Disability news, Accessibility Issues, Disability Issues, Accessiblity News

‘Tropic Thunder’ media alert from DSALA

Memo from Gail Williamson, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles.

(Williamson was among participants at the meeting this week with executives of DreamWorks/Paramount.)

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Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles
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Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles Media Alert
Tropic Thunder  August 8, 2008

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What about “Tropic Thunder?”
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Dear DSALA Family and Friends:

I want to update you on the past and current status of the progress with the Dreamworks film “Tropic Thunder.”  Some of this may be redundant if you are fully in the loop reading the posts on the internet.  This is also very long, but it should answer your questions as best I can and allow you to take your own action in response.

On Monday, July 28th I was made aware of an article in the Hollywood Reporter about “Tropic Thunder” a new film by and staring Ben Stiller due for release on August 13th.  The article commented that the film included satire about people with intellectual disabilities.  I was contacted by other individuals and organizations because of our past involvement together in media advocacy for individuals with DS and other intellectual disabilities.  After a couple of days of research and many emails I was led to the website for the film with-in the film “Simple Jack” and my fears were confirmed.

On Thursday, July 31st I called Dreamworks to discuss the use of the “R” word and the inclusion of the character of “Simple Jack.”  As a result of that dialogue with the head of publicity I was invited to share my concerns in a meeting with DreamWorks Executives.  I got back to my contacts from several national organizations representing people with disabilities and together we collaborated on what to present at the meeting.  In response to my emails Tim Shriver of Special Olympics began discussions with Dreamworks as well.  He joined us in our new coalition.  Tim and I continued to make arrangements with DreamWorks.

On Wednesday, August 6th, as reported in the media, this newly formed coalition attended the meeting at DreamWorks.  We were limited by DreamWorks on the number of groups attending, but assured that if following the meeting and our report back to our constituents that individual meetings could convene with individual organizations if they requested.  My personal thanks to several of the organizations who graciously bowed out, (including NDSS and NDSC) not attended the meeting, so it could take place as planned.

From the community representing people with disabilities the meeting included:
Peter Berns: The Arc of the United States (present)
Tim Shriver: Special Olympics International (by phone)
Andy Imparato: American Association of People with Disabilities (present)
Gail Williamson: Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles (present)
Richard Rosenberg: TASH (present)
Sarah Pripas: Autism Self Advocacy Network (present)
Joe Meadours: People First of California (present)
Loretta Claiborne: Special Olympics (by phone)
Julie Petty: Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (by phone)
Eddy Barbenell: Actor, Special Olympics (by phone)

The DreamWorks and Paramount Executives in the room included:
Stacey Snider, Co-Chairman/CEO, DreamWorks
Jeff Small, COO, DreamWorks
Christine Birch, Marketing DreamWorks
Megan Colligan, Marketing Paramount/Vantage
Chip Sullivan, Head of Publicity DreamWorks
Josh Galper, Attorney brought on by DreamWorks

The meeting started out with comments from Self Advocates in the room and on the phone.  They were eloquent.  They spoke of their hard work for the dignity and self esteem that others take for granted.  They also expressed that the “R” word is a “hate” word and the inclusion of it in the film would case them more isolation, marginalization and discrimination.  Following that introduction we commented on why we were before them and although we understand that the film was not intended to make fun of individuals with intellectual disabilities, that in its attempt to make fun of actors and Hollywood it was creating insensitivity toward individuals with intellectual disabilities.  We requested to be given the opportunity to screen the film in order to continue with our discussion and were told that we could on Friday, August 8th and Stacey agreed to a phone conference with us again after viewing.  We then presented some actions we would like to see from DreamWorks in order to counteract the damage the film would do to those we represent.

The coalition demands included:

Film Screening: Arrange a film screening of “Tropic Thunder” for disability groups, paid for by the studio, in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C. before the end of this week.

Public Apology: Make a public apology for the thoughtless use of the “R-word” and derogatory depictions of people with intellectual disability with a summary statement of the studio’s intent to curtail its damaging effect and its commitment to specific next steps (as laid out below).

Film Editing: Completely eliminate all direct mention of or reference to “retard” jokes, disability euphemisms, and disrespectful depictions from the film before it is distributed to theatres and released to DVD.

Film Promotion: Eliminate all trailers, web postings, and ads that focus on “retard” jokes, disability euphemisms, and disrespectful depictions, and reference the “R word.”

Specially Created Trailer: Fund and produce a trailer to air prior to each showing of “Tropic Thunder” that addresses the use of the R-word and the hurtful impact it has, even when people do not mean it that way.  This same trailer would also be included within the DVD packaging for after market sales.

National Campaign: Create and fund a comprehensive national educational and advertising social campaign to eliminate the pejorative use of the word retard from use in everyday language, and more importantly create a world of dignity, acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disability.  The campaign would be developed and vetted by an advisory council of representatives from the coalition. The campaign would also be designed to capitalize on social media and social networking to bring young people together and empower them as agents of change for the R-word campaign and involve appearances of those involved in the film’s creation.

Film Studio Summit: Convene the heads of all the major studios to address the appropriate portrayal of people with intellectual in future films and television programs.  The summit would also help reduce stigma surrounding one of the largest disability populations in the world while also raising the awareness of the extraordinary gifts and talents people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have to offer.

Stacey Snider did the talking for Dreamworks and seemed to be genuine in her concern over our presentation.  She expressed that she wanted this to be the beginning of a discussion that would go on past this film and into the future.   She also informed us that the entire film is over the top; that the violent scenes have blood spewing out like a “Saturday Night Live” skit, way beyond realistic.  She said there is nothing in the film to make people think they really “mean it” about anything; but she did say that this information was not intended as an excuse.  She asked for some time to absorb our requests and did inform us as to what they had already done after we first expressed our concerns.

The following information was provided as follow-up to the meeting by Chip Sullivan of Dreamworks:

At the outset, we want to reiterate three points:

(1)       We sincerely regret having offended or hurt anyone with disabilities through the promotional material you have seen, and we have a full appreciation for why that material appeared insensitive.  That is why we took immediate action, which we detail below, after hearing from you last Thursday.

(2)       We view our discussion as the beginning of not just a conversation about this one movie but a longer-term relationship in which we can work together to make our studio even more sensitive about how people with disabilities are portrayed and to increase the numbers of those with disabilities in the film industry work force.  Those are goals we share.

(3)       To remind, the film is in no way meant to disparage or harm the image of individuals with disabilities.  Instead, it takes a satirical look at Hollywood moviemakers and actors and their excesses, and makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the top-characters in ridiculous situations.  The “R” rating limits those who can attend and how we market the film.

As you requested, here are steps we took to address your concerns even before we met yesterday:

·        As soon as we heard from you, we responded immediately to engage in a dialogue and schedule our first meeting.
·        We took down online material focusing on “Simple Jack,” including an entire website devoted to the fake movie and images in a cross-promotional website at www.Tugg Speedman.com.
·        We decided not to market the movie using “Simple Jack” images or references in television, radio, or print advertising.
·        We excised images and references to “Simple Jack” in two promotional television programs slated to air on E! and Comedy Central about the making of “Tropic Thunder” that had already gone out the door.
As promised, we will make the movie available to be screened by each of you on Friday, August 8 or Monday, August 11. (We were told in the meeting that it would be on Friday, this Monday date is new to me.)

Once again, we thank all of you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and we see great potential for us to work together to improve the film industry’s creative and work environment for people with disabilities in the future.

END OF DREAMWORKS STATEMENT

Now, some of my thoughts on all this.

My concerns focus on what the message from character “Simple Jack” will take to a segment of the community.  Yes it is an R rated film.  But everyone over the age of 17 is not responsible, understanding and inclusive of individuals with intellectual disabilities and we know that children under the age of 17 view R rated films.

As for being “equal opportunity offenders;” something the first rep from DreamWorks told me when he took my message for Chip. I requested a count of all the references to the word “Retard” and its derogatory euphuisms in the film.  Along with the same for the “N” word and “Faggot” since Chip informed me that they make fun of these groups as well, and these are the names equal to “Retard” in the community I represent.  Chip told me that was a reasonable request although he did not follow through on it.  No matter what those numbers might have come out to be, being equal is still not the luxury of people with intellectual disabilities on any other playing field to begin with.

I am sure there are many employees at DreamWorks who are Black or Gay, how many employees are there with intellectual disabilities?  There are individuals with intellectual disabilities who have skills and would like to be employed by DreamWorks.  There are supported work programs that would be happy to work with DreamWorks to bring in employees who have been proven to be some of the best.  Check out the mail room at ABC/Disney, talk to SAG about the “Workabilty” program, and check out the students at “Inclusion Films” in Burbank who are training to work in the film making business.  This would be closer to equal, if people with intellectual disabilities were employed at DreamWorks.

I am concerned about people with Down syndrome even though they are not identified in the movie.  The face of DS is the face of intellectual disability to the general public.  I work with productions that assist in casting people with DS when they want their viewing public to know that the character has an intellectual disability.  People with DS are easy targets everyday while just minding their own business because their face announces their disability.  I can imagine my own son being called “Simple Jack” or “Full Retard” by someone “vulgar” as my son Blair who has DS refers to people who use this language.

I believe one of my greatest sorrows over the impact this film might make is in regards to the pre-diagnosis of DS being given to expectant parents.  With the recent “American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology” guidelines in 2007 calling for every expectant mother be offered a screening for genetic differences including DS, I have the opportunity to talk with parents who are trying to make a decision to choose to continue their pregnancy or not.  Many who consider terminating their pregnancies do so because of the fear of how society will treat their child and their family.  We are at a reported 90% termination rate in Los Angeles as it is.

I know without a doubt that “Tropic Thunder” will contribute to the verbal abuse expressed toward individuals with intellectual disabilities and I know that there will be pregnancies that will be terminated because of the outcome from these images.  I am deeply saddened this film will rob people of the joy I have found in my life being the mother of Blair and the Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles.

HERE IS SOME INFORMATION SO YOU MAY USE TO MOVE FORWARD WITH YOUR OWN ACTION IN REAGARDS TO “TROPIC THUNDER.”

The film will premiere on Monday, August 11th in LA; the information I have is as follows:

Monday, August 11th, 2008
Press Check-in begins at: 5:00PM
Arrivals begin at 6:00PM
Screening begins promptly at 7:30PM
MANN VILLAGE THEATRE
961 Broxton AveWestwood, CA 90024

WHO: Cast members and filmmakers attending include: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Justin Theroux (Co-Writer and Producer), Etan Cohen (Writer), Stuart Cornfeld (Producer), Eric McLeod (Producer)

Other celebrities attending include: Jamie Foxx, Tobey McGuire,Randy Jackson, Jennifer Love Hewitt, JJ Abrams, Jon Voigt, JasonBateman, William Shatner, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Terri Hatcher, Lisa Kudrow, Jerry Stiller, Alicia Silverstone, Chris Hemsworth,Zachary Quinto, Jay Roach, John Hamburg, Wilmer Valderrama, BradSilberling, Amy Breneman, Nigel Lythgoe, Christine Taylor

Also if you would like to reach anyone of the people at DreamWorks, Paramount/Vantage or Ben Stiller with your concerns, their names are above and below are the main contacts for them.

DreamWorks
100 Universal City Plaza, Bldg. 5121, Universal City, CA 91608
818-733-7000

Paramount/Vantage
5555 Melrose Ave., Ball/Lasky Bldgs., Los Angeles, CA 90038
323-956-2000

Ben Stiller, Writer/Director/Producer
Read Hour Films, 629 N. La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90036
323-602-5000

As I am ready to send this email at 11:45 AM on Friday, August 8th we have not recieved any information from DreamWorks on a screening.  I called Chip Sullivan’s office this morning and was told he was in a meeting.  I have yet to  hear from him to notify the groups who were represented in the meeting about a screening that we were originally promisied today.
I would encourage you to let your voice heard!

In support of our loved ones!
Gail Williamson
Executive Director
Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles.

Contact Information
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phone: 818-242-7871
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More than 50 million people in the United States have disabilities, a number that is growing rapidly as the population ages. Experts say disability will soon affect the lives of most Americans. This website attempts to aggregate news and commentary about disability, and to document the efforts of people who are seeking new ways to address familiar challenges.

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