Hollywood is a scary place. It has a long history of wooing wealthy investors with its glitz and glamour, only to spit them back out beaten up, disillusioned and broke. I have to admit, when I first sat down with Ben Goldhirsh, 25 year old Tinseltown newcomer, I counted him among the ill-fated neophytes before him. Five minutes after meeting him for drinks at The Dime, I joined what Im sure is becoming a long list of converts forced to eat their words. Ben is a charming and witty ubergenius with enough confidence and tenacity to turn this town on its head and to do some real good while hes at it.
Ben Goldhirsh formed Reason Pictures in 2004, looking to realize the great potential of the money he inherited from his parents, both of whom died of cancer. Bens late father was best known as the creator of Inc. Magazine. He passed away in 2003, leaving his fortune to Ben and his sister. Reason is made up a small team of dedicated employees, all under the age of 26, digging in to make something happen.
Ben Goldhirsh: I felt that media was really the dominant variable affecting change, and I felt that a lot of the sources that were generating it werent - maybe their interests werent in line with societys, and so I wanted to come out and try and play some position. At Reason, we make films that have a commercial element to put people in the seats, but then content that allows us to dig and do stuff that we think is relevant. The narrative is why you love the film, but its that framework that makes it valuable. And so, weve got a film, Americas, about a Salvadorian gang near Los Angeles, which is, on its face, a kick-ass gang movie, but allows us to look at the issues of the Latino population in America, look at the issues of border policy, of immigration, all these issues which are on the periphery of public debate but are heading towards the forefront. And so, and thats an objective of Reason, trying to have our films intersect with whats happening in the world. You know, so youre looking two years down the road, and youre like, what are those issues that are going to be topical then?
Micki Krimmel: Relevant is a pretty broad arena. Do you seek projects based on specific issues?
BG: We usually start out with an issue, or a theoretical frame, and then look for a narrative that fits with it. You know, weve got a documentary, The World 2006, that uses soccer as a platform to look at whats going on in the world. Were following six stories in six countries. Each story is emblematic of an issue in that country, each relevant to whats going on in the world, and also each revolving around the narrative nexus of the World Cup tournament. And so its kind of like a state of the world address using soccer. It was born from the idea: here is a set of rules for a game, thats endorsed or adhered to all around the world. At a time when things are so divisive, when the borders are so significant, and you wonder, is it possible to find some common denominator of values? And soccer is a nice example.
MK: Is there any sort of political agenda behind the issues you address?
BG: We certainly have an agenda to instigate or affect change but that doesnt land on one side or the other in the partisan debate. I mean, I think you could guess where it lands often. Right now most of our work is pretty broad, and were hoping that well present an objective lens on reality. We dont want to give any answers. Our goal is to, in a very entertaining way, pose interesting questions that are relevant to whats up. That pretty much sums up the hustle. I dont want just movies to be made for people who care. I want the movies to be made for people who want to go see a good movie.
MK: And then make them care.
BG: Yeah, and then maybe get something out of it. Weve got this movie Marching Powder, with Don Cheadle. Its this kick ass movie that average punk kids could go see at the mall. A British drug dealer gets thrown into a Bolivian prison, where the guards are on the outside and the prisoners are left to their own devices. This community that evolves inside the prison is such a cool fractal for what goes on in the world. The drug dealer who is only in pursuit of his own interests consequently fucks himself. You know, I wouldnt say a lesson is learned, but the question is posed, are you better off engaging in a community around you or just hustling after your own interests in the effort of trying to protect them?
MK: So if most of your projects are born from ideas you have in-house, do you bring on consultants or advisors just to make sure the issue is presented correctly?
BG: Yeah, certainly. We do a tremendous amount of research. For Americas, our Salvadorian gang project, we went to the community and reached out to the organizations that are working there. They were skeptical of us at first. They were like: Hollywood has basically screwed us every time theyve ever done a movie about any sort of gang activity. We dont want to help. And I was just like, well, if you dont help, Im just going to fail again and everyone loses. So it was basically like, Ill help your organization at a financial level, if I believe in what youre doing, and maybe you can help educate us to tell your story. So we spent a month in East LA with the writer and director. And that was a wild education for me too. I dont know if youve ever been over there but its a different world. The people there have never been to the beach. Theyve never been to Beverly Hills. The lack of a transportation system just keeps these communities so isolated.
For World 2006, we reached out to political theorists. First, we sat down and made a list of the major theoretical issues existing in the world today that we want to look at: exportation of western culture, the tension between Islam and the West; developing nations and developing markets; emergence of a superpower; Americas relationship with the international community; and the environment. So basically we had these six issues and that was the inner circle. We spoke to a number of different people in the field of political theory and international relations to help us shape what the divisions were.
Then we found six stories in six countries to highlight these issues. Lets look at developing nations. South Africa is going to be the first African county ever to host the World Cup. When they choose where the World Cup goes, its like the Olympics, because its such a big deal to the economy. And there was a lot of doubt whether South Africa could actually handle this responsibility. But they got it and so now the country basically has six years to get their shit together and you know, get ready for this. Get ready for the spotlight of the world turning to South Africa. So were looking at a country trying to garner the economic return of that, but also trying to present itself to the world for really the first time. You know, when people talk about the problems in Africa, theyre speaking for a continent. We dont even bother to specify the country. So its important that the focus of the world is turning there.
Its also interesting to think about how soccer is such a global phenomenon, everywhere except America. And what does that reflect? You know, its not an American sport. We didnt create it, we dont dominate it, whats the point? Its an interesting insight into Americas perspective on the global arena, which is at the moment, so important and interesting. You know, so the film is all these issues articulated through stories. I mean, thats obviously the structure that we laid out like as, you know, the God of our movie. I mean, who knows how reality will play?
MK: Nature of the beast.
BG: So far, everythings been amazing. We improved upon the theoretical frame that we first put down. But, you know, well see. And so, that, you know, thats that.
MK: So then, if the mission of the films is to effect change, is there anything on the other side of the movie?
BG: On the social action side of it?
MK: Yeah, like an opportunity for direct action.
BG: I run a foundation, called the Goldhirsh Foundation, which my father started, which originally was brain cancer research. Both of my parents passed from cancer. But now were limiting our cancer investments. Thats a tough field. You put so much money into it and you can only judge your effectiveness by the dirt behind you. Like youre digging for treasure. Youre like, well we havent hit treasure, but weve moved all this dirt, you know? So were moving into the field of social entrepreneurship where we can have a more direct effect.
We also have a magazine coming out in about two months, called Good. Because of the medium, its more representative of the ideals and the interests that were talking about than Reason can be. Like what Wired did for technology, taking it from the esoteric and maybe even nerdy, and bringing it to the relevant and giving it a pop and a sex, were trying to do the same thing for the sensibility of good. Were trying re-brand the culture of good, to take it from the fringe make it more in your face, like good is where its at. Never has the world been so small where you can just reach out and help. Were at such an inflection point. Theres never been more opportunity to just make things great.
MK: Six film projects and a new magazine youve got a lot going on for having entered the media space such a short time ago.
BG: Yeah. I feel like weve covered a lot of ground, and weve grown a lot. Weve educated ourselves a lot. Were a lot more capable now. And, you know, I think were gonna do good things. I really do. I think were not going to disappoint. The potential given by the resources is lofty and we really want to make sure we actualize that. Ive learned that its a hustle. And theres a huge disconnect between how easy it is before you really get started, when you can just knock everyone else and say, screw them, look at the movies theyre makingwere gonna do so much better. And then, you know, the reality, once you actually dive in, it just gets real serious, and its a challenge. Its an everyday challenge making sure you dont fall. And its fun, but its scary and its tiring. But weve learned just to keep our heads up, just keep pushing. You know theres no quitting at Reason or at Good. If we go out, its gonna be in a blaze.
I applaud the pursuit of good filmmaking, but I think part of getting people to see films is distribution to farflung theaters. Why can't towns of all sizes have a warehouse full of small theaters showing features and clumps of short films for, like, five cents 24/7?
I know this group of human beings you spoke to at Reason Pictures and they are, to a person, some of the best and brightest of the next generation of film makers.
Ben is the real deal and Reason Pictures comes at an important time in the culture of show business and the US at large. They just may return a soul to tinsle town and challenge young filmakers to use the medium of flim for more than either purient or material interests. Hollywood has had such creative potential to challenge and change the cultural zeitgeist of the US but the players there routinely lost sight of the societal goals on the way to following the financial bottom line. Cynicism may give way to multicultural awareness and lightweight writing to thoughtfully researched dialogue if Reason succeeds. We may actually become a culture of thinkers again instead of the glop of lightweight, action heroe, cowboy manure we have been calling culture in American film. Kudos to Reason Pictures
Jennifer Baughan Ph.D and David Baughn M.D.
Excellent interview and great concept behind Reason. Now I'm really curious to know when the first movies are expected to come out (what year, at least).
Rumor is we should look out for Sundance 2007.
Any idea if they plan on filming more than one movie at a time/in a short timeframe?