How the Movies Drive Public Policy


Film is a powerful medium. From a policy perspective, few other forms of communication can so rapidly change public sentiment. This is particularly true of feature films. Although documentaries are certainly important — and this year they have seen a resurgence that includes “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “RBG” — it is with feature films that messages resonate in an accessible fashion to a large audience. They not only inform and persuade — they also entertain and emote. As Mary Poppins might say, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

If we look at films over the past few decades, it’s interesting to see how many of them have caught the public’s imagination and influenced governmental policy. “Midnight Express,” the 1978 movie about Billy Hayes, who tried to smuggle hash out of Istanbul but was caught, tried and sentenced to four years in prison chronicles his extreme privation and abuse. After the picture’s release, Turkish tourism was devastated and relations between the U.S. and Turkey soured.

Of course, we tend to think of the most sensational examples first. “Jaws” caused beach tourism to drop. The Exorcist tapped into people’s fears of the demonic and triggered a spate of theological thrillers. More recently along the same lines, Hollywood has found that superhero films and endless sequels keep the box office crackling. Such tent poles serve as vicarious theme park rides, though they are light on socially relevant content.

As far back as 1942, “Bambi” resulted in a sizable drop in deer hunting in the U.S. Even today, hunting and vegan discussions often invoke references to “Bambi.”

Other types of films can have even more direct impact upon public policy. “The China Syndrome” was eerily prescient regarding the prospect of nuclear power plant accidents — Three Mile Island occurred just 12 days after the movie’s release in 1979. Since then, the U.S. curtailed the use of nuclear power for electricity generation due to fear of meltdowns — further reinforced by Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Movies can inspire career choices. “All The President’s Men” caused a spike in journalism school enrollments. Navy recruiters set up shop outside of screenings of “Top Gun” as military enlistments spiked. (Fans take note: The sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick” is slated to come out in 2020.)

The silver screen can elaborate great social issues. “Philadelphia” with Tom Hanks in an Academy Award winning performance highlighted workplace bias against AIDS victims. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” took the topic of interracial marriage into the mainstream. “Hotel Rwanda” increased global awareness of the genocide by Tutsi and Hutu factions.

Environmental themes frequently enter the fray. “The Day After Tomorrow” resulted in greater consciousness of climate change. Overtones of ecosystem collapse appear in “Avatar” — the top grossing film of all time. Earlier this year, “First Reformed” arrived in theaters, in which Ethan Hawke grapples with the mounting implications of human-manufactured waste by-products.

An article by Michelle Pautz at the University of Dayton demonstrated how “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” shaped opinions about government. Approximately 25 percent of viewers changed their opinion about government after watching one of the movies.

A newly-released feature may serve to raise public consciousness as well. “The Hate U Give,” based on a best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas, presents an absorbing look at race, inequality and justice in the U.S. In a vehicle potentially ripe for heavy-handed narrative, the filmmakers expertly address important social issues in a thoughtful and insightful manner.

Without question, feature films hold the potential to sway public opinion capture our imagination. Although often viewed as purely entertainment, motion pictures represent more than that. They can influence vocations, address pressing social issues and cause us to rethink our lifestyles — no mean feat in today’s complicated world.

About the author: Thomas Tunstall, Ph.D., is the Senior Research Director at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development, and was a principal investigator for numerous economic and community development studies. He has published peer-reviewed articles on shale oil and gas, and has written op-ed articles on the topic for the Wall Street Journal. Dr. Tunstall holds a doctorate degree in political economy, a master’s in business administration from The University of Texas at Dallas, and a bachelor of business administration from The University of Texas at Austin.



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