From Buckingham Palace to Wall Street and the Middle East to Eastern Europe, the real world is a rich source of material for film-makers. Leonard Klady reports on the pitfalls and the box-office potential of stories which are ripped from the headlines

Casino Jack

As screenwriter Peter Morgan puts it, “Journalism is different from art.” And with credits that include The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King Of Scotland and a forthcoming project about Freddie Mercury, Morgan is certainly conscious of the line between fact and fiction. “You have an obligation to entertain, and that’s foremost,” he says. “But you also have to get it right because the audience has a keen nose when it comes to sniffing out and discerning the truth.”

The play-off between journalism and entertainment, and fact and fiction, is particularly relevant at a time when a range of films seemingly ripped straight from the headlines are testing audience demand for reality-based projects at the global box office (see chart).

These include The Social Network (pictured), about the creation of Facebook, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (pictured), Casino Jack (pictured), about disgraced political lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction, based on a real-life miscarriage of justice. The material of such zeitgeist-riding films tends to tilt towards the political but social, cultural and criminal issues are also targeted to appeal to film-goers. In other words, the headlines need not come from the front page.

Nor are such projects all based on specific documented events. Recent topical translations such as The Hurt Locker and Up In The Air were inspired by current events rather than transposed word for word from a newspaper or television report. Film-makers can certainly address issues such as poverty and violence (Slumdog Millionaire, City Of God), government surveillance (The Lives Of Others), the politics of commodities (Blood Diamond, Syriana) and countless post 9/11 sagas which address myriad issues and perspectives without sticking too slavishly to a specific historical event.

“Whether you’re dealing with something that’s been meticulously covered by the press or requires interpretation, the writer and film-maker have a tremendous responsibility to get things right because film gives the impression of reality,” notes Morgan. “People wind up believing your inventions.”

“You’re navigating a minefield when you deal with real people,” observes one literary agent. “There’s a very fuzzy line when it comes to portraying public figures. And even when you get clearances, tremendous damage can be done when someone objects to their ultimate screen portrayal to the media.”

The fuzzy line is evident among current releases. Real-life Facebook principals Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin kept their silence and refused to co-operate in the film’s production. Prior to its release, a Facebook spokesperson stated the film was a work of fiction and certainly its depiction of those involved has been questioned in the media. Conversely in Conviction, the real-life Betty Anne Waters who cleared her brother’s murder indictment was a consultant on the film and has participated in its publicity. And while Valerie Plame assisted the film-makers of CIA thriller Fair Game, her involvement was restricted in part by US government secrets laws.

The thrust of The Social Network’s campaign played down its real life underpinnings and following generally positive reviews has focused on the film as an awards contender. Ironically its obvious connection to Facebook does not appear to be much of a factor, nor has viral marketing contributed to the initial push of other ‘serious’ pictures.

The fact other real-life characters from The Social Network have come forward with comments or that financial analysts have written op ed pieces on the Wall Street sequel has not been incorporated into either film’s marketing, and that goes against the grain of earlier reality-based movies which played up such real-world endorsements.

True calling: reality-inspired features at the box office    
TitleYear of releaseAustraliaBrazilFranceGermanyItalyJapanSpainUKInternational gross totalUS
Wall Street: Money…2010$5,869,165$2,415,703$4,733,311$5,150,924$4,047,725Jan 28$6,505,322$6,432,658$75,031,515$51,887,446
The Social Network2010$7,898,916Dec 3$12,144,653$ 9,082,548$1,125.045Jan 15$5,688,073$15,441,728$76,828,020$87,807,502
Green Zone2010$6,057,496$507,734$6,813,192$2,977,326$3,839,068$8,234,964$4,292,871$8,630,997$64,038,834$35,513,578
The Hurt Locker2009$3,339,831$798,198$2,001,649$480,989$260,679$9,202,734$4,531,129$2,352,250$32,906,821$17,392,492
Up In The Air2009$7,467,209$4,389,817$6,694,017$7,914,708$8,090,191$3,183,824$6,842,282$10,471,019$82,256,610$83,535,392
Slumdog Millionaire2008$14,744,618$5,962,321$24,065,427$18,752,417$9,574,303$12,079,887$14,193,848$46,418,709$240,369,481$141,319,928
The Kite Runner2007$2,723,814$4,276,092$964,813$5,411,721$13,839,380$543,172$1,843,275$7,039,664$57,828,436$15,800,078
A Mighty Heart2007$967,700$202,266$1,511,864$361,323$44,986$1,124,225$1,615,718$786,535$10,043,565$9,176,787
The Diving Bell And…2007$1,010,433$430,308$2,304,681$2,100,525$727,835$1,283,756$346,643$1,775,673$13,508,699$6,003,227
Blood Diamond2006$6,489,728$2,957,662$10,908,430$7,176,791$6,137,039$7,815,005$9,611,220$14,807,643$112,662,348$57,377,956
The Lives Of Others2006$2,291,268$942,723$11,285,172$18,642,680$5,565,373$323,751$6,756,472$5,726,540$66,499,874$11,286,112
World Trade Center2006$1,671,326$2,851,326$5,959,364$4,969,242$7,038,079$19,904,748$5,958,030$9,037,513$92,823,160$70,369,990
The Constant Gardener2005$3,307,826$2,387,441$4,315,662$4,405,517$1,272,831$4,788,624$7,504,183$10,952,096$51,425,295$33,878,774
Hotel Rwanda2005$835,091$212,374$1,243,687$1,358,460$932,078$1,089,819$1,374,069$3,052,877$14,786,519$23,848,716
Mystic River2003$4,501,133$1,216,153$8,134,183$1,590,656$7,408,969$9,143,405$7,076,117$4,107,585$66,460,538$90,458,635
City Of God2003$333,211$5,523,901$828,374$2,895,636$337,618$831,852$1,018,332$3,784,247$19,108,569$7,564,459

Figures to November 14, 2010