Jim & Ellen Hubbard: Conservatives Should Engage Popular Culture

JIM AND ELLEN HUBBARD are the founders of American Film Renaissance, an organization that celebrates timeless American values by producing, showcasing, and distributing films that promote freedom, rugged individualism, and the triumph of the human spirit. AFR has held five wildly popular film festivals, has launched a filmmaker training program, and has now gone into the business of filmmaking itself. We talked recently with Jim and Ellen about their various projects and about the opportunity they see for conservatives to change the culture by getting more involved in making films.

The Insider: So the AFR film festivals are on hiatus for the moment because you’ve delved into filmmaking yourselves. Is that right?

Jim Hubbard: Well, that’s correct. We’ve had five very successful film festivals to date. With what’s going on in the country now, we have a very important project that we’re working on, so we’re concentrating all of our efforts right now on completing this film and getting it to market. If you look at box office returns in the documentary genre and the political documentary subgenre, there hasn’t been a single film that has a right-of-center worldview that has broken into the top 25 or 30 films in the political documentary genre. It’s all left-wing. The one exception might be Expelled, which I guess is a political documentary, and it did break into the top 10. But everything else is Michael Moore, Al Gore, or Robert Greenwald.

TI: What is the documentary you’re making now?

JH: I think it’ll be the most significant documentary on the importance of limited government that’s ever been made. The rough storyline is we have a regular guy who lives in the suburbs who goes and seeks his own bailout, and we follow him through the corridors of power in Washington. That’s the storyline. We even have liberals on camera talking about how when you have a government that’s big it automatically leads to corruption, and we show that. Congress has approval ratings of what—11 … 12 percent? Most of the country—conservative, moderate, liberal, whatever—they have an unfavorable opinion of Congress, so our guy’s basically trying to play a prank on Congress.

Ellen Hubbard: But he’s doing it, like the rest of us, for his kids. He’s seeing the debt that our country’s in and he knows that they’re going to have to pay the bill. So he finally decides to do something about it and decides to go get his own bailout. But it’s much more complicated than that. It does take him undercover: He visits lobbyists; he visits very powerful members of Congress and their fundraisers. It offers what I think no other film has offered before, and that is a bird’s eye view of what’s really taking place inside the halls of Congress and inside fundraising dinners. It’s important that people understand there is something we can do about it. And that we’ve got to do something about it.

TI: Does your film have a title yet?

JH: Not really. It has a working title of Bringing Home the Bacon.

TI: Have the film festivals accomplished what you set out to accomplish?

JH: Oh, I think so. Number one, we’ve given publicity to films and opened distribution channels to films that otherwise would not have had that opportunity. Number two, we’ve been successful in raising funding for projects through the festival through contacts we’ve made. I’d say for every dollar that we’ve spent in putting the festival on we’ve been able to raise $14 to produce films. Now, that’s not necessarily us producing films; that’s other filmmakers. And our part of it isn’t just having screenings one weekend a year or during one week in the year. It’s pushing the ball forward and getting things done—distribution, publicity, and raising money for future film projects.

EH: Ultimately the goal is to increase products in neighborhood theaters—not just straight-to-DVD stuff, but films that are actually available to a mainstream audience. I think people don’t understand how difficult a goal that is to accomplish. And really, it takes more investments. It takes some brave people with some extra bucks to invest in these film projects because ultimately movies are a volume game. For every 20 films a studio makes, probably only one or two actually turn a profit, but all their movies continue to be shown at the neighborhood theater. People tend to pin all their hopes on one movie. Well, eventually it’s going to require a pipeline of films—constant films in the pipeline—in order to change the culture.

TI: Should conservatives care what goes on in the popular culture?

JH: Pop culture is where so many people, especially independent-minded people, get their information. And it’s not just information. It’s their attitudes and feelings about things. How many people go swimming in deep water, or even freshwater, and get a little bit nervous because they saw Jaws? Or how many people take a shower but they’ve seen Psycho and it kind of creeps them out? People’s opinions and feelings about things get shaped. Just like swimming in a freshwater lake will make you nervous about sharks even though that’s illogical because sharks don’t exist in freshwater, the same sorts of things can be done with gun owners, or people who live in the South, or people of faith, or business owners, or corporations, or the free market. And pop culture has a huge impact on shaping people’s mores, their belief systems, their opinions on things, and it’s just an area that conservatives for some reason have neglected. And I think it’s to their detriment. And, in fact, I would argue that he who controls the pop culture will ultimately control everything in the country, including the political. I just don’t see how you can neglect the pop culture and possibly have your ideas prevail. And that’s what we’re trying to do—influence people’s ideas by influencing pop culture. And there’s a huge vacuum there; there’s a huge void that needs to be filled. And our ideas have to get out.

TI: What do you think conservatives in the business of making movies should focus on?

EH: The focus needs to be on the film itself and making it entertaining and making it appealing—not making a conservative film. So our goal at American Film Renaissance is always to showcase—and, since we weren’t seeing that being done as much as we’d like to see, to produce—films that are entertaining first and foremost and that do have kind of a latent conservative message. But films that don’t beat audiences over the head, that aren’t didactic, that aren’t preachy. They’re films that very subtly and very persuasively convince people to view the world from our perspective. And so that’s our way of trying to convert the masses. We don’t want to preach to the choir, because they already get it. Our goal is to direct our conservative message to a wider, more mainstream audience. And to do that you’ve got to make it something that they enjoy watching.

JH: I don’t really believe in a conservative film movement per se. What I’d like to see is not a conservative film movement but more conservatives involved in the arts period. Our emphasis obviously is film and documentary. There’s no such thing, I don’t think, as a liberal film movement. Liberals simply gravitate toward the arts. (I don’t know what it is—sociologists will have to study this.) It’s really unfortunate that conservatives don’t. We’re not advocating conservatives going out and making more right-wing diatribes; I’d love to see conservative filmmakers get in there and make horror movies and make movies about bank heists and make science fiction films. And just make good films and get involved in the industry.

TI: Speaking of movies that are entertaining, one thing I’ve noticed is that in the thriller and spy genre, Hollywood seems to have some trouble getting the villains right. Would that be one area where you think maybe there’s a left-wing bias that comes through in a film that’s supposed to be entertaining?

JH: There’s no question about that. The one film that really comes to my mind is The Sum of All Fears, which is based on the Tom Clancy book. In that book, I believe the terrorists were Muslim extremists. Of course, Hollywood couldn’t do that; they had to change it to right-wing fascists in Europe. Now, the last I checked, right-wing fascists in Europe really haven’t been a threat to world civilization since about the ’40s.

TI: I think another example would be the James Bond film From Russia with Love, where the original Ian Fleming plot was that the Russians were the bad guys trying to lure James Bond and they changed it around so it wasn’t. They didn’t want to make the Soviets out to be the bad guys.

EH: Well how about that stupid one we saw this weekend, The Stepfather? The serial killer is the one with the traditional family values. That happens so many times in films. Usually it’s a Christian who ends up being some diabolical, ruthless, evil person. It’s unbelievable to see this portrayal. We’ve heard of people in the industry who are in meetings and they’ll literally sit there and say: “Well we can’t make him a Muslim. It can’t be this person. It’s got to be a Christian who’s the villain.” There’s a set of rules that Hollywood lives by because they’re very liberal. And make no mistake about it: They definitely know exactly what they’re doing.

TI: So if you were an investor with a sky’s-the-limit budget, what kind of project would you put your money into?

JH: A film that kind of stands out in my mind as being really interesting to watch, though it was pretty much ignored by Hollywood in terms of the critics, is Taken. And look, I’m not putting that up there as a great cinematic work of art. And I would also mention Clint Eastwood’s most recent film, Gran Torino. I want you to take a look at both of those films as kind of case studies. There’s a huge infrastructure in place right now to promote liberal ideas in film—from film festivals, to critics, to organizations all over the country. Now they don’t call themselves liberal organizations, but they are—like the Academy Awards. For instance, if you want to get an Academy Award in the documentary field and it’s a film about a subject that resonates with the predominately liberal folks out there that run the industry, you’re going to get critical acclaim. Just look at Michael Moore’s films and how he’s won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and received critical acclaim. The industry is very tilted to the Left. Milk—would Sean Penn have received an Academy Award for Best Actor if that film had been about an evangelical preacher instead of a gay activist? I don’t think he would have.

EH: But most of the films that receive all those top awards don’t perform well at the box office. Taken did unbelievable numbers.

JH: And that’s the thing. Look at Taken or Gran Torino—what are these about? They’re about middle-class Americans who have been marginalized by society. In Taken you had a guy who didn’t want his daughter to go to Europe because he was worried about her safety. She went. She got in trouble. The villain who tried to buy her on the slave market was a Muslim. This film was ignored, and Gran Torino was also ignored by the critics. It didn’t get great reviews but did tremendously at the box office despite that. We see this year in and year out. For the first five years of our organization’s existence, we polled conservative-leaning producers, directors, screenwriters, and film critics around the country, asking: What are your favorite films? And every year, we came out with a list of the top five films in the country. And AFR’s top five films of the year always outperformed the top five films at the Academy Awards—every single year—and usually by wide margins.

TI: Can you each tell me what your favorite movies are—your favorites both overall, from the universe of movies, and of the movies that you’ve featured in your festivals?

EH: I personally love Hitchcock movies. I like North by Northwest, Rear Window, and the great courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder.

JH: I think the greatest movie of all time is Gone with the Wind.

EH: Spoken like a true Southerner!

JH: I am totally a sucker for epic films. I love Gone with the Wind, I love The Ten Commandments, I love Braveheart. These are the movies I can watch over and over again and not get tired of them. Lately, I like little offbeat Indie films like Sideways—I love that movie, even though that probably has more of a blue-state aesthetic. In terms of our film festival, we’ve had a lot of fantastic films. Our opening night film at our Hollywood film festival was Anthony Hopkins’s film The World’s Fastest Indian.

EH: That’s a good little film!

JH: For a film festival of our size, that was really a phenomenal catch for us. And I would include Evan Maloney’s Indoctrinate U, which was just a huge crowd favorite.