Lights, Camera, Action…And Maybe A Little Military Oversight
Budget, casting, storylines, and filming locations are all production essentials. But when the script has a military theme, many Hollywood producers travel to the Pentagon. Their mission: to capture the support of a guy named Strub.
To the casual observer, Hollywood’s ties to the Department of Defense may seem somewhat covert. However, it’s anything but. In fact, it’s big enough that the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps have offices in Los Angeles specifically targeted at the entertainment industry. Further, in the heart of our nation’s capital, an obscure film liaison unit operates out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Meet Philip M. Strub, the Pentagon’s Director of Entertainment Media, better known as the “Hollywood Liaison”.
Strub is “the guy” who gives his thumbs up or down to movie and television producers’ requests for military cooperation.  With Strub’s nod comes low-cost access to military weapon systems, hardware, and a cadre of military advisors — all flown to location. Few know those combat helicopters in “Black Hawk Down” and aircraft and ships in “Pearl Harbor” and “Captain Phillips” were actually provided at cost by the Defense Department.
So what’s the catch? It’s a big one — content development. Accepting the importance of artistic license, Strub and his team of advisors collaborate with filmmakers to drive a reasonable level of authenticity and feasibility into productions.  Films depicting soldiers as pure villains are unlikely to make Strub’s cut. Those involving the moral gray areas of warfare and racism just might — witness “Rules of Engagement,” “Men of Honor,” and “Tuskegee Airmen”. If Strub has anything to do with it, America’s military will be portrayed as working for the greater good, including the defeat of an alien invasion.  (Did anyone catch how our soldiers teamed up with the Autobots in “Transformers”?)
Okay, so maybe it’s a bit weird that the Defense Department is influencing the content development of films made in America. But this is hardly the NSA eavesdropping — it’s totally optional. In exchange for a reasonably authentic and reasonably feasible script come some large perks for production. Such perks include; access to fighter jets, tanks, submarines, and other big ticket items “at cost,” potential use of military personnel paid by Uncle Sam (read: not subject to the Screen Actors Guild daily minimum rates or residuals), and an on-location project officer to advise and assist with military matters.  Sounds like producing on a Sequestration budget.
A quick review of two recent movies demonstrates the upside of such collaboration. Filming “Captain Phillips” entailed a U.S. military guided missile destroyer, an assault ship, helicopters, and members of the famous SEAL Team 6. All of this came courtesy of the U.S. Navy, who simply worked the shoot into their training. As it turns out, it’s cheaper to shoot on real military ships: despite numerous action scenes and A-list actors, producing “Captain Phillips” with the military’s involvement cost nearly $50 million less than the visual effects-heavy “Gravity.” “Lone Survivor,” another approved-by-Strub script, was shot on a mere $40 million dollar budget at Kirkland Air Force Base. The military didn’t charge any location fees whatsoever. Why? Kirkland was a training ground for the Special Forces Unit that rescued the Navy SEAL who inspired the film. 
Newsflash: the Defense Department and Hollywood don’t always strike a deal. The access to information and equipment allows Strub to essentially control what facts, dialogue, and scenes are in or out, according to military discretion. Some filmmakers and producers prefer not to compromise on their creative content or feel pushed into the Pentagon’s agenda of positive depiction to protect recruiting potential.  Just ask the producers of “Zero Dark Thirty.” They soldiered on without Strub’s approval, ultimately fielding their own military force by using computer-generated imagery to simulate humans and renovated helicopters to simulate those used by Special Operations forces. There is nothing wrong with having total content control and producing on your own terms.
In the end, the Hollywood-Pentagon partnership is really one of mutual benefit and exploitation. In exchange for consideration on the creative licensing front, Hollywood can tap into the military’s arsenal and expertise at cost while Strub portrays America’s military on the Pentagon’s cue. Declining costs in computer animation and a growing public domain of military information are sure to shape the ongoing joint force partnership. Even so, Phil Strub and his team remain a unique target of opportunity.