Right-wing media multibillionaire Phil Anschutz appears to be leading the charge. He’s financed a film studio called Walden Media that is producing movies with a decidely right-wing political agenda.
Walden’s second film, “Won’t Back Down,” debuted this weekend in about 2,500 theaters across the country. Not surprisingly, 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has the distribution deal.
Of course, Hollywood over the years has produced countless films with a political slant, both left and right. While those films may have had an ideological basis for their point of view, this film has an immediate political goal.
Critics charge it’s part of a thinly veiled right-wing campaign to promote the spread nationwide of so-called “parent trigger” laws. The long-range goal is to privatize public education through the creation of charter schools.
The first parent trigger law was passed in California in 2010. It allows parents to force the overhaul of an under-performing public school through a petition. If successful, parents could order the firing of staff or conversion to a private charter school, ostensibly run by a for-profit company.
The picture also marks a significant departure from its first project “Waiting For Superman,” a documentary style film focusing on the failures of the public education and the benefits of… privately run charter schools.
In contrast, “Won’t Back Down” is a feature-length movie with A-list stars like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter. On it’s face the film has an intriguing premise.
Two mothers, a bartender (Gyllenhaal) and a teacher (Davis), take on their childrens’ failing inner city school. But they collide headlong with an entrenched bureaucracy, a corrupt teacher’s union president and a school principal who’s in bed with the union.
Yet, it has a clear political message, and for that, critics have ripped it to shreds. It received only a 33 percent rating on rottentomatoes, which tracks reviews.
“It’s another propaganda film masquerading as a drama about school reform – but it’s really an anti-teachers union polemic,” writes Nikki Finke for deadline.com.
But not all reviews have been negative. Kyle Smith of The New York Post, also Mudoch-owned, gave it a thumbs up. “The film makes a serious effort to present the other side’s points,” he writes.
Hollywood and politics have a long history, including the infamous “Red Scare,” in the 1950s. Congress went on a witch hunt for Communists in the film industry, one of its the darkest periods. It led to the “blacklisting” of scores of talented writers, actors and directors, largely on denunciations by others.
The latest trend may be nascent, but it bears watching. Just how much are conservative, big-money interests willing to bet to sell their message through films? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservative groups contributed more than $2 million to publicize the film.
In its first weekend out, “Won’t Back Down” only took in $1.1 million, despite showing in more than 2,500 theaters. So the marketplace may have the final say, an interesting irony.