In late 2020 I put in a FOIA request with the Pentagon for records on their support to Operation Christmas Drop – a ‘romantic’ Christmas movie starring the US military. Three years on and they’ve finally released the contract they signed with the film-makers, which reveals how the office updated its approach post-Phil Strub.
For anyone who doesn’t know or doesn’t remember, Operation Christmas Drop is set in Guam and sees a senatorial aide sent out to assess the US military base there and decide whether it will be closed due to budget cuts. The premise is absurd – as if the US would close its Westernmost base in the Pacific, the one closest to China. Ditto, when was the last times overseas bases were closed due to budget cuts? Indeed, when was the last time the US military had to tolerate budget cuts? Even the ‘small government libertarians’ are in favour of keeping the budget higher than the next dozen or so countries combined.
So, young black aide lady flies out to Guam where she is met by a seven foot tall Air Force guy who is so Aryan he wouldn’t look out of place at an Alt Right youtuber conference. Cue numerous scenes where the massive offset in height make for awkward framing and a total lack of romantic or sexual chemistry.
Curiously, as we approach Christmas once more the DOD thought now would be an opportune time to respond to my three year old FOIA request and send me the contract between the US military and Operation Christmas Drop’s producers. These production assistance agreements have been in place since the mid-90s, with Clear and Present Danger and True Lies among the first movies to sign on the dotted line.
However, when Strub left the Pentagon’s Hollywood office and was replaced by his deputy, Dave Evans, the entertainment liaison system underwent a modernisation. Evans put together a new computer setup for tracking projects, both current and historical, going back to the late 80s, and helped the offices focus more on streaming services and other tech-based distributors rather than solely working with legacy media in the form of movie studios and TV networks.
He also tried to integrate with the DOD’s social media efforts, leading to a rewrite of the production assistance agreement to include new paragraphs:
When promoting the availability of the production on social media, DoD requests that the production company “tag” the applicable Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force social media accounts. Production company may determine the timing for such posts.
Examples of such posts include:
1.One Facebook post; including a media asset and tagging @ DeptofDefense and @USAirForce
2.One Instagram post; including a media asset and tagging @ DeptofDefense and @USAirForce
3.One Twitter tweet; including a media asset and tagging @DeptofDefense and @USAirForce
4.One YouTube post; including a link to the Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force (/afbluetube) YouTube pages in the video description
The Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force may choose to promote the project via its owned and operated social media accounts. If the Department of Defense and/or U.S. Air Force decide to originate a social media post, specific details, timing and tactics will be coordinated with the production company.
The production company will use best efforts to arrange opportunities for DoD public affairs personnel (e.g. Defense Media Activity/DoD News reporters) to interview selected key individuals associated with the production (e.g. executive producer, director, top-billed cast) for use in DoD public affairs efforts.
If we look back to the contract signed on Pitch Perfect 3, from 2017, none of these provisions were included, but by the end of 2019 they form a key part of the production assistance agreement. While Strub was a self-confessed old school phone and fax type of guy, Evans saw the value in reality TV, streaming, social media and other emerging propaganda technologies and genres.
Admittedly, Operation Christmas Drop was a poor choice because the only good thing about it is the location. The Mariana Islands are truly one of the most gorgeous places on earth, and to me the presence of the US military, let alone annoying senatorial aide and overly tall dipshit, diminished the lustre and magic of the tropical setting.
It also fared poorly with both audiences and critics – not quite reaching the single cat ladies who spend Christmas watching back to back Hallmark movies and not appealing to many others besides nerds like me who are fascinated by the constant evolution of military propaganda. The only other people who saw it seem to have been those who clicked on it by accident, or because watching it wasn’t quite as awful as spending time with their relatives during the festive season.
Nonetheless, the presence of these new demands and clauses in the production assistance agreement show how the DOD is – gradually – catching up with the ever-changing cultural landscape and is operating eyes and ears out, always looking and listening for new opportunities to gain influence and leverage the culture industries to churn out terrible films that no one asked for, even fewer people want, but which ring the military messaging bell loud and clear.