The world’s biggest films now regularly take over a billion dollars in revenue, and the world’s biggest film franchises are multi-billion dollar businesses. What has never been reported before is that 6 of the top 10 (and 14 of the top 25) highest-grossing film franchises have been supported by government agencies, particularly the Department of Defense’s Entertainment Liaison Offices.
The Biggest Film Franchises
Adding up exactly which films made how much money and whether the adjustments for inflation are accurate is a long, tedious process so I’m going to be lazy and just use the Wikipedia entry on highest grossing films and film series:
Of this top 10 the James Bond series is obviously the longest-running and has by far the highest number of films. In terms of the average takings it is also the lowest, at a paltry quarter of a billion dollars per movie. By contrast the Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean series have taken an average of nearly a billion dollars per film. Despite only existing since 2008 the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already overtaken Harry Potter at the top of the tree, which itself displaced James Bond only a few years ago.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Part of the reason for the success of the Marvel comic book action films is the generous sponsorship of the US military. Iron Man 1 and 2 were assisted by the DOD – particularly the US Air Force – to great effect, using the token black sidekick to connect Tony Stark/Iron Man to the formal real-world military structure.
The evidence for the US military’s involvement in the Iron Man franchise is overwhelming. The first two films are listed in the DOD’s overall database of supported productions, the Air Force included both in a list of films they’ve assisted and mention both films on the website for their Entertainment Liaison Office. They even specify that for the first film they provided:
– Script research, wardrobe and dialogue assistance
– On-location filming at Edwards AFB, CA
– Secured Airmen Battle Uniform fabric for replication of new uniform
– Filming access to F-22, C-17 aircraft and HH-60 helicopter
– On-set technical advice. Combined Air Operations Center technical advisor
– Airmen extras from Los Angeles and Edwards AFBs
The first two Iron Man films also credit the DOD, Phil Strub and former chief of the Air Force ELO Francisco G. ‘Paco’ Hamm, along with other Pentagon project officers and installations. Hamm also sat on the 2010 Comic-Con military panel, though his name is redacted in the Army’s reports. The USMC were also involved in Iron Man 2 including having a military technical advisor on set ‘for review of drone scene’, arranging an ‘after action meeting’ when filming had wrapped, viewing a rough cut, holding preview screenings and attending the world premiere:
Iron Man 3 on the other hand is not included in the DOD’s overall database, or on the Air Force or Marine Corps list of supported productions. But it did receive some degree of assistance from the USMC as their ELO reports prove:
Alongside Iron Man, several other films in the Marvel Universe have been assisted by the DOD and/or other government military agencies. The Incredible Hulk employed former Canadian Army Sergeant Major Al Vrkljan as a military advisor and thanked the Canadian Armed Forces in the credits. The producers of Thor had former Navy SEAL Harry Humphries (who also worked on Iron Man) helping them. Captain America: The First Avenger had a ring of technical advisers including former British Royal Marine Commando Billy Budd, former US Marines Freddie Joe Farnsworth and Chris Gilbertson, and Patrick Cullen – a man about whom I can’t find out much. The film’s credits also thanked several British government agencies including the Ministry of Defence. On top of this, Captain America also had assistance from the US Army.
The Avengers is referred to in the US Army’s reports for several months with no indication that, as Phil Strub put it, ‘We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it. To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything.’ This claim of Strub’s, that the DOD ultimately decided that they couldn’t be involved in The Avengers, is strange for two main reasons: (1) This problem of how to fit the superheroes into the existing military structure is a plot device in Iron Man 2, which is presumably what inspired Strub’s lie (perhaps Strub himself is suffering from a bit of hyperreality), and (2) The claim isn’t true: The Avengers got plenty of support from the DOD.
Despite Strub’s alleged roadblock, F-22s and F-35s do appear in The Avengers. Strub says these were added in digitally but this could not have happened without DOD-approved access to the planes to scan them and take pictures so they could be recreated accurately via CGI. Soldiers and military vehicles appear on screen briefly in the middle of the final battle sequence, a military adviser was on set for this sequence, and the production was granted access to film at White Sands missile range. Clearly Strub is not telling the truth when he says that the DOD refused to help make The Avengers, particularly since he is personally credited and thanked at the end of the movie, along with Francisco Hamm and John Clearwater, the head of the Army’s ELO:
The Transformers franchise has had just as much DOD support if not more than the Marvel Universe. The first three films all appear in the DOD’s database and on the USAF’s film list. The Air Force was the lead branch of the DOD on the first Transformers and they broke the record for the number of military vehicles that appeared in the film.
The Air Force ELO’s website notes how for the first Transformers film they provided:
– Script research, wardrobe and dialogue assistance.
– On-set technical advice. Provided AF special ops combat controller advisor
– On-location filming at the Pentagon, Edwards, Kirtland and Holloman AFBs
– Filming access to F-22, F-16, F-117, C-17, C-130, T-38, AWACS, CV-22
A-10, AC-130, HH-60 and MH-53 aircraft
– Airmen extras from Holloman, Edwards, Kirtland and Nellis AFBs
And for Transformers 2 they granted assistance in the form of:
– Script research, wardrobe and dialogue assistance
– On-set technical advice. Provided numerous AF pilot, aircrew and security forces subject matter advisors
– On-location filming at Edwards, Holloman and Davis-Monthan AFBs
– Filming access to F22, C-17, F-16, B-1, E-3 (AWACS), A-10, T-38 and SR-71 aircraft
– Airmen extras from Holloman and Edwards AFBs
The USMC ELO reports explain how a ‘Joint planning’ meeting was held in February 2008 to help develop the draft script for the second film in the Transformers series, which didn’t come out until 18 months later. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Despite being involved from a very early stage on the second film when it came to Transformers 3 the USMC were not entirely happy. Their reports note that ‘LA PA will move cautiously given amount of support versus amount of screen time on Transformers 2’. There are references to how the ‘Script is still being negotiated between DoD Reps and Director to increase amount of service participation’ and ultimately one the requests – to film some V-22 Ospreys – was not granted. Other minor support was granted by the USMC but it is clear they had diminished enthusiasm for the third outing in the franchise.
The US Army had no such problem with Transformers 3. Like the USMC, Bay approached them in March 2010, while the script was still being developed. He did not meet with any objections and even asked the Army to ‘help (him) make it better’. The Army’s reports note how they met with Bay multiple times and provided him with multiple sets of suggested script changes, and that Bay was ‘very receptive to our notes’. The Army were excited because ‘TF2 was the biggest blockbuster of 2009’ and all the indications were that TF3 was going to be equally successful. As they saw it the film would ‘showcase the bravery and values of our Soldiers and the excellent technology of today‘s Army to a global audience, in an apolitical blockbuster’. This turned out to be the case, with just one of several shoots including ‘an Apache, 2-Blackhawks, a Chinook, 2-Gray Eagle UAVs, a Palletized Loading System (PLS) and an Army Fire Truck’.
The Army monitored the production of Transformers 3 closely, even noting when filming was suspended due to a serious injury to a ‘civilian extra’ on set, and also contacting the Transformers crew when a soldier who had appeared in the first film died in a NATO helicopter crash in Afghanistan. The ELO even facilitated a meeting ‘between Paramount Pictures Worldwide Marketing Partnerships and the US Army Accessions Command advertising agency, McCann Worldwide. The purpose of the meeting was to make introductions and discuss opportunities for the US Army to leverage the success of the Transformers franchise’ (my emphasis). Whatever the USMC’s completely understandable problems when trying to deal with Michael Bay, the US Army have a close and mutually beneficial relationship with him.
However, an increasingly powerful presence in Hollywood has also glommed onto the Transformers franchise – NASA. NASA’s media liaison Bert Ulrich has an IMDB page that contains a tiny fraction of his credits. It includes Transformers 3 and while there is little direct evidence for DOD involvement in the fourth movie – Transformers: Age of Extinction – it seems obvious from watching the film that NASA were involved (their logo appears prominently, among other things), just as they were in The Avengers. The credits for the fourth and most terrible of the Transformers films also include Kevin Kent, a former Navy SEAL turned military technical advisor.
Fast and Furious
I was first alerted to the government sponsorship of this otherwise very silly and innocuous (but extremely profitable) film series by an entry in the 2013 Wastebook on the FBI’s Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit. An article referenced there mentioned several productions that had been assisted including Fast and the Furious. Exactly which film or films in the franchise have been assisted by the FBI is not certain, but a clue is that FBI Special Agent Dale Shelton was a technical advisor on the fifth film, imaginatively titled Fast & Furious 5. It seems that Shelton was still working for the FBI at the time, as he was when he worked on Public Enemies and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
Another curious connection to the Fast and Furious franchise is Richard Klein, a former Special Assistant for International Security Affairs at the US State Department and now a lawyer for an inside-the-beltway deep state law firm called McLarty Associates. He is head of their media consultancy which ‘advises major film studios, directors, producers and screenwriters on issues of international interest, covering story development, authentic script content, unique location requirements, and complex production logistics. Our team includes former diplomats, government officials, and intelligence experts, with decades of international experience, who are practiced in working with filmmakers. McLarty Media remains engaged throughout the production process, resolving any problems that a big, complex, and demanding film creates from prep to principal photograph to marketing and distribution, and ensuring both major success for the studio and the promised opportunities and gains that a motion picture can deliver for foreign locations.’
Klein has been involved in numerous state-sponsored movies including Safe House, two of the Transformers films, Skyfall, two of the Mission: Impossible films and The Interview, though the latter is not mentioned on his IMDB page. He was also the ‘political consultant’ for Fast and Furious 7 which presumably involved negotiating with the Abu Dhabi government as a lot of the film was shot there:
As Klein puts it in this video, ‘They are proud of what they built here. This puts a spotlight on the city itself, on its architecture, on its beaches, on its people in a way that you could never buy’. Of course, the Abu Dhabi government did buy it – they offer a generous 30% tax rebate on all production spending in their country and 17 different entities – mostly government agencies – came together to assist the filmmakers on Fast and Furious 7.
Two Others: Pirates of the Caribbean and Batman
While Disney have more government contacts than your average high-class brothel there are only a couple of links to the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, both on the fourth film On Stranger Tides. At the time (2011) it was only the 8th film in history to gross over $1 billion (on a still-standing record budget of nearly $400 million) but now it is only just inside the top 20. The military consultant for On Stranger Tides was former British tank commander turned military historian Crispin Swayne who also worked on Batman Begins.
The producers for the fourth Pirates film also asked the USMC for permission to ‘use facilities aboard MCAS Kaneohe Bay’ which is a strange way to ask for permission to film from the vantage point of the USMC base at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii. Initially the USMC weren’t sure, thinking that ‘there is likely no Marine Corps portrayal in the movie, and we may be competing with commercial sources’. A couple of weeks later, in the midst of reviewing the script ‘to ensure nothing is inappropriate’, they changed their minds and decided ‘may use the opportunity for a good community relations opportunity’. After reviewing the script they ‘provided authorization for KBay to support’ though the final entry says ‘Status is pending review by command’ and then the film is not referred to again.
Exactly why they were so keen to film from that exact spot in Kaneohe Bay is not clear. Perhaps this has something to do with the Pirates of the Caribbean series being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a man who doesn’t know how to make films without the assistance of the Pentagon. Another possible reason is because there is a helicopter unit at the base (Detachment Three of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 47) nicknamed ‘The Pirates of The Caribbean’. Though why they are nicknamed that given they are based 5,000 miles from the Caribbean is not easily explained.
The Batman series has also enjoyed some government and former-government assistance in producing its films. While the 1980-90s series have no credited military advisors and there is no evidence of direct government involvement the director of the latter two films – Joel Schumacher – went on to direct films with the assistance of the DOD (A Time to Kill) and the CIA (Bad Company – under the guidance of Jerry Bruckheimer). Similarly, the first of Schumacher’s Batman films stars Tommy Lee Jones, the cousin of Chase Brandon, who would soon after become the CIA’s first formal entertainment liaison officer. The second of Schumacher’s films starred George Clooney in the title role (complete with nipples on the black rubber batsuit). Clooney has gone on to make several films with the CIA and has joined the Council on Foreign Relations.
The more profitable Nolan brothers Dark Knight trilogy has seen a similar effect – that the Batman franchise is a good gateway to making films with the direct influence of government agencies. The first film Batman Begins (as mentioned above) had a former British tank commander working as a consultant. The third film The Dark Knight Rises employed John Mancini – who may still be working for the DOD – as a military technical advisor. The USMC also briefly got involved when one of their major ‘defense contractors’ wanted to provide vehicles for use in the production. Nolan was unwilling to reveal the script so full co-operation was impossible, but the fact the USMC were involved at all illustrates an eagerness to influence the Batman brand.
Both of the Nolan Brothers have gone on from the Dark Knight trilogy to make productions with the assistance of the US government. Director Christopher Nolan wrote the story for the Superman film Man of Steel, which enjoyed full co-operation from the DOD. He also made Interstellar with some NASA assistance. Screenwriter Jonathan Nolan went on to write Interstellar, and also the TV series Person of Interest, under the producer JJ Abrams who has a long history working with the DOD and CIA. The show hired two military technical advisors – Tony Camerino and James D Dever – and had uncredited support from ‘former’ CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Meanwhile, the new Superman vs Batman film Dawn of Justice (DC Comics’ first attempt at making The Avengers) is also working with James D Dever, a former Marine who founded the military entertainment consultancy 1 Force Inc.. Dever has worked as an military advisor alongside the DOD on Godzilla, Man of Steel, Battle Los Angeles, Iron Man 3, some of the Terminator series and he is also working on the next Captain America film. In Dawn of Justice he is credited as a the ‘senior military technical advisor’ because the filmmakers have also employed former DOD project officer Matthew W Morgan. The film stars Ben Affleck as Batman and the screenplay was written by Chris Terrio, who worked with Affleck on Argo.
The sixth of the world’s biggest film franchises to be supported by government agencies – the James Bond series – is by far the most well-connected and the one with the most long-standing relationships. The books were written by ‘former’ British intelligence agent Ian Fleming, the eponymous hero’s name comes from a WW2 operation, Fleming was good friends with head of the CIA Allen Dulles, the American producer Harry Saltzman worked for an Allied military intelligence psywar unit in WW2, the British producer Albert Broccoli made a trio of films with the assistance of the British military in the 1950s, Saltzman and Broccoli were introduced by Wolf Mankowitz who was under MI5 surveillance, the first director of the films Terence Young also worked in military intelligence – the list goes on and on and on. At the very least the films have been supported by the DOD, the MOD, the CIA, the US State Department and MI6 even held a special premiere of The World is Not Enough in their headquarters at Vauxhall Cross after the film became the first ever to feature the new building.
The latest film in the James Bond series – Spectre – is the most expensive ever at around $250 million (and that’s excluding marketing). It has performed well, doing enough already to allay fears of not being able to break even by taking over $750 million. Spectre‘s box office take looks likely to top out at close to $900 million thanks to strong revenues all over the world including in China. Though the film has not listed any advisors or consultants we know that the Mexican government gave the producers of Spectre up to $20 million to change the beginning of the film – a special deal outside of the usual rebates and funds that encourage foreign filmmakers into Mexico.
They also had assistance from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) – revealed to me during my discussions with them over a FOIA request. Emails between the FCO and people working on Spectre were released to me and mostly concern filming around government buildings. One particular drone shot involved getting the permission of the FCO, the MOD, the Metropolitan Police, the Cabinet Office, the Scottish Office, Number 10 Downing Street and other departments but as per usual for James Bond there were no problems.
Further documents from the FCO will be published when they are provided to me but from those already in my possession it appears that their assistance is conditional on production staff signing a copy of the Official Secrets Act.
Just how Big is the State’s influence on Hollywood?
4 of the 10 biggest film franchises in the world have received major support from government agencies – James Bond, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Fast and Furious and Transformers. 2 more have received some kind of assistance or involvement, at least from the DOD – Batman and Pirates of the Caribbean. The other top 10 film franchises – Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings series – do not show signs of being assisted by government agencies. Completing the 10, nor has Star Wars, though the new episode The Force Awakens has been made by seasoned producer of state-sponsored entertainment JJ Abrams. For the first time in the series the film’s credits lists a ‘military advisor’ – Paul Hornsby, a former British military intelligence officer and SBS soldier. Hornsby has also worked on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Tarzan, Snow White, Hercules and The Chronicles of Narnia. Suitably, given his prominent work on fantasy films, doubts have been cast on whether Hornsby is who he claims to be.
If we consider the rest of the top 25 biggest film franchises then we can include Jurassic Park, X-Men, Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, Star Trek and the Terminator series to the list of those mega-franchises that have received DOD and/or other major government assistance in reaching such heights. Given that some franchises are counted multiple times (e.g. Iron Man, The Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all separate entries in the top 25) a total of 14 of the top 25 film series have had documented government support on at least one movie.
You can download the DOD database of supported films here, the US Air Force list of assisted films here, the US Army Entertainment Liaison Office reports 2010-2015 here, the USMC Entertainment Liaison Office reports 2008-2015 here, the FCO emails on Spectre here (all PDF) and the Sony Spectre documents on the Mexico deal here (RAR).