Are “True Story” Films Exploitative?

When you see “based on a true story” appear on a cinema screen before a film, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. You’re familiar with the type of story: a terrible disaster strikes giving one ordinary man the chance to step forward and be a hero. You probably already know most of the major plot points from the news but you still sit on the edge of your seat as you watch the drama unfold on the big screen.

It’s a genre that has a pretty good success rate so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing more and more of them nowadays. With Deepwater Horizon (based on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion) still in cinemas, Mark Wahlberg’s next movie – which will be released in December – is Patriots Day (based on the 2013 Boston marathon bombing).

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Did you notice how the events that those movies are based on get more recent?

Information and education are never a bad thing: documenting these events in film are a genuine and acceptable way to preserve a part of our history but when is it okay to start writing scripts?

There’s something uncomfortable about imagining that when a terrible event strikes in some part of the world and people are trying to piece their lives back together, Hollywood execs are sitting down and discussing the best way to make money out of it. You can say that it’s art but that’s the same as stating that war profiteers are providing a service – it may be valid but it doesn’t erase the sleazy element of it all.

The sooner that a movie about an event is made, the better it does. People remember it more clearly, it’s closer to their hearts, and it has the added bonus of people actually knowing what the film is about. All of these reasons help to make sure that as many people as possible see the movie but to what end?

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I think that from a creative standpoint you want people to see your film so that people see your film: the hope is that they enjoy it or they learn something or they come out with a new perspective on the world. However, movies that reach the scale of these biopic disasters can’t be made without big studios bankrolling them which means that another key motivator is money.

Separating the financial aspect from the artistic aspect seems impossible and that’s upsetting because suddenly these films become very exploitative. They use people’s pain and suffering to sell cinema tickets.

Films about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are the only reason that I know so much about the American Civil Rights Movement as I currently do. Film is one of my favourite mediums and I recognise it’s power and its educational value but is there a waiting period before its okay to make a film about something terrible? Should there be?

Do you think that these types of movies are exploitative? How long do you think that studios should wait before beginning production on films about real life events? Let me know in the comments.

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