An Open Letter to Hollywood

We had just reviewed some of the first cuts of the film in an editing studio on another lot. He had questions, real questions, and he humbly asked for answers. “So, what do you think?” It was the scene of Judas on the road to his own hanging, and pursued by his own demons in the form of innocent boys. “To be honest, Mel, I never thought of it like that. It’s pretty far out.”

“Yeah, but demons are far out, Father. Selling your best friend and Lord is pretty far out too. Anyone with demons will know what I mean. And there’s lots of them out there, you know, lots of people running from demons.” The conversation went something like that.

A few minutes later I was sitting in a movie set trailer with Mel Gibson and superstar producer, Steve McEveety, chomping on pita bread and buffalo mozzarella. “Try some of this olive oil, Father, it’s out of this world.” So was the environment — tense and surreal. Shooting wasn’t finished and an unexpected war had broken out. International reporters camped out at the entrances to the famous “Cine Citta” studios in Rome, hoping to get a scoop on this low budget film causing a high budget revolution back at home. The months working on and off the set of “The Passion of the Christ” changed my mind about Hollywood. It’s not that bad. Hollywood is just people, good people, talented people, wildly creative people — all of whom are products and promoters of an inbred subculture that has been sick for a very long time.

My role in “The Passion” was minor, but I learned a lot, including that Hollywood is small, and fun and smart, and the people all care. Some care about ideas, many care about each other, and all care about money.

Last night’s Oscars taught me something else. Money might matter more to more Hollywood stars, but ideas are much cooler — and that's why they win Oscars." If only the two could be united — cool ideas that make money! How happy my Hollywood friends would be! Because I care about Hollywood, the people, I sat down and came up with a few hints from me to them about how to do just that.

An Open Letter to Hollywood:

Dear Hollywood,

I’m writing on behalf of all Americans. It’s been a while since you’ve been in touch with us. You haven’t called, you haven’t written, but you keep sending films. Just thought I would drop you a line.

You see, I’m concerned about you, and about your future. We saw your Oscars show last night. Some things were just like we remember. Jon Stewart behaved himself quite nicely and, though very different from other emcees we knew and loved, I still think Bob Hope would have been proud. The red carpet, pretty dresses, all the glitter…I know it’s all a bit superficial, but it’s captured our heart just the same. It’s always exciting to see familiar faces and get a feel for what our favorite actors and actresses must be like in real life. Oh, and the drama of it all. Don’t change that!

But I do have one question. What’s your idea of “good film?”

These were your favorite films this year, along with their ranking in box-office ticket sales, and number of Oscar nominations:

• Brokeback Mountain: 27th place, 8 nominations
• Crash: 49th place, 6 nominations
• Good Night, and Good Luck: 90th place, 6 nominations
• Memoirs of a Geisha: 45th place, 6 nominations

I didn’t want to see any of them, and I haven’t seen any of them. And judging by the numbers, neither did anybody else. These “masterpieces” were playing to mostly empty theaters for most of their theater run.

"March of the Penguins," nominated in the Best Documentary category, actually grossed more money than any of the Best Picture nominees.

“Crash” took your high honors, but the theater owners don’t share your enthusiasm, because we the people don’t. You gave 8 nominations and 3 Oscars to Brokeback Mountain, which only came in 27th at the box office. Capote didn’t even make the top 100 at the box office, but you liked it a lot: 5 nominations (including Best Picture) and an Oscar.

Actually, America’s favorite film this year was "Star Wars III." We paid $380 million to go see it in theaters. You gave it a single nomination: for makeup. It proves the old Hollywood maxim: “People will flock to theaters in droves and stand in long lines to get in to see movies with good makeup.” Or did I just make that up?

That’s why I’m announcing today the first annual We the People awards. There’s only one criterion: whether audiences actually wanted to go see the movies. Revolutionary! Drum roll, please… the We the People (WTP) award winners for this year are:

• Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith: $380 million gross (1st place for the year), 1 nomination
• Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: $288 million (2nd place for the year), 1 nomination
• The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: $288 million (3rd place for the year), 3 nominations
• War of the Worlds: $234 million (4th place for the year), 3 nominations

Oh, look, I think I see a pattern. None of these movies glorifies homosexuality ("Brokeback," "Capote"), squeezes in 182 expletives ("Crash"), bashes McCarthyism ("Good Night") and America in general ("Syriana" — 2 nominations) or features subject matter unmentionable in this column ("Geisha," "Transamerica" — 2 nominations). In a word, none of them is propaganda. Maybe that’s why we wanted to go see them.

So it’s agreed, then… you have your awards ceremony and we’ll have ours.

But let’s talk seriously for a moment. Remember what Samuel Goldwyn, one of MGM’s founding producers, used to say? “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Movies are just pure entertainment, right? Wrong. Very wrong.

Even Michael Moore and I will agree on this much: filmmaking is much more than entertainment. It’s psychology: a viewer watching a film moves in the actor’s world as though it were his own, and even, to some degree, lives in his place. The viewer begins to identify himself with the actor’s situation and values. That’s why we come away from movies feeling happier or sadder, quoting lines and humming tunes.

So movies can sweep us up to beauty and truth or degrade us, warping our fundamental attitudes about life and about each other. Michael Moore uses all kinds of powers of suggestion to get you to think a certain way about moral issues. So does Ang Lee. For that matter, so does Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Psychology is not bad, it’s what you do with it.

Here’s the principle: moviemakers have a responsibility to society. A movie that doesn’t respect the truth about who man and woman are is simply poison. Remember the line from "Spiderman 2," “With great power comes great responsibility?” A side point: "Spiderman 2" would have won a We The People award in 2004 for grossing $374 million to finish 2nd for the year. As a matter of fact, it just barely beat out "The Passion of the Christ," with $370 million, another WTP would-be winner (and the all-time gross money maker in the R-rated category).

Some will object: "Hollywood is just entertainment." I respond: "If that’s so, this year it entertained very few." Others will object: "Hollywood is just a business." I respond: "Not a good one, at least not this year." Still others will chime in: "We’re just reflecting what’s already out there." I respond: "You’re great people, but remember, you live in a subculture that has been sick for a very long time — lots of demons. Change the angles of your mirrors, and see new realities. Then let them shine."

Anyway, Hollywood, if you’re still reading, keep this in mind. Your overall box-office receipts have been falling steadily over the last three years, and two-thirds of all films still lose money. Something has to change. There are lots of ideas out there. Some make money. Some don’t. Leave Hollywood and Malibu for a while and get back in touch. Write to us. Call us. Visit us. Ask us what would be a reflection of what We The People really think and what we’ll pay to see.

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. A note to "We the People:" Did my letter to Hollywood reflect what was on your mind? Write to me and let me know.

This article is part of a regular blog hosted by Father Jonathan Morris on