What Would Matt Damon Do?
Last week Todd Hollenbeck asked an insightful question of Matt Damon: would he support government run movie theaters? This is based on Matt’s response and support of government schools and teacher’s unions. After all, education is vital to all of our future as Matt clearly agrees. Movies are vital to his. So would he trust government to take responsibility for film?
Mr. Hollenbeck sets up a great counterexample of a world where theaters are run by the government. He sets up horrifying examples of what would happen under this regime. Sadly, many of his assessments are accurate because this essentially HAD already happened.
The year is 1921 and nearly 100 film censorship bills were on state legislature dockets. The Supreme Court had already decided that the First Amendment did not extend to motion pictures. In walks William H. Hayes to head up a new organization, the Motion Picture Producer and Distributor Association (MPPDA), precursor to our current MPAA. This was to head off the state censorship boards that began sprouting up like mushrooms. Hays worked with studio heads to come up with a list that would thwart the state boards’ efforts. While initially a prudish but voluntary set of standards, it was deemed unenforceable until 1934 when all MPPDA members had to get a certificate of approval for each film.
When Joseph Breen took the helm as head of the Production Code Administration, enforcement was even more draconian, including threats to take Warner Brothers to the federal government when they wanted to make a film with scenes of Nazi concentration camps. The code was revised in 1951 – to make it even more rigid. Finally, a 1952 Supreme Court Decision reversed its prior opinion to grant First Amendment protection to extend to films. Now that the threat of governmental regulation was minimized, so was the power of the Code. It eventually faded into the ratings agency it currently is and is now trying to find new relevance by increasing its reach into issues of intellectual property.
Some may argue that this was a voluntary association made by an industry and that there is nothing wrong with that. Some would be right. But would this association have come into being without the fear of government reprisals if they did not censor themselves? I believe it is highly unlikely. It is more likely that they would have worked to serve the marketplace. When the National Legion of Decency was protesting films, their effect on sales could have achieved the same results as the Code. Additionally, filmmakers and studios could have produced films that did not appeal to these audiences but different ones or smaller ones, if they were willing to take a financial hit. Who knows what these would have looked like? What would a Warner Brothers film about concentration camps have been like? The world will never know.
The point is, this so-called voluntary code was anything but. It was part of an organization that was adhered to under the duress created by the threat of government encroachment of artistic freedom and private property. In that 1915 Supreme Court decision, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio , Justice Joseph McKenna wrote, “The argument is wrong or strained which extends the guaranties of free opinion and speech to the multitudinous shows which are advertised on the billboards of our cities and towns … the exhibition of motion pictures is a business pure and simple … not to be regarded … as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion.” Do we really want these black-robed deities deciding what is art? Do we want them telling us what we can do or produce or distribute with our own money and our own labor?
Currently, Chris Dodd is head of the MPAA and they are throwing their weight behind the Protect IP Act. This bill has threat after threat to the freedom we have become accustomed to on the internet and would set an extremely dangerous precedent. So next time you run into him, ask Matt how he would enjoy the government not just running the movie theaters but our new corollary to that old distributor, the internet. Don’t trust him to learn this from any public school teacher union members though…
To read Todd Hollenbeck’s article, click here.
Full Disclosure and Promotion: I will be speaking at Free Minds Film Festival on October 7 which is being organized by Todd in Colorado Spring, CO.
Robert Anthony Peters will be speaking at Libertopia Festival 2011 in San Diego