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On the Celebrity Trail: Media Matters at Sundance Film Festival

SUNDANCE VILLAGE, Utah - Surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the snow-capped Utah mountains and welcomed by the artistry of the Greyhawk Native American Drum Group, more than 200 leading Hollywood actors and producers, social issues activists and investors gathered for the "Media that Matters Conference" Jan. 15-17 at Robert Redford's Sundance Village.

The goal of the conference seemed simple - how best to inject issues of social significance into popular culture via movies and television. But conference participants lamented that while many Hollywood players have good intentions when it comes to championing socially meaningful messages, the financial pressures of today's entertainment business often leave little room to explore themes and content that enrich the human spirit.

"Let's remember that making movies is a business; it's not a philanthropic foundation," said independent producer Bill Gerber, who as former head of Theatrical Production for Warner Bros. supervised such films as "Batman," "L.A. Confidential," "JFK," "Goodfellas," "Grumpy Old Men," "You've Got Mail" and "Unforgiven." "But there can be an overlap of movie subject matter that actually means something to an audience and the film's ability to make money for its studio."

Ray Halbritter, Nation Representative and CEO for the Oneida Indian Nation, sat on the Motion Picture panel with Gerber, screenwriter Jim Kearns ("John Q"), and marketing executive Paula Silver ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Halbritter outlined the mission of the Oneida Nation's Four Directions Entertainment, the only entertainment production company owned and operated by American Indians. "We believe that one of the most influential vehicles that exists to send accurate portrayals of our people into the popular culture is the entertainment industry. It's vital that we start creating those positive portrayals ourselves, and the conference provides a unique opportunity to confer with the top echelons of show business and to share our mutual interest in diversity and human issues. Like every other business the Oneidas have become involved in, we understand the financial realities of the entertainment industry. Our goal is to develop our people's stories with integrity and truth while fulfilling the mandate to be commercially viable."

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A recurring question at the conference was "how do you get a movie made that carries a significant social message." In his keynote address, actor/producer/environmentalist Pierce Brosnan, known throughout the world for his portrayal of "James Bond," outlined his six-year struggle to bring to the screen his new film "Evelyn." Brosnan decided to champion this small film, the story of a single dad trying to retain custody of his kids in Ireland in 1953, in large part because of his own activism in the field of foster children. He concluded it was the perfect project for his production company, Irish Dreamtime. Now in wide release, the film has garnered tremendous positive acclaim from the media, film festivals and the public, but the long process to get the film made, according to Brosnan, was a frustrating one. He exhorted the conference attendees to stay the course, saying, "The key is to make the bottom-line money guys care about the film as much as you do. And all they care about, you will quickly conclude, is profit margin. But don't lose your passion. That's when you are going to need it the most."

Leaving the conference imbued with a more thorough working knowledge of the film and television industry, Halbritter said "everyone knows that the marriage of art and commerce is never an easy one, but creative people can change the social status quo by sharing their passion for storytelling and their ability to make movies that the audience will support."