03/01/2014 10:11 EST | Updated 05/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Hollywood Films That Make Money AND Change the World

Hollywood has no shortage of examples of films that have been major box office hits, while successfully raising public awareness. With a little willingness to eschew the easy bets and the tired old clichés, the movie industry can unequivocally entertain and educate. Movies like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", "Norma Rae", and this year's Oscar contender "12 Years a Slave", are prime examples. This year's compelling Oscar contender, "Dallas Buyers Club", continues a conversation that "Philadelphia" started back in 1993.

By Toula Drimonis

With the 86th Annual Academy Awards just a few days away, speculation is rampant about who'll be nabbing this year's coveted Oscars. Will commercially successful and thoroughly entertaining movies like "Gravity" come out the winners, or will it be socially conscious films like "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club"? And what if it didn't have to be an either/or proposition?

What if you could combine both social relevance and commercial success, and have everyone (producers and public) win?

If you think that's a pipe dream, you haven't been paying attention.

Hollywood has no shortage of examples of films that have been major box office hits, while successfully raising public awareness. With a little willingness to eschew the easy bets and the tired old clichés, the movie industry can unequivocally entertain and educate.

Movies like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner", "Norma Rae", and this year's Oscar contender "12 Years a Slave", are prime examples.

"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was a box-office hit in 1968 throughout the U.S., including in southern states where it was automatically assumed that few white filmgoers would want to see any film with black leads. Interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states six months before the film was released, yet the success of that film challenged tired old assumptions.

"12 Years a Slave" has already grossed $128M in international and domestic sales, while only having a $20M production budget. It's made money for its investors while telling a compelling, critically acclaimed, socially relevant story about slavery. Having already won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Best Picture, many are now predicting it will win an Oscar for Best Picture; further increasing its commercial longevity.

In addition, it was just announced that the film (and the book) will be distributed to high schools across the United States, thanks to an initiative headed by celebrity Montel Williams, who's a spokesman for Stand Up 4 Public Schools.

Williams was quoted as saying:

"When Hollywood is at its best, the power of the movies can be harnessed into a powerful educational tool."

It's worth noting that Brad Pitt (and his production company, Plan B Entertainment, which often finances socially relevant films) backed the project, which was instrumental in getting it additional financing.

Remember "Erin Brockovic"? It made millions at the box office, while exposing the unethical dealings of a California power company accused of polluting a city's water supply.

"The Killing Fields" and "Hotel Rwanda" introduced audiences around the world to Pol Pot's murderous regime in Cambodia, and the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide.

Film has the power to bring attention to women's rights issues, inequality, human rights violations, poverty, and discrimination.

Movies are often someone's first exposure to a specific issue, galvanizing and shaping public opinion, which, in turn, affects public support; instigating slow, but very real, societal change.

This year's compelling Oscar contender, "Dallas Buyers Club" (which has exceeded $25M in domestic gross revenues so far, with only a paltry $5M budget), continues a conversation that "Philadelphia" started back in 1993.

Love him or hate him, Michael Moore reinvented the long-form journalism of documentaries and showed the movie industry that you can educate the public about huge global issues and still be financially viable.

Mainstream audiences are thirsty for real issues, and movie producers are starting to understand that it's in their best interest to quench that thirst.

And if they don't, they often get called out. Sometimes, even from one of their own.

Actress and noted feminist Olivia Wilde recently had a scathing message to deliver to Hollywood. During an L.A. panel called "The State of Female Justice" she discussed "the privilege afforded to Hollywood through the almost unfathomable reach it has to affect international audiences -- and how the film industry just isn't doing enough with this opportunity.

"Wilde pointed out that the discrimination seen on screen often crosses over to real life, resulting in the objectification of women, women objectifying themselves and ultimately a lack of social equality. She posed the rather poignant question: 'Our responsibility is to be story tellers, so why aren't we telling the stories that are educating the masses to empower them to avoid a lot of these situations?'" (The Huffington Post, Alana Vagianos)

A woman may be hosting this year's Oscars, but only 5 per cent of the top 100 studio films are directed by women and only 27 per cent of on-screen movie roles are played by women (a number not changed substantially since the 1920s!).

What if Hollywood, instead of reflecting society's gender bias, led the way and changed that perception from within?

In 2004, Jeff Skoll, the first president of auction giant eBay, started Participant Media, producing a string of feature films and documentaries that not only entertain but as Participant's Mission statement says, 'tell compelling, entertaining stories that also create awareness of the real issues that shape our lives.'

Participant is the production company behind Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," which brought worldwide attention to global warming. Political thriller "Syriana," which provided insights into the oil industry, soon followed. Participant not only produces the films but works with organisations and finds ways to get audiences involved. It has working relationships with 112 non-profits that collectively have the potential of reaching over 60M people. This is the perfect example of the potential power of social change through film.

Even marketing (which often eats away at a huge chunk of the film's production budget) can be consciously done differently.

When film maker Casey Neistat was recently contacted by 20th Century Fox to create a promotional video for "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Neistat asked if he could, instead, spend the $25,000-budget to fly out to the Philippines and help out with flood relief efforts. Fox agreed and Neistat made a video about that. The video got crazy traction on social media, so cynics were quick to grudgingly mumble that Fox still got their money's worth. Well, duh! Isn't that the point? You can produce, market, and distribute a film, and still do good. What a novel concept.

If $40-$50M is the average cost to market a feature film distributed by a major Hollywood studio, than why can't a healthy percentage of that sum be allocated towards innovative and socially conscious ways to promote it? There is no one louder than an activist with a cause to advocate for. Studios would do well to tap into that voice.

And if total global spending on product placement in movies in 2013 was a whopping $1.8B, isn't it time for studios to selectively choose the brands who are associated with better values (ecologically, socially, politically) and -- once again -- let activists and consumer advocates handle a big bulk of their marketing for them through social media? As quick as today's consumers are to point out unethical practices, they're just as quick to give props to those who deserve them. Never underestimate the power of good branding.

With more and more films coming out each year, and with fewer studios willing to take any financial risks (hence the onslaught of tired remakes and nostalgia-themed movies that have a guaranteed return on their investment) it's vital that the big Hollywood machinery understand that, even if the almighty dollar is their priority, audiences are becoming more socially aware and are demanding (and will reward) social relevance.


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