A message from Hollywood

Marianne Macdonald on how Scot Nats are exploiting Mel Gibson's latest movie
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The Independent Online
William Wallace, the Scottish hero played by Mel Gibson in the new film Braveheart, was hanged, disembowelled and beheaded in 1305 for resisting the English. His misfortune is the Scottish National Party's gain. It is leafleting viewers of the movie with the slogan: "You've seen the movie - now face the reality."

The reality is, of course, that this fiercely partisan Scottish movie was filmed in Ireland using extras from the Irish army, but this is an irrelevant detail to the SNP. For Braveheart offers a perfect opportunity to emphasise the message of devolution and launch a recruitment drive: "Today, it's not just bravehearts who choose independence, it's also wise heads," the leaflets read.

The campaign is the latest example of the way in which political parties, charities, products and even countries are cottoning on to the marketing opportunities of Hollywood. A film made purely for profit by a Hollywood studio can be a vehicle not just for the star, but for entirely unconnected groups who spot its recruitment, awareness-boosting or fund-raising possibilities. The crumbs from the film industry's multi-million pound table can be extremely lucrative.

The SNP's initiative marksthe second time this year a tale of Highland gore has been hijacked. Rob Roy's marketing potential was piggy-backed by the entire Scottish tourist industry. In the US audiences were treated to a freephone number for the Scottish Tourist Board. Cinema-goers who rang were sent a holiday planning guide, while leaflets explained how to reach the locations featured.

Scotland's hills and glens - or even the stirring message of Scottish independence - sell themselves in a way in which physical or mental disabilities cannot. Charities struggling to raise funds for obscure and unromantic disorders rarely get the opportunity presented by an entire blockbusting movie dedicated to their subject.

In 1989 Rain Man, the film featuring Dustin Hoffman as the autistic but talented Raymond Babbitt, came out. The free publicity alone was manna from heaven for the National Autistic Society, introducing autism to millions at a stroke.The society raised pounds 40,000 from the UK premiere and ran an appeal for donations to the "Rain Man Fund" when the film was released on video. The Spastics Society (now called Scope) did not, however, take the opportunity to exploit My Left Foot, the film about a brilliantly talented cerebral palsy sufferer.

Animal films have long been ripe for exploitation. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society raised cash and recruited members from listing its number at the end of Free Willy, Warner Brothers' film about Keiko, the captive killer whale. "Environmentalists are increasingly realising that Hollywood is an avenue," says Chris Stroud, campaigns director at WDCS.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which campaigns to protect mountain gorillas in Rwanda, was delighted when Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver, hit the screen. Volunteers handed out leaflets at screenings, raising pounds 70,000 and bringing in 2,000 recruits - enough to establish a British office. Far more importantly, it meant that millions of people understood what the charity was trying to do. "It means we never have to cold-call people. It has taken us three or four steps ahead," says Greg Cummings, the UK director.

Advertising, of course, has always exploited the power of the big screen, as shown by the unlikely marriage of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and the absurdly titled margarine "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter". The television advertisement has a herd of cows marching down a lane in suits machine-gunning a sign for butter.

One could argue that Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump marketed the concept of the American dream, and thus raised American morale, although Gump's IQ was not ideal in PR terms. In a similar vein, the shower of lottery movies which threatens to burst over the next year in Britain may provide a boost for the Government.

But what John Major really needs is a vehicle of his own. Perhaps a version of The Picture of Dorian Gray with a twist: in this version, the politician hero becomes less and less grey and more and more decisive every year.