On June 25, 2020, DeVoe L. Moore Center director Sam Staley participated in an on-line webinar on the intersection between public policy and filmmaking. The webinar was a partnership between the center, Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, and Southern California-based film production company Korchula Productions

Film has become an increasingly important medium for communicating ideas through “visual storytelling.” In fact, Dr. Staley is the author of Contemporary Film and Economics (Routledge, 2018), where he discusses how economic and policy ideas are embedded in more than 50 recently released films. 

In addition to Dr. Staley, participants on the panel included film producers and directors Ted Balaker and Courtney Balaker, casting director Lindsey Weissmuller, and Pepperdine School of Public Policy Dean Pete Peterson

The author of nearly 150 movie reviews and six novels in addition to his academic and professional policy work, Dr. Staley talks more about filmmaking and its growing importance in the public policy arena. 

Why did you become interested in mixing film and policy?

As the research director for a public policy think tank, and a policy analyst, I saw how storytelling was fundamental to communicating big ideas and impacts. When we communicate effectively, our policy impacts and recommendations relate to people’s lives and create a visceral connection to general audiences. We say: That’s me, I understand. 

Later, I studied the movie medium further, I began to more fully understand how important the visual part of storytelling is. Humans are visual animals; we process and interpret the world around us primarily through sight. 

This visual storytelling motivates what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (and channeled by social entrepreneurs Dan and Chip Heath) calls the “elephant” — the emotional side of our identities that drive social change and, ultimately, public policy. 

How have you mixed film and policy in your teaching or research?

I haven’t mixed film into my policy research formally, although I’ve written a book on the economics embedded in film! 

Visual storytelling is now a powerful part of how we present the work at the DeVoe L. Moore Center outside the academic area. Everything we publish hinges around a “story,” and we try to use a visual platform to anchor our messaging. 

In terms of moving pictures, we are just starting on that. We’re a bit late to the game. But we think the more filmmaking we do, the more impactful we will be. 

What kind of film and policy mixing would you like to do in the future?

I think a storytelling, visual storytelling, or filmmaking course should be embedded in public policy programs. The current curriculum is heavily focused on statistics and quantitative analysis. As a social scientist and policy analyst, I understand this. 

But the statistics only get you so far. At the end of the day, social change and policy change means communicating your ideas in an ethical, engaging, and truthful way. Both narrative film and documentary film have an important role to play in this process. 

Some people say that “politics is downstream from culture.” Talk about what that means in general and for the people at this meeting.

Democratic political processes are *never* on the leading edge of change. And it makes sense. For policy reform to take root, people have to support it. If they don’t know about it, or don’t care, they won’t support it. 

Similarly, elected officials won’t invest time in a policy reform unless they have constituent support. 

I’ve seen this dynamic play out quite a bit in my work — research and policy analysis — in marginalized communities, whether it’s inner-city America or an urban slum in Mumbai, India. 

What kind of careers could public policy students have in film and media? 

I think it can go both ways. Public policy students can add value to the film industry, both professionally and creatively, and the world of public policy can learn from professionals with more experience in the entertainment industry. This is a theme of my book Contemporary Film and Economics although I apply these ideas principally to the creative side.

I believe if filmmakers understood more economics, political science, and sociology, they would be better able to create engaging stories. Speaking as a film critic, for example, a character comes across “flat” on the big screen because it doesn’t have sufficient dimension to be fully realized. When a character becomes a caricature, the audience tunes out, or is taken out of the story. 

Economics, organizational behavior, psychology, and other social science disciplines can help us draw out the human complexities that make our policy making process and institutions so frustrating and, all too often, produce poor outcomes. Public policy failures are almost always human failures, so our characters in stories can reflect those choices. 

On the other side of the equation, the more experience our social science oriented students have on the creative side of popular culture, the more effective they can be as researchers as well as experts informing policymakers and citizens. We still need quantitative analysis — it’s not either/or. 

Rather it’s more about taking a more holistic approach to understanding how people interpret and understand the phenomena we study and attempt to understand their implications. Stories humanize the elements of society, economy, and politics that captures our imaginations in statistics and theory. We need to communicate their implications to the public and elected officials in ways that connect with them on a human level. 


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