First, a little salt in the wound: A commodities analyst recently noted that Matt Damon’s anti-fracing film Promised Land has grossed less than the cost of two Marcellus wells.
Bob Brackett, senior analyst with Bernstein Research, went on to list several oil and gas themed movies he thought were more compelling and nuanced than Damon’s film. They include The Road Warrior, Waterworld (yes, that Waterworld) and 1998’s Armageddon, which involves a deep-water drilling team led by Bruce Willis traveling into space.
Brackett admitted he is biased. Still, the lack of intellectual heft hurts the film. It demonstrates the effects of fracing by setting a toy farm on fire in front of schoolchildren.
Joe Leydon, a University of Houston professor, film historian and long-time film critic for Variety, says it’s a Hollywood tradition to make oil and gas executives into boogeymen.
“You have a dozen other movies in which people who represent oil and gas are rapacious and environment-threatening monsters,” he says. “Oil and gas company executives tend to be depicted only slightly more sympathetically than terrorists.”
As hydraulic fracturing has moved from subterranean obscurity to pop culture scorn, a key question is whether movies such as Promised Land could influence lawmakers and regulators and shoo away investors.
Industry chief executive officers and advocates say that’s unlikely. Yet the intersection between a Hollywood rabble-rouser and policymakers isn’t as farfetched as it seems.
The China Syndrome, for example, was released in 1979, near the time of Three Mile Island’s partial nuclear meltdown, Leydon says. The film “had an impact on the way we as citizenry here in the U.S. view nuclear power as a possible threat.”
Policymakers were also swayed by the 1932 film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which exposed the horrors of chain gangs in the Deep South.
“There were state legislatures that were pushed into introducing laws that would greatly restrict how harshly convicts on chain gangs could be punished,” he says.
Brackett argues that books and movies don’t have the sway that’s often attributed to them. He notes, for instance, that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration but the wage slavery Sinclair was decrying was not addressed. The 2005 filmSyriana prompted just 8,000 e-mails to Congress asking for reduction in foreign oil dependence.
Nevertheless, a New York Daily News columnist urged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to watch Promised Land before ruling on the state’s fracing regulations.
The notion of Cuomo setting energy policy by viewing the film strikes Chris Faulkner, founder, president and chief executive officer of Breitling Oil and Gas Corp., as “the dumbest thing in the history of time.”
Faulkner says the problem is that fracing is an easy target and the industry has done a poor job communicating with the public. “It’s let other folks do the talking,” he says.
Though Promised Land hasn’t had the eyeballs to make it into the top 100 movies of 2012, Leydon thinks it could still have an impact.
He says people coming out of the film could decide, “OK, I should write my congressman and say we should have restrictions on this. We should have laws outlawing that.”
However, Promised Land also has a bit of a clouded back story to overcome.
For one, the filmmakers turned for industry information to Gasland, the film the industry loves to hate—and pick apart for its inaccuracies.
And, there’s the money. A new documentary called FrackNation was financed by online donations and did not accept money from companies or senior oil and gas executives. Damon’s Promised Land was funded in part by the royal family of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to the Heritage Foundation.
The UAE “has a stake in the future of the American fossil fuel industry,” Heritage notes. What’s bad for fracing is good for oil-rich countries, since an increase in U.S. crude means more oil on the market and lower prices for a globally traded commodity.
Still, fracing is increasingly a mainstream fight. On one side: Lady Gaga, Yoko Ono and Deepak Chopra.
On the other, industry advocates such as Steve Everley, spokesman for Energy in Depth (EID). He recently mocked Ono when she declared 60% of shale wells will fail, writing that she surprised everyone previously unfamiliar with her “background and experience as a petroleum engineer.”