‘Brokeback’ Miller: the economics of protest

Event: Larry Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, a television station, a number of car dealerships, and a few movie theaters, was confronted on a local radio show that one of his theaters was going to be showing “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie about two gay cowboys. A day before opening, the theater pulled the film.

Reaction: Critics contend he’s limiting free speech. Supporters counter that he is merely exercising it. Handwringers bemoan how this will affect economic investment and tourism in the state. And the film’s distributor might sue for breach of contract.

My take: It’s about money.

Although he is inclined to make knee-jerk decisions, Larry Miller hasn’t achieved the financial success he has by being an idiot. He knows what his customers want, and he caters to those desires, but only as far as it makes him money. Although he might be influenced by personal taste or morals (cf. his investments in Mormon cinema), I know enough people that have had direct dealings with him (my late father-in-law included) to say that he doesn’t run his business by asking himself, “What would Jesus do?”

In other words, he’s like any other business owner, and he is in the movie business to make money. Likely hearing how well “Brokeback Mountain” was doing at downtown’s independent Broadway Theater, he (or likely his theater chain manager) booked the film. When he sensed there might be negative publicity, he pulled it.

Whether it was a morally correct decision for Larry Miller honestly doesn’t figure in to it, in strict business terms. Thomas Sowell put it this way: “Capitalism knows only one color: that color is green; all else is necessarily subservient to it, hence, race, gender and ethnicity cannot be considered within it.”

Businesses that take public stands on certain issues have done so because it makes good business sense. It might save them money, it might score points in a consumer market, or it might attract a lucrative demographic—whatever the reason, the business benefits, and I think Larry Miller has decided that aligning himself with Utah’s dominant conservative majority places his businesses in a better financial position.

Now for individuals who are disappointed (or frustrated or indignant or whatever) about this decision, they must keep this financial aspect in the forefront of their minds. Again, it’s about the money, so while posting to message boards or writing letters to the editor are pretty effective means to air grievances and let off steam, the better way to successfully challenge a business’s practices is to boycott it.

The consumer boycott is a powerful weapon in producing change and one that is too often overlooked. With the recent Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the passing of Rosa Parks last autumn, I’ve been thinking of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott and how the success of that protest arguably sparked the civil rights movement. While rereading some of the specifics, I am struck by how difficult it was to actually maintain the boycott. Black taxi drivers were fined for offering reduced-rate rides, police officers harassed carpoolers, some protesters resorted to horse-drawn buggies to get around, and after 381 days the united and disciplined actions of the boycotting African-Americans (along with their white sympathizers) resulted in not only desegregated buses, but the successful demonstration of non-violent resistance in effecting change.

Boycotts don’t always require so much of us, but we as a people have become so used to convenience and comfort that to protest in a real, substantive way is quite nearly beyond us. Unfortunately, we also have fallen victim to the mindset that “I am just one person, I don’t make a difference,” and these twin attitudes of laziness and helplessness only further enforce repetitive behavior that is not in our personal, moral, or financial best interests.

Instead, recognize the power money has and actively use it to influence business behavior. If you dislike what a movie portrays, don’t go see it. If you disagree with how a business acts, boycott it[*]. And if you believe in a movement, use your money in support of it.

* okay, that’s a somewhat silly example, but valid nonetheless.

Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed