Wielding Influence Through Entertainment

Written by: Kyle Kaczor and Jen Shaneberger

The Grand Rapids Film Festival (GRFF) intern team is embarking on a quest to examine how movies and television programs shape beliefs, culture and behavior. It’s a question of great relevance and consequence. If film influences behavior, than the filmmaker wields a truly mighty power.

The team is in research mode, sorting through thought provokers and prophets of the 80’s like Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz, and modern researchers like Michelle Pautz and Sarah Kozloff. These authors agree that the information transmitted through film and media influences the belief systems of viewers. This is the first of four blog posts, an attempt to outline an argument, which we’ll develop in more detail through future posts.

As many great people, including Spider-Man circa 1962[1], have said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The weight of that responsibility is one that David Puttnam explains in his 1988 interview with Bill Moyer.

david puttnam.jpg

"When I’m teaching in England, I have this expression I use all the time which is, there are “and” movies and there are “or” movies. And the filmmaker’s responsibility is to make an “and” movie, that’s to say, you make a film which is entertaining and informing and has intrinsic values, values which are ongoing values within society and which people can gather around and defend. The “or” movie is a movie which on Day One decides that it merely wishes to exploit whatever aspect of the audience is fashionable at that moment and doesn’t wish to bother itself with injecting any other values whatsoever." [2]

Film as Opinion Shaper

Because film uses images, sounds and script to depict scenarios, it informs the viewer in a variety of ways. Because of this, Michelle C. Pautz argues that film has the power to shape perceptions of its moviegoers on a range of subjects.[3]

She demonstrates how film directly impacts opinion by collecting viewer responses after watching Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.[4]  25% of Argo viewers reported a positive improvement in their governmental opinion after watching the film, as did 18% of those who watched Zero Dark Thirty.[5]  There was also an increase in viewers level of trust and reliance on the government regarding National-Security Issues.[6]  Pautz’s research shows that even one or two films, especially ones based on real-life events, can impact viewers opinions and reflections towards certain issues.

In fact, several films can be credited with, as Sarah Kozloff points out, “changing hearts, minds and laws, including  I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), The Snake Pit (1948), On the Beach (1959), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Philadelphia (1993), The Insider (999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005).” [7]

Several scholars have examined the power of media to change attitudes and actions. Slater’s 2002[8] work recounting radio and television dramas with prosocial messages led him to argue that narratives are uniquely able to persuade people because while immersed in story, the ability to challenge the narrative through counter-arguing is lost.[9] In the same vein, Oatley argues that if a viewer can be transported, they can be transformed.[10]

Transformation is of great interest to the Grand Rapids Film Festival team. As we continue to explore the idea that film influences behavior in the coming weeks, the responsibility of the filmmaker to the viewer will be of great importance.

Stay tuned.

[1] Website: We Minored in Film, Article title: The Origin of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” & 7 Other Surprising Parts of Spider-Man’s Comic Book History, Article author: Kelly Kond, Date on website: April 22, 2014,  link

[2] “Filmmaker David Puttnam (Part One) | BillMoyers.com.” 1988. BillMoyers.com. http://billmoyers.com/content/david-puttnam-part-1/.

[3] Pautz, M. (2015). Argo and Zero Dark Thirty: Film, Government, and Audiences. PS: Political Science & Politics, 48(1), 120-128. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096514001656  

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] "Empathy and the Cinema of Engagement ... - Berghahn Journals." 1 Dec. 2013, (Kozloff 2013). Pg 29

[8] Slater, M. D. (2002). Entertainment education and the persuasive impact of narratives.

In M. C. Green, J. J. Strange, & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations (pp. 157-181). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

[9] Slater, M.D (2002) page 173.

[10] Oatley, Keith (2002)  “Emotions and the story worlds of fiction” Pp. 39-69  M. C. Green, J. J. Strange, & T. C. Brock (Eds.),  Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations