Can Movies Change Our Minds?

In an editorial on Sunday in the LA Times, Maria DiBattista asks whether movies can change people’s minds about social issues, using “Brokeback Mountain” as an example:

Movies can envision the need for social change, but it is unclear that they can help bring it about. They are better at pointing the way to a different, happier, more fulfilling life. Not the least interesting thing about the hopeless love dramatized in “Brokeback Mountain,” which garnered eight Oscar nominations last week, is how many social hopes it has inspired. Ang Lee, after winning the award as best director at the Golden Globes, hailed “the power of movies to change the way we’re thinking,” although he later thought it advisable to wait to “see how it plays out.”

…Movies can take on the great social problems of their time, but they may be the least effective — or appropriate — medium for solving them. Did “Gentleman’s Agreement” mark the beginning of the end of anti-Semitism in America? Did “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” make it easier for interracial couples to marry? Did “Wall Street” help unseat the captains of industry and discredit their doctrine of “greed is good”? Name any “problem film” — whether it deals with discrimination (racial, ethnic, sexual or religious), social reform (of schools, prisons, legislatures) or corporate corruption (national or global) — and you will come up with the same unimpressive results. The more designs a movie has on us, the less willing we are to change our minds, much less our social and business practices.

I have to disagree with her premise. I think that movies — whether feature films or TV movies — have the potential to change attitudes and beliefs, and ultimately to bring about individual and social change. In many cases, a movie may be the first exposure an individual has to a particular topic, raising the awareness that a problem exists. Think “Erin Brockovich” (environmental hazards), “Hotel Rwanda” (genocide), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (mental institutions) or the recent “Human Trafficking” on Lifetime, which I’ve discussed over on Craig Lefebvre’s blog.

When health issues are portrayed and humanized in a movie, viewers are left with a richer understanding of what it must be like for a person with that condition and the people who take care of them. Movies like “A Beautiful Mind” (schizophrenia), “My Left Foot” (cerebral palsy), “Philadelphia” (AIDS), “Children of a Lesser God” (deafness), “Rain Man” (autism) and “Lorenzo’s Oil” (adrenoleukodystrophy – ALD) are all examples of stories with sympathetic characters that bring us into their world. Awareness is the first step to understanding, which may then lead to a desire to do something and make a difference — or at least be more sensitive to people with these conditions.

Organizations addressing the crisis in Darfur actively promoted the viewing of the film “Hotel Rwanda” precisely to get people involved in confronting the current genocide. The miniseries “Human Trafficking” is part of Lifetime’s strategy to raise awareness of this issue with their audience and get them to take action. Movies can be the catalyst for individual and social change.

Micki Krimmel makes the point on the WorldChanging blog that

To a surprisingly great degree, the real power of films to affect social change is determined by the marketing…

Hollywood marketers should take a cue from social action groups, and not just by copying their grassroots marketing model. There are clearly large groups of people out there who care about social causes and are just waiting for a movie they can get behind. If people believe in something, they’ll market it for you.

The irony is that when the Hollywood marketers get hold of a film with the potential to spark social change, they minimize the controversial or issue-based aspects of the movie to make it more palatable to a broad audience. This then waters down the appeal of the film to the people who would be most likely to take the issue and run with it if they had been mobilized as part of the marketing strategy.

Movies can be powerful. They let us live someone else’s life for 2 hours. They can help us understand the world from another’s viewpoint. They can show us things we would never see in our own lifetimes. When a movie comes out that addresses the issues you care about, use the opportunity to galvanize others and harness the power of film to change hearts and minds.

I just came across this website – – that is associated with Participant Productions, where Micki Krimmel (linked above) works. Participant Productions is a film company started by Jeff Skoll of eBay, which produces movies specifically intended to bring about social change. Their recent films include Syriana, North Country, and Good Night and Good Luck. explicitly seeks to link the social action component described above with each movie. Whether or not you fall on the same side as them politically, this is a very interesting model with great potential for social marketing.

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