What Rick Santorum Gets Right About Conservatives And Hollywood As He Takes Over A Christian Movie Studio

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"What Rick Santorum Gets Right About Conservatives And Hollywood As He Takes Over A Christian Movie Studio"

Former Senator and presidential aspirant Rick Santorum announced yesterday, in a move that suggests he might not be taking another bite at the White House, that he’s going to become the CEO of EchoLight Studios, a Dallas movie studio and distributorship. It would be easy to suggest that Santorum’s next gig is proof that conservatives, rather than actually trying to compete in the mainstream entertainment marketplace, are slinking back into their own enclaves. EchoLight’s a relatively new outfit that’s put on movies like I Am Gabriel, starring conservative actor Dean Cain, or The Accidental Missionary, which literally has as its main character a Hollywood executive who finds the light. These are not projects that are going to get any sort of mainstream audience, and they’re not designed to.

But in the Washington Post, Rachel Weiner digs up some evidence that suggests that Santorum might not be as clueless as some of the offerings of the company he’s taking over seem to be. “In a 2011 speech at the Heritage Foundation, the senator urged Christian conservatives to get involved in popular culture,” she reports. “’The problem in the past is that you have these people who create these Christian films — great message, terrible acting, horrible editing,’ Santorum said. ‘They are not entertaining, they’re preachy.’ In that speech, he said that conservatives needed to go to Hollywood. But “’Dallas can become the Hollywood of the faith-and-family movie market,” he said Monday.’”

This is a smart diagnosis on two levels. First, Santorum recognizes that entertainment has to be genuinely engaging to get people in the seats, something I think is true for people of all political and religious persuasions, except those for who whatever reasons feel an obligation to stay away from secular entertainment. Conservative filmmakers over and over again, whether for budgetary reasons, because of a lack of skill and aesthetic, or because of a simple disregard for that half of the equation frequently treat movies like an ideological sledgehammer rather than a seduction, and it shows. That’s a fine way to go if the only people you want to reach are there for your argument, and are treating film more like a pamphlet than an entertainment experience, but that’s an inherently limited approach that’s aimed at reinforcing the loyalty of your existing audience rather than growing their numbers.

Second, I think Santorum is right to identify an opening in the family film market, though I actually think he might be placing an artificial constraint on his efforts (or really, managing expectations) by suggesting that EchoLight can succeed in making strong faith-and-family movies. There are comparatively few movies that families can attend together, and even fewer that serve children and parents’ equally well. There’s a reason Monsters University made $82 million at the opening week box office. Santorum may not have the resources or the cachet to recreate Pixar for a different market, but there’s plenty he could take from secular entertainment if he wants to exploit this niche, including plots that aren’t afraid to engage children on real issues, and a careful balance of idiot comic relief that might exhaust parents, leading them to choose EchoLight movies as less-expensive home rentals rather than movies that are worth a trip to the actual theater.

And most of all, Santorum and his colleagues should start looking carefully at the areas where conservative ideas have taken deep root in popular culture, and consider the narrative ways they serve Hollywood’s interests. Abortion has become near-verboten in Hollywood not just because it’s a lightening rod, but because while a terminated pregnancy is the end of a storyline, a pregnancy carried to full term keeps the story going, whether it ends in adoption, a couple’s decision to stay together for a baby, or a woman’s decision to embrace single motherhood. Veneration of the military shows up in so many Hollywood movies because the military’s willing to play ball, lend out equipment, and provide consulting on scripts and action sequences, and because a strong assertion of American military might provides both stakes and an arc for an action picture. Pacifism (which, depending on which interpretation of Scripture Santorum thinks will sell, may or may not count as a Christian or conservative value) tends to end a story, unless you’re willing to make war resisters heroes and chronicle the state’s treatment of them during wars like World War I and Vietnam, which strikes me as unlikely. Marriages that are tested by infidelity, flirtation, or a simple lack of attention and affection similarly affirm the importance of family and provide a strong multi-act narrative and significant emotional stakes. Conservative values have succeeded in these Hollywood genres because those values meet Hollywood’s basic needs.

Ultimately, conservatives who would like to see their values reflected in the movies should look for more places where that kind of convergence can happen. There’s a broad, and I think mistaken, perception that Hollywood’s products, as opposed to people who work in entertainment, are uniformly liberal, though I think the case is wildly overstated in both instances. Rather, liberals get what they want when the stories they want told intersect with entertainment’s set incentives. Stories about racial integration, gay rights, or period fights for gender equality work because they involve personal courage, identifiable villains, and moral transcendance. Immigration drama A Better Life worked in part because it was about a father who wanted to be good to his son, whose undocumented status was a particular hurdle to that more general truth. But like conservatives, progressives don’t always get what we want out of our entertainment because our political arguments aren’t always conducive to strong storytelling. But we’ve settled for some of what we can get, recognizing that entertainment value needs to come first. Santorum would do a lot to change the face of conservative entertainment if he’d be willing to recognize the value of the same compromise.

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