Hollywood goes to college: UCLA to help industry craft stories around global issues
UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations has launched a new program to move discussions of pressing global challenges beyond the classroom and into the writers' rooms of TV shows, films, video games and more.
Working with the United Nations and other groups, the new Burkle Global Impact Initiative will encourage content creators to incorporate more storylines about global issues into their work, such as those in the movie "Hotel Rwanda," with its depiction of the Rwandan genocide, or TV shows like "Ugly Betty," which featured an episode about how the UN Foundation fights malaria.
To make it happen, the Burkle Center developed the Global Impact Initiative to link screenwriters and other entertainment industry types with experts on the UCLA faculty and representatives from organizations like the UN. Professors and international workers will consult on story ideas, offer ideas and provide context, research and on-the-ground experience.
The program, launched on Jan. 7, was made possible by the support of the center's namesake, Ron Burkle. Brian Gott, the former publisher of the entertainment newspaper Variety and a member of the UN Foundation's Global Entrepreneurs Council, will run the new program.
"The Burkle Global Impact Initiative is a wonderful idea," said UN Assistant Secretary-General Robert Orr in a Burkle Center article announcing the program. "I'm thrilled that UCLA is launching this effort and that Brian Gott is leading it. This is a superb team, and we look forward to working closely with them."
The Burkle Center already works with the UN's Creative Community Outreach Initiative to increase access to UN information and locations for storytellers, and the collaboration has included a soon-to-start reality show documenting a competition between filmmakers in India.
The Global Impact Initiative hopes to expand on that work, both by pushing ideas out and by serving as a resource that the entertainment industry can turn to for research, consulting and connections, said Kal Raustiala, the Burkle Center's director and associate vice provost of international studies at UCLA.
To raise awareness, the program will help arrange visits to refugee camps, connect screenwriters with aid workers, and link top UCLA experts to curious creators. It will also set up meetings between Hollywood and the UN and plant the seeds for stories on topics like water scarcity, immunizations and universal education.
"There are so many important global issues out there, and it's important that we educate the public, because an educated public will hopefully result in better policies over time," Raustiala said. "I'm sure there are thousands, if not millions, of people who knew nothing about the Rwandan genocide before seeing 'Hotel Rwanda,' and now they do, and some subset of them went out to learn more about it."
It's important to raise public awareness as globalization and social media change how foreign affairs works. It's no longer just government-to-government, Raustiala said.
"Think about the Arab Spring and all the ways social media fanned that," he said. "It's about people reaching out to people, not just states to states. This is a way for the Burkle Center to leverage its unique location at the center of Los Angeles' entertainment industry to interest people in issues they aren't otherwise thinking about and better educate them about things they are hearing about."
As the program grows, the Global Impact Initiative plans to partner with the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international agencies on the front lines of global crises, said Alexandra Lieben, the Burkle Center's deputy director.
"We're going to arrange meetings, but we'll also talk with show-runners and go into writers' rooms to discuss issues they may want to insert into their shows, or characters they could introduce," she said. "Maybe they'll take a character to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and we'll hook them up with a peacekeeping mission. Or in an apocalyptic show, there are narrative opportunities to talk about communicable diseases, relief efforts, how to find water — there are so many ways to increase awareness."
The Global Impact Initiative hopes to work with all types of media, including video games and web shows, and will consider approaches such as hosting a YouTube contest for short films that bring awareness to global issues, Lieben said. For larger media, such as established TV shows and movies, Gott's experience publishing Variety and working with the UN will be key to opening doors for the initiative.
"His connections are unparalleled," Lieben said. "He already understands the UN and global challenges, and he knows the Hollywood players, so it's a magical combination."
The entertainment industry is filled with people who want to explore new ideas about stories that should be told, Gott said in the Burkle Center's announcement of the program.
"From women and LGBT rights, to environmental sustainability, peacekeeping, refugees, children's health and food security … there are countless issues waiting to be discovered, each with innumerable stories waiting to be told," Gott said. "The Global Impact Initiative will convene the best and brightest minds from both the creative community and the international community to develop those ideas."
The UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations fosters research on and promotes discussion of international relations, U.S. foreign policy and complex issues of global cooperation and conflict.