away from pics that might ignite political debate. Walt Disney forbade Miramax from releasing “Fahrenheit,” and 20th Century Fox, which had a first-look deal with Gibson’s Icon Prods., declined to release his “Passion.”

Creating films that engage people in issues they care about deeply may be one way to bring more moviegoers back to theaters.

“On some level, you’re talking about studios taking more risks, and as they do worse, they need to take more risks,” says Shawn Sachs, at Ken Sunshine Consultants, which worked on both “Fahrenheit” and this year’s “Crash.” Latter title, which dealt with race relations in L.A., succeeded financially after Lions Gate promoted it as tackling the issues of discrimination. “Rather than running away from it, they ran into it,” Sachs observes.

Clooney is helping out with the campaigns for both “Syriana” and “Good Night,” but he makes it clear, “I’m not an expert on the Middle East. I’m the son of a journalist; I’m not an expert on journalism.”

And he make it clear that his foremost job as an entertainer is to entertain. “I can enjoy ‘E.T.’ as well as ‘Schindler’s List,’” he says.

But he thinks it’s legitimate for celebrities — of every political stripe — to offer their glamour to causes they support.

“The one thing celebrity offers is a spotlight,” he says. “No matter what party you’re with, you try to get someone famous on your stage. It gets attention, and that’s what we do. That’s what we’re experts in.”

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