Big Bad Wall St Corporations

I found this article interesting from the Wall Street Journal:

  • OCTOBER 10, 2011

The Corporate Exec: Hollywood Demon

Nazis are getting old, moviemakers don’t want to offend foreign audiences, so corporate types top the list of evil stereotypes

By EDWARD JAY EPSTEIN

It is not surprising that pop-culture protesters are now intent on occupying Wall Street. For the past decade, Hollywood has been casting financiers as the demonic villains of society. In the multiplexes, businessmen have replaced even terrorists as villains.

In the Warner Bros. political thriller “Syriana,” for example, the villain is not al Qaeda, an enemy state, the mafia, or even a psychotic serial killer. Rather, it’s the big oil companies who manipulate terrorism, wars and social unrest to drive up oil prices.

Tracks of the root-of-evil corporate villain are everywhere in post-Cold War Hollywood. Consider Paramount’s 2004 remake of the 1962 classic, “The Manchurian Candidate.” In John Frankenheimer’s original film, the villain-behind-the-villain is the Soviet Union, whose nefarious agents, with the help of Chinese Communists, abduct an American soldier in Korea and turn him into a sleeper assassin. In the new version, the venue is transposed from Korea in 1950 to Kuwait in 1991, and the defunct Soviet Union is replaced as the resident evil. The new villain is—you guessed it—the Manchurian Global Corporation, an American company loosely modeled on the Halliburton Corporation.

As the director, Jonathan Demme, explains in his DVD commentary, he avoided making the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein the replacement villain, because he did not want to “negatively stereotype” Muslims. Not only was neither Saddam Hussein nor Iraq mentioned in a film about the Iraq-Kuwait war, but the Manchurian corporation’s technicians rewire the brains of abducted U.S. soldiers with false memories of al Qaeda-type jihadists so that they will lay the blame for terrorist acts committed by American businessmen on an innocent Muslim jihadist. So Hollywood lays a new rap on greedy corporations: deluding the public about terrorism.

Why don’t the movies have plausible, real-world villains anymore? One reason is that stereotype-sensitive advocacy groups, representing everyone from hyphenated ethnic minorities and physically handicapped people to Army and CIA veterans, now maintain a liaison in Hollywood to protect their image. The studios themselves often have an “outreach program” in which executives are assigned to review scripts and characters with representatives from these groups, evaluate their complaints, and attempt to avoid potential brouhahas.

Finding evil villains is not as easy as it was in the days when a director could choose among Nazis, communists, the KGB and Mafiosi, though they have served in a pinch. The 2002 apocalyptic thriller, “Sum of All Fears,” was based on the Tom Clancy novel in which Muslim extremists explode a nuclear bomb in Baltimore. But Paramount decided to change the villains to Nazi businessmen residing in South Africa to avoid offending Arab-American and Islamic groups. “The list of non-offensive villains narrows quickly once you get past the tired clichés of Nazis,” a top talent agency executive pointed out to me in an email. “You’d be surprised at how short the list is.” And even Nazis have now aged out of contemporary-movie contention.

Since international markets provide Hollywood with 70% of its action-movie revenue, studios are finding it risky to use villains from potentially valuable markets such as China. When MGM set out to remake John Milius’s 1984 classic about Soviet invaders in America, “Red Dawn,” the new invaders were Chinese. Yet the version MGM plans to release in 2012 has been digitally altered and re-edited to make the primary villains North Koreans. North Korea is one of the few countries in which Hollywood does not distribute its movies.

For sci-fi and horror movies, there are always invaders from alien universes and zombies from another dimension, but even here it doesn’t hurt if they are in the greed business. In the 2009 movie “Avatar,” an avaricious mining corporation is behind the use of avatars to destroy the environment, culture and natives of the planet Pandora. This proved a lucrative decision since the movie earned a large share of its revenue in foreign countries, such as Brazil and China, where there is concern about corporate exploitation of their resources and environment.

Yet for reality-based politico-thrillers, the safest remaining characters are lily-white, impeccably dressed American corporate executives. They are especially useful as evildoers in films set abroad since their demonization does not risk gratuitously offending officials in countries either hosting the filming or supplying tax or production subsidies. “Mission Impossible 2” thus replaced the Russian and Chinese heavies that populated the old TV series with a Wall Street-type financier who controlled a pharmaceutical company that aimed to make a fortune by unleashing a horrific virus on the world. How? It owned the antidote. Here, as in other thrillers, businessmen’s crimes and killings are not just figurative.

Unlike other stereotype-challenged groups, CEOs and financiers have no connection with the studios’ outreach programs. Unprotected and unfeared—even as they finance movies—they’ve become an essential part of Hollywood’s casting. They are the new all-purpose money demons.

Mr. Epstein is author of “The Hollywood Economist” (Melville House, 2010).

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