Samuel Goldwyn once famously answered criticism that his company’s films lacked artistic merit with a biting, “Pictures are for entertainment. Messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

That’s more or less where J. Kelly Nestruck stands, too, in a discussion of the movie Syriana, a political thriller and indictment of the oil industry:

I just don’t believe that making fictional movies is an effective way to create social change — and certainly not an efficient one. I often think of all the filmmakers who made anti-Bush movies in the lead-up to the 2004 election; if they had spent even one-tenth of that time and energy knocking on doors in Pennsylvania instead of preaching to the art-house converted (I’m looking at you, John Sayles), the United States would now have a different president — one less tied to oil interests. How many solar-panelled roofs could Syriana’s $50-million budget have bought?

(Kelly brings the discussion to his blog, as well. Yours truly attempts to play movie critic in the comments section.)

There’s no word yet on Syriana‘s box-office success, with the film still in only narrow buzz-building release. (The jury is in on Sayles’ Silver City, however, and the verdict was harsh… critically and financially. I hate to say it, but I’d have voted to convict, too.)

But Syriana’s makers aren’t relying on ticket sales and café conversations alone to drive the movie’s political impact. And that may be where politically-minded filmmakers are starting to answer Kelly’s critique.

Participant Pictures has launched Participate.net, an online community for political discussion and action spurred by its movies. Those films include North Country; Good Night, and Good Luck; the documentary Murderball; and Syriana. The front page of the site links each movie to a set of campaigns visitors can join, on issues such as violence against women, media independence and alternative energy.

There’s also a network of bloggers, encouraged by public recognition, vigorous debate and a pretty sweet prize for blogger of the month. (The site offers a site-wide RSS feed as well as feeds for each blog.)
Get ready to see a lot more of this from other studios. In the conversational world of the emerging web, movies shouldn’t expect to just send a message; the online public increasingly demands the opportunity to talk that message over — and if it resonates with them, to act on it.

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