Interview by Lauren Madow

Mike Medavoy is Chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, a member of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy Advisory Board, and co-author with Nathan Gardels of American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Born to Russian-Jewish emigrants in Shanghai, Medavoy’s family moved to Chile in 1947, and later to the U.S. His career began at Universal Studios in the 1960s. Since then, in various positions at several Hollywood studios, he has overseen the release of many major American films, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Platoon (1986), Philadelphia (1993), The Thin Red Line (1998), and others.

Public Diplomacy Magazine Managing Editor Lauren Madow spoke with Medavoy about Hollywood’s complex position as a potential diplomatic actor, as well as Hollywood’s shifting role on the world stage since the publication of American Idol After Iraq, in which he wrote: “If culture is on the front line of world affairs in the times to come, then Hollywood, as much as Silicon Valley, the Pentagon, or the U.S. State Department, has a starring role.”1

Lauren Madow: In 2009, you said that “the magic is gone” from the U.S.’ image abroad, especially in the wake of the George W. Bush administration. Where do you think we stand in 2014, and what role has Hollywood played in restoring (or not) the magic?

Mike Medavoy: I think there is no doubt that going to Iraq and eventually Afghanistan caused many countries to question the nature of our leadership. In my opinion, Obama’s pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan—while giving an impression of weakness to some—is probably facing the reality that the argument of putting boots on the ground is untenable. I don’t believe the American public wants it. It’s pure bravado. “We are big and we will attack” is not enough of a threat, and to make it credible we would have to do something, and a miscalculation could cause millions of people to die.

In the last few years, American movies have tended toward the cartoon-like comic book heroes favored by the Millennials, and quite frankly these work well around the world.

LM: You wrote that “the most attractive attribute in our arsenal of soft power” is the image of America as “the Promised Land.” When you select a project to work on, do you take the ideas of soft power and projecting a certain image abroad into account? Do you think that producers in general should be cognizant of this?

MM: I don’t select a project based on trying to change people’s minds; I make a movie based on whether the story will connect viscerally to an audience and attract a large enough audience to pay for its cost. For example, the film I’m involved with now, The 33, is the [true] story of 33 [Chilean miners] trapped 800 meters below the earth by a rock twice the size of the Empire State Building. It’s a story of courage; it’s the story of every man who works every day to improve his lot and that of his family.

The story of the Jews in Shanghai is another project I’m working on because it connects to my own story, having been born there. The story of my parents’ survival again touches on that which makes us human. I am also working on a project in Europe about genocide. All of those are universal themes and should attract large audiences if well done.

It would be a serious mistake to think that our problems are only cyclical. We now live in a knowledge economy, boosted by technology that goes everywhere, at every time. I believe as filmmakers we are engaged in a higher calling.

LM: So you choose a given project based on whether it’s a good story that interests you, not because you’re making calculations about public diplomacy.

MM: Yes. I connected to Philadelphia not because of any reason other than it being a great story. But you know, the fact that an American citizen who has lived in Chile is doing a film about a Chilean mine disaster, I don’t think is lost on anybody.

LM: Would you say making The 33 is part of what you’ve called an “empathetic cinema,” meaning films that inform global citizens about one another?

MM: I think when you go to see a film, mostly you’re going there to escape the daily rigors of life, whether you see it on television or at the movies or on your iPad, for that matter. I don’t think you’re going to it just to get informed. I think human beings have a common need. In the case for example of the miners, I looked at it from the following point of view: I say that all of the people I know, including my parents, went to work every single day wanting to make a better life for their families and to give their children a better opportunity than the one they had. This is certainly true in the case of my parents, and certainly true about the miners. They were working in order to give their families a better opportunity…You know, I recently had an interesting conversation with Martha Raddatz about her book, The Long Road Home, which touches on a battle that took place in Iraq. I wanted to take that story, and tell the story about how we got there and what happened after—not all of it is in the book. The power that a film can have, of being able to synthesize a whole experience and make it come above is immense—and that we in America can do it and have less interference doing it [than in other countries] is what is great about Hollywood.

LM: You predicted that Hollywood might not be displaced as the main global storyteller, but that it might “return to its origins as the production site of the hopes and dreams of a cosmopolitan immigrant culture.” You are an example of that yourself—do you see this prediction being born out?

MM: Yes, I still think that people view America as that beacon—we are still the land of opportunity. It’s still a place where people want to come and do films that are exported around the world. I’m a perfect example of it—a Shanghai-born Jew. Now, more people in more and more countries want to see their own lives onscreen. That’s been true for years, but I think more so now than ever. I think the Arab world wants to see films about themselves; the Germans want to see films about themselves, the Italians, same thing. It’s a healthy thing. I remember in the ‘60s, when our generation of filmmakers was coming up, we were really taken by a lot of the European films that Truffaut was doing and Godard was doing, and Fellini and Antonioni and Rossellini, I mean you can think of all the great filmmakers and everybody was borrowing from everybody else. They were borrowing from Hitchcock and Ford and whoever else, and we were borrowing from them. That’s healthy. Film is a universal language. It is visual cues of life as it is—the black, the white, and something grey.

LM: Which film industries or which schools of independent filmmakers around the world would you say have been especially successful at projecting their own countries through film, or at resisting what you’ve called “cultural occupation” by the U.S.?

MM: Well, film industries now are so diverse, there’s Belgian filmmakers, there’s French filmmakers, they’re all trying to get the rest of the world to see their work. But in the final analysis, I think you have to view film as an art form, but an art form that entertains. The byproduct of that is an examination of human beings being human, or inhuman for that matter. It’s a way to look at yourself.

LM: You’ve proposed that Hollywood might establish it’s own Council on Cultural Relations in order to harness soft power more effectively. Is that an idea that you’re pursuing?

When Nathan and I wrote that prescription [in American Idol After Iraq], we thought, “Well, somebody needs to do something.” But the movie companies are run by large conglomerates that are basically bankers. They don’t want to be told what to do. The only thing that they’ll understand is that unless you do something that recognizes other cultures you won’t make money. So when 60-70% of the income on many of the movies comes from foreign markets—that tells you everything you need to know. They’re smart and they’re looking to make money. They could care less about the politics of it.

References and Notes

1 Gardels, Nathan and Mike Medavoy. American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age. Hoboken, NJ: 2009. 2. [All subsequent quotations come from this source].