Edson: How U.S. makes war movies and what they cost (4-2-43)

The Pittsburgh Press (April 2, 1943)

Edson: How U.S. makes war movies and what they cost

By Peter Edson

Washington –
Republican Congressmen John Taber of Auburn, New York, and J. William Ditter of Ambler, Pennsylvania, having taken a poke at the government’s moviemaking activities, you might be interested in an inside look at what has been going on. If you have been to the movies in the past year, you have seen some of these flickers, but in a theater, they have a way of sneaking up on you, making it difficult to tell what is GI or Government Issue, and what is made-in-Hollywood stuff.

Army and Navy have their own movie setups. They have commissioned a number of big-shot directors and producers to do their job. John Ford, who directed Grapes of Wrath, is a commander and he made the Navy’s Technicolor, Battle of Midway.

Army had contributed more than 400 men for photographic work in the Signal Corps. Darryl Zanuck is a colonel and supervised production of the Army’s Technicolor of the African campaign, At the Front. Frank Capra is a lieutenant colonel. Hal Roach is a major, and so on.

OWI has charge

Practically all other government filmmaking activities are now centered in the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information. It is this operation which is being eyed by Congress now, on suspicion that it is putting out too much Democratic political propaganda, along with war propaganda. Elmer David, head of OWI, has taken the rap thus far, as the criticism of OWI has been general and not confined to movies.

Real bead of the OWI Bureau of Motion Pictures, however, is Lowell Mellett, who is also one of the administrative assistants to the President and film coordinator for the government, meaning that his office is the agency through which the film industry has its principal contacts with numerous government agencies.

Today, Mr. Mellett’s bureau operates on a budget of $1,300,000 and has about 140 employees.

For the year ending this June 30, the production end of the outfit will have turned out 93 pictures – 41 of the subjects theatrical, 52 non-theatrical – a distinction which will be explained later.

The average government-produced movie runs about eight minutes and costs around $5,000 to produce. The total production budget is approximately $500,000, minimum cost for one average Hollywood full-length feature. A Hollywood super-duper may, of course, cost up to $2.5 million, which gives some idea of the scale of this operation – decidedly small-time by Hollywood measurements.

Educational films

In addition to production cost, the government spends $10 a print for 677 copies of each of its theatrical subjects, this being the number required to get maximum distribution in the 17,000 movie houses of the country, 16,000 of which have made pledges to the industry to show government films.

Non-theatrical pictures which the government produces are largely 16 mm stuff in the nature of educational films made for showing before Rotary, Kiwanis or Lions, in schools, before labor organizations, parent-teacher groups and similar smaller audiences. Distribution is handled through some 185 non-profit service outlets.

The government hires no actors. “Stars” in government movies are usually responsible government officials, making responsible statements to the American people. The government production unit of about 50 people is headed by Sam Spewack, ex-New York World reporter, author of Boy Meets Girl and a successful Hollywood writer who gave up $3,000 a week in Hollywood to work for the government for less than $10,000 a year. The government’s Hollywood staff is about 20 people and they, with the Washington administrative headquarters, cost $241,000 a year, which would not keep a film magnate in tax money.