A significant number of producers and production companies are currently asking for “relevant” big screen and TV projects. They are actively seeking to produce films and series with strong social and/or political themes and messages. Whether this is because the producers genuinely feel the need to use film and TV as their political megaphone, or because they simply believe that, in the Age of Trump, controversy “sells,” the demand for “relevance” is an issue that any screenwriter, director, or filmmaker needs to consider before trying to market his or her product.
When contemplating “relevance” in entertainment, two major questions immediately present themselves. First, what exactly is “relevance,” and how do you bake it into your screen project? Second, is making a film or TV show “relevant” really the most commercially viable strategy?
When demanding “relevance,” what most production companies and studios mean is that they are looking to tap into some hot-button issue of the day. They want a story that is political. And here, political doesn’t mean Republican vs. Democrat, but is a broader call for a change in the current power structure. (Politics is always about which groups have power and which do not.) Traditionally, this means a story that deals dramatically — or through comedy — with topics like racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, ageism, war, poverty, conformity, income disparity, homophobia, transgenderism, political corruption, child and spousal abuse, rape, environmentalism, immigration and assimilation, class warfare, gun control, abortion, unionism, corporatism, depression, suicide, or technological threats. This is in contrast to films with broader, more universal themes, such as those that deal with romantic relationships, coming-of-age, crime busting, religious faith, or simple stories of good-vs.-evil.
In other words, a story is “relevant” if some portion of the audience is going to feel threatened by it.
Such a focus on “relevance” is actually nothing new. Art has always been political. From the satirical plays of Aristophanes and histories of William Shakespeare, to painter Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” to the socially conscious novels of Charles Dickens and the blistering dystopias of George Orwell, artists of all stripes have used their chosen media to comment on the injustices of their time and offer scathing rebukes of those in power.
Hollywood has proudly carried on this millennia-old tradition. Film’s first global superstar, Charlie Chaplin, used his comedy to advance his decidedly left-wing ideals, no more so than in his classics “Modern Times” (1936) and “The Great Dictator” (1940). Academy Award-winning producer-director Stanley Kramer (1913-2001) built an entire oeuvre of politically charged films, including “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “On the Beach” (1959),” “Inherit the Wind” (1960), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (1967). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been particularly sympathetic to those who choose celluloid as their soapbox, bestowing Best Picture Oscars on such “woke” films as “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), “Casablanca” (1943), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “The Best Year of Our Lives” (1946), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), “All the King’s Men” (1949), “On the Waterfront” (1954), “West Side Story” (1961), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “Ordinary People” (1980), “Gandhi” (1982), “Platoon” (1986), “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “Dances with Wolves” (1990), “Schindler’s List” (1993), “Crash” (2005), “The Hurt Locker” (2009), “12 Years a Slave” (2013), “Spotlight” (2015), and “Moonlight” (2016).
On television, particularly among the premium cable and streaming services like HBO, Showtime, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix, we currently find a plethora of “relevant” series (and mini-series), including — but certainly not limited to — “A Handmaid’s Tale,” “House of Cards,” “Black Mirror,” “Transparent,” “Big Little Lies” and “Orange is the New Black.”
So how do you write a “relevant” script for film, television or digital platforms?
The most obvious way to write a “relevant” script is to find a controversial social or political issue you feel passionate about and write an original drama (or comedy) set in the present day. Such a story would necessarily deal with one or more characters dealing directly with the topic at hand. A few recent examples of such “direct” films “Blood Diamond” (2006), original screenplay by Charles Leavitt, an action-drama focused on the brutal African diamond trade; “The Intern” (2015) a comedy about ageism written by Nancy Meyers; and “Get Out” (2017), original screenplay by Jordan Peele, which uses horror to explore the subject of hidden racism among America’s liberal elite.
“Relevant” topics can also be found in many novels and short stories (assuming you can obtain the rights). Notable motion pictures adapted by topical novels include the aforementioned “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), screenplay by Moss Hart based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, which explored anti-Semitism in post-War America; “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on a short story by Annie Prouix, which famously explored forbidden homosexuality in the American West; and “Up in the Air” (2009), screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, which dealt with the impact of corporate downsizing.
There are two obvious dangers in writing — or adapting — movies that deal with topical issues. The first is that the topic will quickly become dated. It may be fun to write a movie with a Donald Trump-like character in it, but will that story still have any impact 10 years from now? (Or even three?) There have even been cases when projects that were “timely” at the time they were greenlit became passé or cliché by the time of their release. (Does anyone remember 1980’s roller-disco epic “Xanadu”?) And then there’s the danger of becoming didactic and preachy. A significant portion of the movie-going audience specifically avoids movies with topical subjects, claiming such stories make them “uncomfortable,” or that they only go to movies to be “entertained.” In fact, many studio heads during Hollywood’s Golden Age specifically mandated that filmmakers avoid controversial subjects, and TV networks overtly shied away from hot-button topics like race, religion, politics, and homosexuality during broadcasting’s first two decades. Summed up in a directive usually attributed to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
Fortunately, there are several ways to tackle controversial subjects and avoid the charge of being “preachy” or “scolding.”
One of them is to set your fictional story (or adaptation) in an historical context, and thus make it one step removed from the present day. To show that the theme is both topical and universal. This was the approach taken by the makers of “Life is Beautiful” (1997), screenplay by Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni; “The Help” (2011), screenplay by Tat Taylor, from the novel by Kathyrn Stockett; and “Carol” (2015), screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, from the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Or, conversely, you can set your tale in the near or distant future, as was done with the global-warming disaster extravaganza “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), screenplay by Roland Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff; “Snowpiercer” (2013), screenplay by Joon-ho Bong and Kelly Masterson, from the novelized class warfare allegory by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette; and “Elysium” (2013), screenplay by Neill Blomkamp, again focusing on class warfare.
A subtler way is to use your “relevant” topic as subtext, using it to provide a thematic framework for what otherwise looks like a conventional thriller, comedy, or heist film. This was the approach taken by Callie Khouri when writing the feminist call-to-action “Thelma & Louise” (1991); Adam McKay and Chris Henchy when writing their broad comedic look at Wall Street malfeasance “The Other Guys” (2010) ; and Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen when writing the race and gender-laden heister flick “Widows” (2018), from the novel by Lynda LaPlante.
Another tact is to base your film on an actual historical personage or event, such as was done by the makers of “Milk” (2008), screenplay by Dustin Lance Black; “Selma” (2014), screenplay by Paul Webb; and the upcoming “On the Basis of Sex” (2018) screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman. Of course, basing a film on actual events poses numerous challenges. First, you have to secure the rights, which can be expensive. Second, you have a find a way to tell the story dramatically. (And real life rarely follows a three-act structure.) Finally, you open yourself up to charges of being historically inaccurate, a criticism seemingly leveled as a matter of course against any movie based on the life of a real person.
All of which leads us to the most “relevant” question of all: Does relevance really sell? The answer to that is decidedly mixed. Today’s film industry is hugely dependent on foreign sales, and what’s “relevant” to North American audiences is usually not the case to audiences in Europe and Asia. Which is why studio release calendars are today dominated by big budget action, sci-fi and superhero films. Such films not only tend to make big bucks stateside, but also play extremely well overseas. Even domestically, non-controversial films tend to find much larger audiences than do so-called “relevant” ones. At the time of this writing, the top five box office performers are “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “Creed II,” “Dr. Seuess’ The Grinch,” “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” With the exception of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which contains a subplot focusing on Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality, there’s barely an ounce of “relevance” in the bunch. To find any in the current movie crop, you have to drop down to “Widows,” #8 and “Green Book” at #9, both in their second week of release.
There has also been a strong backlash against so-called “SJW” (Social Justice Warrior) values creeping into established genre properties like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” the recent SW films from Disney and “Star Trek: Discovery” receiving the brunt of fan-boy outrage in this area. Whether or not this has had a notable effect on disappointing box office/ratings performance — or whether it’s just a matter of poor overall execution — remains a matter of debate. As for network television, we find only two obvious “relevant” shows among the current Top 20 programs, as rated by Nielson: “The Conners” (ABC) at #2 in total viewers, and “Murphy Brown” (CBS) at #6. The rest of the list is populated by traditional non-topical series like “FBI” (CBS) at #1, “God Friended Me” (CBS) at #3, “Manifest” (NBC) at #4 and “New Amsterdam” (NBC) at #5.
So, the question now is, do you hop on the “relevance” bandwagon or don’t you? If you’re going to be mercenary about this, it’s obvious that if this is what producers are asking for, you have to satisfy the market. (And if dramatizing controversial subjects is your passion, then this is your golden opportunity.) Fortunately, as we’ve shown, “relevance” has a long, storied history in Hollywood. This is not just a fad, like martial arts or disco movies.
To ignore the demand — to try and remain as non-political, non-controversial as possible — is to risk making yourself professionally — here is comes — irrelevant. – Allen B. Ury