Government and the Movies

Unlike many countries where the government oversees cultural programs, including cinema, the United States does not have a government office or ministry that regulates the film industry. Government, however, does interface with the movie business in several ways.

Film Production

In the United States, films generally come from two sources: large studios that produce many films and television programs each year and independent filmmakers, including both students and experienced filmmakers. Sometimes—through grants from universities or arts or humanities councils—independent filmmakers do receive support indirectly from funding that originated with the local, state, or federal government, but more often funding comes from private investors or through philanthropic organizations concerned with either promotion of the arts or promotion of a cause being addressed by a film.

While there is no ministry of film, there are many government offices that interact with the film industry. At the state and local levels, government film offices promote local film locations because use of their locale brings employment and other economic advantages, promotes tourist sites, or shows their region in a favorable light. These offices also help filmmakers work with the police and others to arrange for filming that impacts traffic, uses public buildings, or otherwise needs special consideration.

Similarly, government entities, especially the branches of the military, have offices that help coordinate filmmakers’ use of facilities, equipment, and even personnel. It would be difficult, for example, for a filmmaker to construct a make-believe aircraft carrier or to hire a cast of extras to be in the background of a movie who look like real soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines (whose haircuts, fitness levels, and posture are often different than that of civilian actors). The military is willing to make their facilities available, within reason, for approved projects, and each branch has an office that handles these requests. Other branches of the government address requests to use public spaces and buildings, such as monuments or parks.

Filmmakers can gain access to military sites and equipment.

Many years ago, the U.S. government did produce some feature films and worked closely with Hollywood on films that would encourage public morale during wartime. However, since World War II, these programs have been eliminated through a combination of budgetary and philosophical concerns. One exception has been work carried out by government offices that, by definition, deal with external audiences, domestic or foreign. The United States Information Agency, for example, for many years produced films for exhibition to overseas audiences to complement its other educational programs. One such film, John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums, a posthumous tribute to the assassinated president, even won the 1965 Academy Award for best documentary. This agency, now a part of the U.S. Department of State, no longer produces original films.

Censorship

There have been times, especially during World War II, when national security was an issue and certain types of information were restricted from wide distribution, but, in general, the government has remained hands-off with regard to censorship. In efforts to balance free speech concerns with those of public welfare and public taste, voluntary standards enacted by the motion picture industry have resulted in a rating system (G for general audiences, R for restricted audiences, and several other categories) that industry—not government—censors apply to films, allowing viewers, parents, and theater owners to better gauge the sexual, violent, or profane-language content of a film.

Film Distribution

Today, with very few exceptions, films produced in the United States are distributed domestically and in other countries through commercial channels that are controlled by the market. If a film does not attract an audience, its run in the theater will be cut short and another will take its place, hoping to be a hit. In the first half of the 20th century, there was some government support to send abroad films that helped showcase American ideals. This effort has largely been reduced to a small office in the State Department that will, for example, help U.S. embassies get access to commercial films for showing to local audiences, usually in collaboration with a local sponsor, such as the ministry of culture or a university. In this way, the U.S. government supports efforts to organize film festivals and other local programs.

From the June 2007 edition of eJournal USA.

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