You Are What You Watch

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible is brought to you by the Lexus GX and Sirius XM. As a 99PI listener, we know that you delight in exploring regional architecture wherever you go. If you’re looking for an adventure SUV that promises both luxury and capability, the new Lexus GX is just the vehicle you’ve been looking for. Enabled with SiriusXM, the 2024 GX comes equipped with a rich array of content you can enjoy on your next road trip. In true 99PI fashion, get in a GX today, and experience how great design marries form and function. To learn more about the GX and SiriusXM and Lexus vehicles, visit and The all-new Lexus GX–live up to it.

Dan Pashman: I’m Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful Food Podcast. And I’m excited to tell you about our new podcast, Deep Dish with Sohla and Ham. Sohla and Ham are chefs, YouTube stars, and a married couple. In each episode of Deep Dish, they deep dive into the surprising story behind the food–then see what it inspires them to cook up. The first episode starts off with two dead bodies in a trunk full of tamales. Listen to Deep Dish in the Sporkful’s feed wherever you get your podcasts. 

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. In January of 1981, Ronald Reagan took office as the 40th president of the United States. His first day, like most presidential first days, began with a tour of the White House. It said that while Reagan was being escorted around the grounds, he had one particular request. He wanted to see the War Room. You can probably conjure up an image of the War Room in your head–an underground bunker with ominous overhead lighting, a large circular table, and a big map of the world hung up on the wall. But here’s the thing. That war room simply does not exist. It’s not in the White House. It’s not in the Capitol building. Not one room in the Pentagon remotely resembles the War Room Reagan had in mind. But Reagan believed it must have existed because he had seen it somewhere. And that somewhere was the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove. 

Buck Turgidson: Am I to understand the Russian ambassador is to be admitted entrance to the War Room? Are you aware of what a serious breach of security that would be? I mean, he’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!

Roman Mars: The design was so iconic that it’s become our mental image of where we think important decisions should be made. Airbnb and the soccer organization FIFA have since built their own replica War Rooms modeled after the film, which is ironic given that Dr. Strangelove is a farce about the destructive insanity of the nuclear arms race. But that is the power of a good movie. What we see on the screen has this way of influencing our perception of the world, which makes sense because the average American spends two hours and 51 minutes watching movies and TV each day. That’s a whopping 19% of our waking hours. 

Walt Hickey: We conceive media as sometimes just a thing that’s just kind of rolling or the ambient noise of our lives–things that we do to distract ourselves or turn our brains off. And what I contend and what the evidence kind of largely backs up is that this stuff is actually really meaningful. 

Roman Mars: This is Walt Hickey, data journalist and author of a new book called You Are What You Watch. Walt makes the case for how much film and television shape us as individuals and as a society far beyond what we give them credit for.

Walt Hickey: I say that you are what you watch because obviously it’s alluding to the idea that you are what you eat. But I was just kind of consistently struck how often I found people whose lives were meaningfully or permanently changed by a thing that they watched or people who encountered an idea that ended up changing the course of their lives.

Roman Mars: Today, Walt is here to talk about the delightful, surprising, dark, and sometimes counterintuitive ways movies and TV shaped the world around us and how the world we live in influences the movie world right back. Take, for example, the space race. Immediately after World War II, most people were really skeptical of space travel. And rockets? They were mostly known as deadly weapons that leveled cities during wartime. The notion that we might strap a human to one and send them to space was pretty out there. But that all changed thanks to a popular magazine and the Disney Corporation. 

Walt Hickey: Essentially Collier’s magazine at the time had a massive circulation. It was one of those popular magazines in America. And a journalist from Collier’s had the opportunity to meet Wernher von Braun at a conference. 

Roman Mars: Wernher von Braun was one of Nazi Germany’s top aerospace engineers. After the war ended, Von Braun, along with over a thousand German scientists and engineers, were secretly brought to the United States to lead our space race mission. 

Walt Hickey: And so, you know, over the course of a number of conversations, this becomes a series within Collier’s magazine that is read by millions–that is essentially detailing, “Hey, not only is it possible to get to space with rockets. It’s also possible to get to the moon and explore further beyond that.”

Roman Mars: The series was ambitiously titled Man Will Conquer Space Soon and ran between 1952 and 1954. And among its many readers was the pioneering animator and media mogul Mr. Walt Disney. 

Walt Hickey: And then Disney is obsessed with this. And then all of a sudden, on his nationally broadcast Disneyland television show, he has three different episodes–featuring Von Braun as well as a number of other scientists–but adapting here’s what could actually get us to space, here’s how we can use rockets to get there, here’s what it would be like in orbit, here’s what it means to be in orbit, and here’s how one could hypothetically get to the moon and back. 

Wernher von Braun: If we were to stop today on an organized and well supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within ten years. 

Walt Hickey: And these have a remarkable effect because by the end of the decade, all of a sudden Americans now fully believe, “Oh, yeah, we can get to the moon.” And then over the course of the ’60s, they really start to, you know, obviously believe that will happen within their lifetimes and potentially by the 1980s and then very soon, very imminently. But it really took persuasion because it took kind of a fundamental rebrand of what rocketry and physics could accomplish. And that was done through these big magazine features and, you know, these Disney television programs that were watched by lots and lots of people. 

Roman Mars: Pop culture’s contribution to space exploration didn’t end with Walt Disney. Decades later in the 1990s, not one but two different movies came out about the Earth being hit by a giant asteroid. And these two movies changed everything about how we think about space. 

President: What is this thing? 

Dan Truman: It’s an asteroid, sir. 

President: How big are we talking? 

Prop Analysis Tech: Sir, our best estimate is 97.6 billion– 

Dan Truman: It’s the size of Texas, Mr. President. 

Walt Hickey: Yeah. I love these stories because it’s like Hollywood being influenced by science and then science being influenced by Hollywood because if you look at Armageddon and Deep Impact, those movies happened at the same time. And the reason that they happened at the same time was, you know, shortly before that there was an astronomical event called Shoemaker-Levy. And essentially what happened was there was a comet that entered the solar system. It looked like it was going to crash into Jupiter. And so, we pointed the Hubble at it. And then we literally watched a comet crash into Jupiter. And we got pictures of the comet crashing to Jupiter. We’d never done that before. We’d never seen that happen in real time. And so, this was a sensation because we actually got footage like, “Oh, stuff crashes into things all the time.” This is also shortly after this original idea that an asteroid is the thing that killed the dinosaurs emerges. And so, you have these two things kind of in the ether–kind of just floating in the air at the time. And then that’s what genuinely inspires two films about asteroids potentially coming to hit Earth or, in Deep Impact’s case, a comet. And so, you have that happen. And then it’s years later–it’s in 1999–there’s this congressional hearing about this program called NEOWISE. And NEOWISE is a near-Earth observatory. And the idea is that NASA wants money so they can count the stuff that’s in our neighborhood that’s very small and could potentially hit us. And what gets mentioned during this congressional testimony but Deep Impact and Armageddon? And so, you have a situation where these films emerge because of science being done. And then they went to inform what eventually became funded through NASA of this near-Earth object detection facility. Media–nonfiction and fiction–can have a deep impact… Pardon the pun accidentally. It can have a significant effect on how leaders actually genuinely perceive the world. 

Roman Mars: But sometimes film and TV can give people the wrong idea about how things work in real life. Think of bank heist films. In movies, bank heists are usually portrayed as elaborate, almost military style tactical assaults. But in reality, bank robberies don’t look anything like Inside Man or Heat. 

Walt Hickey: Bank heists are really, truly a declining art. And essentially Hollywood had a very specific idea of what bank heists were. They were very informed by bank heists of the 1930s and kind of this prototypical Bonnie and Clyde style of a takeover, where a bunch of people go in, they brandish guns, they secure the room, and then they empty the safe and then carry things out. It involves a lot of coordination. And, you know, that was a type of crime that happened in that era. That’s kind of a professional style of bank robbery that is just no longer as common. Typically, what you’re going to see now is you get, like, a note-pass and a note that says something threatening, like, “I have a firearm, “I have a bomb,” or something like that. “Give me the money.” And now, typically, the main question of whether or not a crime gets solved is, is that person able to leave the parking lot before the cops arrive? And so, the FBI kept rather detailed statistics on bank crimes over time. And realistically, the idea of a bank takeover was completely out of fashion even in the late ’90s. But we still have this idea of, like, you know, if you think about bank robbery films, they show lots of different ways to rob a bank. 

Neil McCauley: Stay down. We want to hurt no one. We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money. Your money is insured by the federal government. You’re not going to lose a dime. Think of your families. Don’t risk your life. Don’t try and be a hero. 

Roman Mars: But if a bank robber’s normal tactic is passing a threatening note to a teller, there isn’t really a great high tech security system to thwart that. But you write that banks and insurance companies still invest in these sophisticated security systems to stop these takeover style bank heists, even though they don’t really happen in the real world. Like, why is that? 

Walt Hickey: You know, the fantasy of a bank robbery for a very long time informed what people wanted in security out of a bank not because it kept the money safer in the bank but because people wanted to see, “Oh, they’ve got cameras. Oh, they’ve got the safe. Oh, they’ve got this time release mechanism.” Just to assure their customers who were so accustomed to seeing this elaborate style robbery, they had to do these somewhat relatively performative things for a given bank that isn’t going to actually get this kind of a crime. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. People have these completely bogus notions about what a bank robbery looks like because now financial crime is done, you know, on the computer, which doesn’t exactly make for a compelling movie. 

Walt Hickey: Absolutely. And just the efficiency of doing it through crypto or the efficiency of doing it online or any of these kinds of scams that are related to personal persuasion are vastly higher ROI than just an implied stickup, right? The romantic idea of a daring bank robbery is kind of confined to history at this point. 

Roman Mars: Government agencies know how powerful pop culture can be in shaping public opinion at large. So, they’ve learned a way to leverage the film industry to serve their purpose. The U.S. military, in particular, has a long and storied relationship with the movie industry. 

Walt Hickey: The military has been collaborating with Hollywood or the film industry in general since really kind of the beginning. You can go all the way back to how Wings–which is the first Academy Award winning film–was made with support. You know, you need planes, you’re going to call the military. And so, over the course of the early 20th century, it’s very much hand in hand. Obviously, during World War II, there’s an immense collaboration between the motion picture industry and the Pentagon or the then under construction Pentagon, I should say. And then you basically saw propaganda films made by Walt Disney Animation and so on and so forth. By the time they kind of get postwar, there’s still an eagerness to collaborate between the pairs. But it actually gets a little controversial for the military because they collaborated on a film called The Longest Day, which was about the D-Day landings. 

Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort: Your assignment tonight is strategic. You can’t give the enemy a break. Send them to hell. 

Walt Hickey: But unfortunately, they were committing a lot of men and resources to this film at the same time that the Berlin crisis was going on. And that ticked off Congress to no end. And so that kind of put the kibosh on direct collaboration between the military and Hollywood for quite some time. Then you get through the Vietnam era where Hollywood’s not really interested in collaborating with the Pentagon. Like, all the Vietnam movies–all the filmmakers who were making critical films of the U.S. foreign policy establishment–the Pentagon wanted nothing to do with them. And so, as a result, you really saw limited engagement. 

Roman Mars: And then enter Tom Cruise. 

Stinger: I’m going to send you up against the best. 

Maverick: Yes, sir! 

Stinger: You two characters are going to Top Gun. 

Maverick: I feel the need… 

Maverick & Goose: The need for speed.

Walt Hickey: And essentially you have this idea for Top Gun. And very early on in the Top Gun process, they basically reach out to the Navy. And they’re like, “Well, here’s our scripts. And we’d like to make this film. We think that you guys are going to like this film because it’s, you know, a swashbuckling story of a daring fighter pilot.” And they’re basically like, “Let us know what you think.” And the Navy goes over it. And they’re like, “Actually, we think that there’s quite a bit of room for collaboration here. We do have some notes, though.” So, you know, very early on they weigh in, and they’re like, “Okay, so the love interest of Tom Cruise–currently in the script, she works in the Navy. She’s a subordinate officer. We do not want to show that. That’s a thing that we’re trying to play down–that inter-troop relation, so to speak. So, make her a contractor.” 

Roman Mars: Right. 

Walt Hickey: The other thing is, I saw these documents that were essentially the memos that were sent around the Pentagon saying, “Okay, we’re weighing in on the bad guys in Top Gun.” And so, the first memo is typed up, and it’s from the Korea desk at the Pentagon. And it’s like, “Hey. We’ve seen the Top Gun script. We would really strongly prefer if actually the North Koreans were not the bad guys in Top Gun. We think that things are going okay on the Peninsula right now. Don’t want to mess things up. Why don’t you just make them Gaddafi and Libya?” And then scrawled in pencil on the top of that typed memo is: “Hey, it’s the Libya desk. Don’t do that. Just make it a random country that is not named in the film,” because they were seeing that there was an opportunity here to directly influence perceptions of American foreign policy in the relationships that we have, even with adversarial countries in this kind of film. And so, the film was a smash hit. They play coy about exactly the impact that it had on retention and recruitment. But nevertheless, the Navy and even the Air Force, which was not involved with the film, saw an increase in interest in basically becoming a pilot–significant increase in not only how often people wanted to join but just the perception of the competence within these units and in these ranks. And as a result, it fundamentally changed the way that the military perceives Hollywood. All of a sudden, it went from being the Vietnam era–“We don’t mess with those guys, they don’t mess with us”–to “Yeah, sure, you can borrow the USS Abraham Lincoln for a few weeks. You’ll have to cut us a little token check, but, like, yeah, no, we’d love that.”

Roman Mars: And it really does pay off because it was funny when the second Top Gun came out in the last couple of years, there was a lot more joking about the idea that this was a weirdly fictional country with a large mountain range and a coast and, you know, like, whatever– 

Walt Hickey: We’re all trying to find the country that did this.

Roman Mars: But at the time, I don’t think I even registered it back in the ’80s. Of course, I was younger and dumber then, but still. 

Walt Hickey: This is the negotiation. It’s like, “We will lend you an aircraft carrier or even just men in uniform for your film. We just get to approve the script.” And that amount of leverage is–for a filmmaker–a deal that you’ll take because “I can’t build an aircraft carrier. James Cameron might be able to, but most directors can’t.” And then at the same time, it’s just like, “Well, okay. So, they’ll give their notes on the script. They’ll get to tweak it so that you don’t mention potentially PTSD or any of the sexual assault problems that go on in the military. And they’ll get theirs. And then you’ll get yours. You’ll get to borrow a, you know, multi-billion-dollar aircraft carrier for a few days.” But again, like, you know, it does affect the film that does get made. 

Roman Mars: Absolutely. And you also mentioned that it goes the other way–that people in the government agencies watch these movies and get ideas from, you know, fictional government agencies. 

Walt Hickey: Yeah. So, my favorite is there was this guy who retired from the CIA named Robert Wallace who was in the Office of Technical Service. And he basically relayed that, like, once a spy movie would come out into cinemas and be a hit, sometimes the guy who was running the CIA at the time would come to him and be like, “How far along are we on that by the way? When do I get that? How long will it take to make it?”

Roman Mars: Like, some facial recognition–

Walt Hickey: Some gadget that contains something. Yeah. It was within the realm of possibility because it was on screen. And because the use case was demonstrated, they want to know when you can 3D print a face and put it on Tom Cruise. 

Roman Mars: That’s right. I mean, even pretty recently I read that President Biden watched Mission: Impossible 7 and he got a little spooked and he actually signed an executive order with new security measures around AI.

Walt Hickey: Yes! I saw that, and I was like, “Yeah, that tracks.” And part of it is that is that action and geopolitical action movies are not only an interesting film series in their own right, but they’re also very much a continual reflection of national anxieties because it can just kind of show what people get worried about over time and accurately demonstrate, you know, here’s what people and governments in particular should be worrying about next. And oftentimes, they try to stay just a little bit ahead of the headlines.

Roman Mars: I’m a huge fan of what I would call competent porn. Like, I love, you know, watching people good at things do things. Like, if there’s a movie of George Clooney disassembling and reassembling a rifle, I can watch that for three hours. So, you know, these agencies have this incentive to present to the public at large these incredibly capable, unimpeachable, fantastic fighter pilots who cannot be shot down. These are the people that work for the military. And I’m really intrigued by this in terms of police and cop shows. They’re extremely popular. I think they have a huge part in shaping people’s perception of crime and policing. And I think it’s one of those things that when we had this sort of national convulsion over policing during George Floyd, there’s a whole group of people that saw cops in a new way. And a lot of other people were like, “This is how we’ve always seen cops.” And one of the things that they’re fighting against is people’s perception of policing because of their buddies, Stabler and Benson.

Walt Hickey: 100%. There’s this idea that the things that we watch are accurate depictions because they show competent and very talented individuals succeeding at what they do reliably. Broadly speaking, that is kind of by design. So, if you look at the cop shows on TV, they’re made with the assistance of, you know, liaisons from the police department. Even historically, the earliest applications of mass culture and mass media when it comes to cop shows was the glorification of the police and what they accomplished. And so, like, just to talk about Law & Order for a bit, Law & Order first came out in 1990. Homicides in New York City between then and now have gone down 75%. And so, you know, we have seen over the past several decades because of a number of things–not simply just policing–homicides go down very distinctly in most North American cities. And crime goes down just in general, right? However, Americans think that crime goes up every year. Gallup runs a survey every single year where they ask, “Is crime up or down or the same as it was last year?” And majorities time and time again say that crime’s up. And I think that there’s something here because I think the first thing that I notice is that, in 1990, there was one Law & Order on television for 23 episodes a year. And now if I turn on television, there are three Law & Orders. And let’s even set aside all the Law & Order clones–the FBI’s, the Chicago’s, what have you–there are three times as much Law & Order. And there’s three times as much crime in New York City on television as there was when crime was four times higher than it was today. And then the second thing that I notice is that most of the time they win–the cops find the bad guys. And if they don’t find the bad guys, well, they get off because the justice system just can’t handle it. And that is not the case. 56% of homicides were cleared in New York City last year. The clearance rate–the solving crime rate–in New York City for homicide is about 50/50 now. And that’s not abnormal in the United States, to be clear. Part of that–crime is down, but clearance rates are down, too–is because police agencies in this country have more shifted to a deterrence model. The decision was made basically that it makes more sense to have a lot more cops out in every little subway station and on street corners to deter the possibility of crime happening in the first place than it does to have a lot of cops sitting at HQ who then get called when a crime happens to figure out who did it–and then remove people from the population by imprisoning them after solving the fact that they’ve done a crime. That is not represented on television. That is not how these shows operate because part of it is that they focus on elite units, right? And so, they’re focusing on the people who are still hanging out at HQ waiting for the phone to call. But as a result, I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what and how policing works in this country because it is completely unrecognizable with the format that we see displayed on television not just once a week but three times a night. You know, there was a reaction specifically following the death of George Floyd. But–wow–the year before that happened, 60% of dramas on the major networks were police procedurals, cop shows ,and legal dramas. And that is a lot. For many Americans, it’s their most reliable look not just at policing but at cities. I live in Queens; I live in New York. But, like, if I turn on a television from the suburbs, New York’s representation on the screen is a crime infested hellhole that requires the dedicated detectives of the Special Victims Unit’s services one time a week. And like, you know, that is just out of step with actually what is going on in the city over the past 20, 30 years. 

Roman Mars: In your book, I was fascinated by the strange connection between violence in the movies and violence in the real world. I grew up in an era where there was this notion that violent movies get people riled up and then they go out and commit crimes. And I was actually surprised to know that there’s little kernel of truth in that; I always thought it was just complete nonsense. But you also say that violent movies can actually bring crime down. Can you tell me that story? 

Walt Hickey: 100%. I’m obsessed with this story because I think it has genuinely changed the way that I see what the media can do. So, in a laboratory setting, if we show people violent imagery and violent videos, they will become more agitated. They will become more likely in lab tests to react violently or react more aggressively to various different things after being primed. This is known; this has been repeated. So, these two researchers–Stefano DellaVigna and Gordon Dahl–they’re economists. And they were basically just like, “Okay. There’s ample laboratory evidence that showing people aggressive imagery can make them more aggressive. And so, one would think that if you, as we do in this country, release violent films that are seen by hundreds of thousands to millions of people–if you are having these nationwide violence priming events–you should be able to detect that in actual statistics of assaults. If you are having this mass exposure to violence and we know that violence causes potentially more aggressive reactions, that ought to manifest within the data.” And so, they pulled crime data for major American cities for which it was available on every single weekend over the course of several years. And they pulled also weather, which is obviously something of an antagonistic factor sometimes depending on the heat. And then essentially, they realized that they had an actually rather interesting natural experiment, which is that they realized that, you know, we don’t have Released National Violent Movies Day here. There’s no specific day in America that we release violent films. And so, as a result, violent films can be compared apples to apples to nonviolent films that are released in the same weekend of a given year. 

Roman Mars: So, what effect do these violent movies have on crime data? 

Walt Hickey: Not only did they not find evidence that it increased assaults. They actually found evidence that it decreased assaults. And their explanation for this is that if I am–let’s just say–a man between the ages of 16 and 23, which from a public health perspective, those are the people who behave irrationally violent in public most of the time… You have an interesting cocktail of hormones going on. It’s a complicated time in life. Brains aren’t fully developed, but bodies are. And as a result, that’s a lot of folks who are going to impetuously do these kinds of assaults. So, if I’m that kind of guy and I go see a violent film in a cinema for two hours–get there half an hour early, leave half an hour after, drink soda, and eat popcorn–that three hours is three hours that I am not spending outside, I’m not spending doing risky behaviors, and more importantly, I’m not spending drinking. And the single largest correlated factor to behaving violently is alcohol. And so, what you’re doing essentially is you’re turning down all the other risks. You’re having the self-sequestration of people who are–instead of potentially being in dangerous areas and potentially getting up to no good–seeing something violent. And the priming effect, whatever it may be, is overwhelmingly drowned out by what they would have been doing in lieu of that. 

Roman Mars: That is amazing to me. And it’s so much so that ultra-violent things are more effective in this than mildly violent movies because the ultra-violent movies attract the young men. 

Walt Hickey: Yeah. Ideally, you’d be able to sequester people in cinemas, and you would just show them Barbie, right? But in reality, if you want to get people into the cinema, you have to have it be Joker. You have to have it be Saw. You have to have it be something like that. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Yeah. But it also means that if I want to go see Deadpool on a Friday night, I’m surrounded by 17-year-old knuckleheads who want to punch me. 

Walt Hickey: Any one of these men will kill you, Roman.

Roman Mars: After the break, Walt comes back to tell us a surprising story about how the American film industry was completely changed by tax codes. This podcast is brought to you by Squarespace, the all-in-one website platform for entrepreneurs to stand out and succeed online. Everyone knows the holidays can take a toll on your bank account. If you’re looking for creative ways to increase revenue and give your family and friends the holiday treats they deserve, then you need to get started with Squarespace’s new feature, Squarespace Courses. So, say you are a podcaster. Squarespace has all the tools you need to create and sell your own online course in podcasting. Start with a professional layout that fits your brand, upload video lessons to teach techniques and skills, and tailor your course with the powerful, built-in Fluid Engine Editor. With Squarespace Courses, you can create engaging content your audience will love. Then simply add a paywall and set the price. Plus, you can charge a one-time fee or sell subscriptions. Turn your creativity into income with Squarespace Courses. Head to for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, go to to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. That’s So, we’ve talked a lot about how movies influence the world. But there was one story in your book that I love. It’s about how the world, specifically tax codes of all things, influenced how movies are made. Can you tell us that story? 

Walt Hickey: Yeah. I was doing a big lit review, and I found this one footnote that basically suggested that there’s this prevailing theory that, you know, Jaws didn’t invent the blockbuster–Gerald Ford did. And I was like, “What?” So, I, like, went back to the tape to figure out what on earth is this referring to. And there was basically a tax reform that was passed in 1976 that directly changed the way that movies could be funded, where from 1970 to 1976, a very popular form of funding of film happened. You have to remember that at the time, the top marginal tax rate was 80%, 90%. So, if you were a wealthy dentist, that last dollar that you make is mostly going to Uncle Sam. And so there became this kind of scheme. There was an article in Businessweek that was called How to Make Money in Movies, and it talked to these folks. Like, there was articles like, “Hey. I’m in Tax Magazine. Here’s how you should do this stuff. Here’s all that you got to do.” And, like, Bloomberg Businessweek had an entire subsection of a feature in the early ’70s basically saying, “Here’s how to make money by investing in movies.” Basically, you would get a bunch of wealthy people who would put money into a project. They would take out a big loan and invest all the loan into developing the film. And then that would come off to the IRS as a very significant loss on your taxes, even though you only put in a little bit, so you saved a bunch of money. And then that movie would get made and get released, and then you get the proceeds of it. And sometimes it would make money. Sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes you make a lot of money, right? Sometimes you would get a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Shampoo or Dog Day Afternoon. And that was very popular for a number of years. And then the IRS got wise to it. And they were like, “We don’t want this to happen anymore. Please stop this, Congress.” And so, in 1976, they passed this tax reform act. And so typically people understand Jaws came out, it was a huge blockbuster, and changed everything. After Jaws came out, everyone else just started making Jaws. And that’s when the era of the blockbuster movie started. And what this illustrated was that that’s not wrong. Jaws was a huge hit, and people made a lot of movies that look like Jaws–studio-funded, studio director, studio cast, all this kind of stuff–all kind of internally funded. But that’s not the whole picture. It’s like an extinction level event happened for every other kind of movie out there that they couldn’t make anymore because of this tax cleverness that was no longer permitted. And so, a whole kind of class of film could no longer get made. And so, the only kind of film that could get made was these studio-backed productions. 

Roman Mars: That’s so interesting because that whole idea of a bunch of dentists giving you the money to do a movie is, like, such a thing that I didn’t understand what people were talking about when they said it. But, like, I’ve heard of that before. 

Walt Hickey: Sometimes they’re being quite literal. James Cameron made Xenogenesis, I think. It was, like, his first feature. It ended up being a short. But he basically just went to the dentist in town. And I think two dentists put up some checks for him. And then the movie was good enough with the special effects that Roger Corman was like, “All right, you’re with me, Jimmy,” and then got him into the industry as a result. You can see a lot of directors got their start making that kind of film. They got people to take a risk on them to make that kind of film. And, you know, structurally, is the industry succeeding at that anymore? There is some of that in the independent space. But you did kind of have a situation where, like, the IRS was vaguely subsidizing the generation that would become New Hollywood in a lot of different ways. And then, you know, when that went away, it significantly changed the entire market for how you could make a movie. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Yeah. This is great. The book is so much fun. People are going to have so much fun reading it. Thank you so much for talking with me. I appreciate it. 

Walt Hickey: Thank you for having me. I really dig the show. This was a real treat. 

Roman Mars: Walt Hickey’s book is out now. It’s called You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything. It’s got cool charts. It’s got pictures. It’s got short stories that you’ll love–probably one touching on your favorite movie franchise. You should definitely check it out. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Sarah Baik, with assistance and mixing by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Neena Pathak, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California, home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. Other teams may come and go, but the Roots are Oakland first, always. You can find us on all the usual social media sites, as well as our newly launched Discord server. We’re on there talking about the Power Broker and our favorite architecture. There’s even a movie channel where you can talk about what you’re watching. And you can find a link to that, as well as every past episode of 99PI, at

Caleb: Hi! I’m Caleb. I was born with osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bone disease. I’ve broken my bones almost 200 times. I have had 11 surgeries, but I didn’t let that stop me. I love to bike ride, climb, and race. And I’m learning how to stand and walk! Well, I can only do all this because of generous people like you and Shriners Hospitals for Children. 

Shriners Hospitals for Children: Go online now at 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize