Several years ago I shot a movie in Mexico. On the first day of shooting I woke up at 4 AM to some shitty news. According to one of our local transportation guys, the trucks and the entire Mexican crew failed to show up for work.
Why? “Because they got arrested.”
Now, I’m thinking some serious shit would have to go down for the entire crew to get arrested. Was there a brawl? Did they decide to rob a bank the night before?
“Policia said they didn’t have the necessary permits,” my transportation guy told me.
I knew right away that was nonsense. I saw the permits, I signed the check myself. I had the damn receipt in my bag. Everyone had the right permits.
“They said you need some other permit,” my guy explained. “They said if you pay $5,000 cash they’ll release them.”
That’s when it made sense. They wanted a bribe. Maybe ransom is a better word.
I wish I could tell you that I raised hell, called a local politician, and alerted the media. I wish I could say I pressed charges against those corrupt cops and became a legend in Hollywood for pushing back against injustice.
But none of that happened. Instead, I paid the bribe.
Some Corruption is Systemic
Later on in the same production, I noticed we were spending a ton of cash on gasoline. Every production buys gas for trucks and vans to move people and equipment around, but we were spending way too much for a production of its size.
We spent $7,000/week when we should have been spending – at the most – 4 bloody-grand.
It didn’t take me long to uncover the corruption.
You see, a production doesn’t haul every vehicle to the gas station when it needs fuel. Instead, we fill a tanker at a gas station and drive it to the site to fill up the individual vehicles.
As it turns out, the Mexican police would wait for us to fill up the tanker, then steal the fucking gas! They would stop the truck and fill up their cars and motorcycles, then call every cop in the area, and then call their family and friends. One asshole called his dentist to fill up.
Once the cops had their fill, the tanker would return to the station and refill before returning back to our shooting location. This meant we were going through gas at twice the speed.
Quite the bribe, right?
Unfortunately, this was a bribe we couldn’t afford. I hate to say it, but often it’s easiest to just pay the bride. This time we couldn’t.
But what could we do? The cops are the people who are supposed to stop this kind of corruption, yet they were happy to bleed us dry. We thought about going over their heads to a different agency, but that had the potential of causing a giant shitstorm I couldn’t deal with. Mexico is essentially a failed state full of corruption that is bleeding its people dry and the police seem to be at the center of most of it.
We ended up hiring a tanker from far away who would drive a hundred miles each time it needed to deliver fuel. It was expensive, but cheaper than paying off the fucking cops.
Bribery is a Fact of Commerce
Sadly, those aren’t my only bribery stories – just my most dramatic ones. There has been hundreds of thousands of dollars handed out over the course of my career all of the world. Most of the time it happens without any fanfare. A palm opens. Bills are inserted – or a pallet of new MacBook Pros get dropped at a local police station.
Most of my bribery stories take place in other countries where the legal system is more… pliable… and bribes are part of the culture. You’ll notice the friends and family of those cops (and that fucking dentist) didn’t mind swiping our gas.
The funny part is that pretty much anyone will tell you that bribery is wrong. Demanding payment for favorable treatment or for something you’re supposed to do is clearly evil.
But it happens everywhere, in every industry, including Hollywood.
The United Nations reports that more than $1 trillion (3% of the world’s GDP) is paid annually in bribes.
One. Trillion. Dollars.Everyone will tell you that bribery is wrong, but it happens in every industry, including Hollywood. Click To Tweet
In a 2017 survey from Transparency International, 25% of people worldwide said they had to pay a bribe to access public services in the past 12 months. Unsurprisingly, 57% said their government is bad at fighting corruption. Police and elected officials were ranked as the “most corrupt.”
Naturally, this isn’t uniform in every place in the world. Research from the Rotman Business School reports that bribes differ greatly across cultures. In some places, bribes are a way of life. Bribery transactions happen in the open amongst “respectable” people. They happen in government offices!
Where are bribes more common? Generally speaking, they happen more in western countries. Psychological research shows that people are more likely to demand and pay bribes in places with lower levels of collectivism.
Basically, if being part of the group is really fucking important to you, you’re less likely to get involved in bribery. But if you live in a culture that values independence, there’s a higher chance you’ll see bribery as less ethically dubious.
Bribery in the Film Industry
China is a massive market. The standard of living in that country is rising rapidly. Those people are falling all over themselves to consume media content.
However, the government keeps a tight leash on what gets made and distributed in China. They insist that foreign films (American films are foreign in China, remember) depict China positively. They often demand Chinese actors, crew, and sets. (Have you noticed how many blockbusters have a China element these days?)
So when I heard in 2012 that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was investigating whether some of the biggest studios in Hollywood paid bribes to Chinese officials to get their movies made and shown there, you know what I thought?
No shit. Of-fucking-course they are.
Hollywood has been trying to get into China for decades. If those Chinese officials are opened to bribery, Hollywood types were going to pay them.
We’re not talking small companies, either. I don’t want to reprint the names here, but the SEC investigated the big studios and distributors. You would recognize most of the names on their list.
Most bribes don’t happen on that kind of scale, however. Most are little gestures. A few dollars here for expedited paperwork. A couple bucks there for the right permit.
The thing about a bribe is that it’s hard to pin down. Paying a police officer to release your crew who were arrested to collect a ransom is clearly a bribe. But what about…
- Paying someone to introduce you to someone else.
- Holding over a screen at an exhibitor and promising that they will get the next big studio release in a couple of weeks
- Slipping $100 to a private company’s employee to put your application on the top of the stack.
- Paying for a producer’s dinner so he’ll consider hiring your transportation company on his next production.
- Free tickets to whatever shit an executive wants
- Casting an unknown actress (who’s acting skills have been described as “wooden”) to get a better deal on another project.
- Forcing a screen in a circuit that an exhibitor wants to give to another studio just to block a competitive film from screening
Are those bribes? Hard to say, but that kind of stuff is everywhere. There’s an argument to be made that all of them are ethically questionable, but the world is ethically questionable.
If you go into an industry with the intention of holding yourself up to a moral standard that no one else abides by, you’ll basically guarantee your own failure.
So Should You Bribe People?
If you’re working in the U.S., no, you shouldn’t bribe anyone. But no one is going to kidnap your crew until you pay up.
That said, you’ll find no shortage of creative business opportunities that feel like bribery. If you don’t consider those opportunities, you’ll erode your ability to succeed Just don’t break the law.
If you’re working in a foreign country… Use your best judgement. In some places (like Mexico) it’s hard to think of bribery as breaking the law when the law men demand the bribes. Bribery is part of the process and built into and buried deep in your budget.
Sometimes keeping yourself out of jail and getting the project done means greasing a palm.