What Could Washington Learn from Hollywood?

In a recent interview, director Steven Soderbergh suggests that Washington could learn a thing or two from Hollywood:

One thing I do know from making art is that ideology is the enemy of problem-solving. Nobody sits on a film set and says, “No, you can’t use green-screen VFX to solve that because I’m Catholic.” There’s no place for that, and that’s why I’ve stopped being embarrassed about being in the entertainment industry, because I’m surrounded by intelligent people who solve problems quickly and efficiently, primarily because issues of ideology don’t enter into the conversation. … 

I look at Hurricane Katrina, and I think if four days before landfall you gave a movie studio autonomy and a 100th of the billions the government spent on that disaster, and told them, “Lock this place down and get everyone taken care of,” we wouldn’t be using that disaster as an example of what not to do. A big movie involves clothing, feeding, and moving thousands of people around the world on a tight schedule. Problems are solved creatively and efficiently within a budget, or your ass is out of work. So when I look at what’s going on in the government, the gridlock, I think, Wow, that’s a really inefficient way to run a railroad. The government can’t solve problems because the two parties are so wedded to their opposing ideas that they can’t move. … That’s how art works. You steal from everything.

There are quite a few ideas packed in here, which I’ll try to address one at a time.

First, the problem during Hurricane Katrina was neither partisanship or gridlock. It wasn’t like Congress wanted to vote on how to rescue people in New Orleans but someone filibustered. No one made the claim that people should drown to teach them the value of thrift. At least at the time of the crisis, government officials more or less agreed on what needed to be done; they just largely failed to do it. The problem was, to some extent, federalism, but more generally incompetence. In many other situations (the Haitian earthquake, Superstorm Sandy, etc.) the federal government has responded quickly and effectively, providing shelter and saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Maybe a movie studio could have pulled that off, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Now, as for Soderbergh’s larger point, I’m sure he’s right that filmmakers don’t get hung up on the use of particular technological tools, but the reason they don’t get hung up on these decisions is because they largely don’t matter. If you decide to shoot in 35mm film rather than 16mm, that may be an interesting artistic decision, but no one (with the exception of a 16mm film manufacturer) suffers for it. There are no compelling interests at stake. 

On the other hand, when important ideas or revenue streams are at stake, Hollywood has found itself extremely polarized and occasionally gridlocked. Witness the Screen Actors’ Guild strike of 2000, during which many actors refused to appear in commercials. Witness the Writers’ Guild strike of 2008, which shut down many television shows and films for over three months. Or remember when the studios refused to hire any actor with alleged ties to the Communist Party? Good times.

The point is that people in the entertainment industry, just like people in government, will have a hard time agreeing when there are compelling interests at stake. It’s possible that Washington will resolve its internal disagreements more slowly than Hollywood will, but that’s precisely because Washington is democratically run. It resolves differences through roll call votes and through elections, which are inherently slow and messy. If Hollywood is more efficient, that’s because its key decisions are usually made by studio executives, producers, or directors — that is, dictators. We could certainly try that approach in government, but there are probably some down sides.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.