Commentary: Look beyond the stars


As the nation and the world wait with bated breath to see the effectiveness of the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package, all Americans -- regardless of politics -- should want nothing less than to see its complete success. I believe the package will prove a constructive step, but there is a noteworthy lesson for policymakers and our industry in the debate we just witnessed.

As many now know, a tax credit offered to more "traditional" U.S. businesses investing at this pivotal time was denied to those companies that create not cars and computers but movies and television shows. A handful of terrific films connected with their audiences in January, and suddenly in Washington it's "Hollywood is fine," and in a twist out of "Alice in Wonderland," some policymakers railed about the tremendous health of our industry.

Here in the real Hollywood, we know the situation is quite different. Like nearly every other U.S. industry, entertainment companies are reporting breathtaking economic losses, and many good, creative people are losing their jobs in the resulting cutbacks. It's a stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of the red carpet that captivated the world during Sunday's Academy Awards, but it is the reality of our industry in the current economic environment.

When I was in President Clinton's Cabinet, nothing would get folks more excited than a call from "the White House." Each time an aide burst in to my office with the news, I asked the same question: "Who is the White House? Is the building calling, an intern or the president himself?" We need to apply a similarly healthy skepticism to the monolithic and false prevailing notion of "Hollywood."

Throughout history, "Hollywood" too often has been cast in American politics as a stock villain in a tired tale. According to the script, everyone in "Hollywood" makes millions of dollars and lives in palatial homes featured on MTV's "Cribs."

For all the attention showered on "Hollywood," the truth largely is known only to those who live it every day: The American film and television industry is a national community of tens of thousands creative artists and executives who work in nearly every state in our union. Their ranks include a handful of talented A-list actors and directors working alongside tens of thousands of camera operators, lighting technicians, caterers, costume designers, truck drivers, stuntmen, writers and working actors -- 85% of whom are employed by the universe of small businesses that contributes mightily to the production of U.S. movies, TV shows and commercials. As in most businesses, there are a few well-compensated "stars," but most people are middle-class workers earning a living wage.

Looking at the facts, it's hard to dispute that the creative industries of film and television are an essential component of our nation's economy. We employ nearly 1.5 million Americans, contribute about $60 billion annually to the U.S. economy and run a positive balance of trade with virtually every country in which we do business.

With the typical "on location" feature film shoot bringing an estimated $225,000 a day into that local economy, more and more state policymakers are recognizing that show business is good business. Some of the most honored pictures on Oscar Night were filmed in Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana and New Jersey. All are among the 40 states now offering incentives to encourage "Hollywood" production.

And California now has joined other states with a competitive tax incentive package that will produce jobs and help generate much-needed revenue for the state. Foreign nations, too, have become quite aggressive in rolling out the welcome mat: When Batman swooped into President Obama's hometown of Chicago, production on Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight" injected $35 million into jobs, taxes and other revenue into the local economy in just 65 days.

As our nation becomes a more information-based economy, it's important that our policies reflect this modern reality. Whether jobs and growth come from building cars or building movie sets shouldn't matter. With constructive policies, American film and television can play a starring role in our nation's economic recovery.

As the eyes of the world turned their focus to Hollywood during the weekend, we should follow up by finding opportunities to pull back the curtain and remind our nation and its leaders that, yes, we love our Brads and Leos and Toms and Wills, but they would be the first to attest that American film and television is so much more. We are not something other than America; we are a broad, diverse creative community that helps define the country, and given the chance, our collective efforts can spark not only powerful emotions but also powerful new cycles of American growth, innovation and opportunity.

Dan Glickman is chairman and CEO of the MPAA, representing the interests of the U.S. filmed entertainment industry nationally and internationally. He headed the Department of Agriculture under President Clinton and before that served 18 years in the House of Representatives.