Entertaining Warriors in an Avatar Age

By Rick Allen, CEO, SnagFilms

We need neither the nightly news nor the great HBO series The Pacific to remind us of the painful mix of horror and boredom that is the daily lot of those who serve our country in wartime.  We expect warriors to summon heroism as easily as snapping a salute, but even the safest civilian realizes instinctively that it isn’t so simple.  And we know the demands that service also places on families of those in action – or headed to or returning from the fight.  For both warriors and families, across seven decades, the USO has created oases of normalcy in a world turned upside down.

Entertainment has always been a key element of the USO’s approach, and now a tradition that has stretched from Bob Hope and Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe, to Kid Rock and Master P and Carrie Underwood, is adding a new online element. The USO and SnagFilms are working together to bring the best in documentary films to the more than 130 USO Centers around the world.  We have pulled together a special “USO Theater” that will live on computers at USO Centers, and can be shared among service members, families and communities, and placed on blogs and facebook pages.  Just as in a real theater, viewers will be able to see full length films – this time, for free.  We’ll swap out the films regularly with others from our library of over 1150 titles.  Below you’ll see this week’s selections:

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more about “Browse Section: USO Theater“, posted with vodpod

I’d welcome thoughts of films we should offer.  We’ve approached this in the way that the USO has traditionally viewed entertainment – primarily as a release and an opportunity to focus on something other than the central mission. So although SnagFilms has terrific films on all aspects of our current action in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts, the USO Theater will offer other topics. We’re particularly pleased to include a world premiere of a movie that is quintessentially American and yet features an intense competition that’s as far removed from combat as you can imagine: fantasy baseball. The film is Fantasyland; it’s from the producers of Hotel Rwanda, Year of the Yao and An Education. It is a hilarious look at a growing pastime – more than 34 million Americans have played fantasy sports – through the eyes of a young Wall Streeter for whom success in a legendary pros league overwhelms every other aspect of his life. You’ll see that less than a 90 foot base-path separates “fan” from “fanatic”.

We’re also offering Return to Tarawa.  It’s the only military-themed film in this month’s USO Theater, but we violate our general rule for a reason: Return to Tarawa not only covers why we fought one of the bloodiest engagements in WWII, but what we must do now. It’s the story of, Leon Cooper, who served in the Pacific campaign and is waging a new battle to identify and repatriate the remains of his fallen comrades.  Thanks to Discovery’s Military Channel, we first showed Leon’s story last Memorial Day; since then, it’s been not only one of our most-viewed films, but has also led to Congressional action asking the Department of Defense to bring these fallen home. Return to Tarawa reminds us that we owe a societal debt to those who defend us … and proves the point that you should never mess with a vet!

In WWII alone, more than 1.5 million volunteers supported the troops through USO, including giving more than 420,000 performances. That tradition is very much alive today, and with the many new initiatives led by its President, Sloan Gibson, including the new Wounded Warrior Center at Walter Reed, the USO will continue to connect our service members and their families with the communities they defend. At SnagFilms, we are proud to work with them. We hope our USO Theater will top that 420,000 performance mark before this Memorial Day – and by sharing films through the USO and with one another, we will entertain those who serve, and energize those who are protected. Think of it as our digital care-package and enjoy.

A Reality Check

From the Desk of John Hanson, SVP of Communications at the USO:

Oscar-nominated actor Jeremy Renner and TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll at the TAPS screening of The Hurt Locker in August 2009.

Okay.  Maybe it’s time to take a breath about The Hurt Locker. [Ed. note: take a moment to read an interview with the film’s Anthony Mackie and see how he supports the troops.] Some vets are offended that it wasn’t completely accurate.  Fair enough.   It wasn’t a documentary.  Films about, say journalists (All the President’s Men, or Broadcast News, for example) aren’t, either, but they’re entertaining and provide SOME insight.  I’m not all that sure Wall Street was completely accurate, but it was educational in a way.

So, Hurt Locker, didn’t provide absolute accuracy.  The explosions were too pretty for my taste, but it was a feature film.  What can we take from it?

There’s a feeling across the land that Americans aren’t engaged in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.  Americans feel it, veterans sense it, and that might be what we should expect.

There’s no draft.  Until the 70s, if there was an 18-year-old male in a household, there was at least a reasonable chance that he’d be in the military.  Today, that isn’t the case.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for a draft.  Today’s military is too good to go back to that model.  But, as great and talented and committed as our troops are, they’re a really small part of the population.  When they get out of the military, they tend to do what every generation of veterans does – go to school, get jobs, raise families and be extremely valuable parts of their communities.

Few wear their decorations on their suits.  Very few even let you know they served, unless you ask them.  They just become the strongest threads of the fabric of this country.

Part of me would like welcome home parades and all that kind of thing.  A big part of me would love for the country to take a moment – it can even be a random moment – to thank troops and their families for their service and sacrifice.  Not because those of us who served a generation ago didn’t get that, but because it would be a proper and polite thing to do.  It’s about more than thanking a service member in an airport.  It’s about more than misting up on Memorial Day.  It’s about recognizing that service and sacrifice are responsibilities each of us bears in different ways.  Some just run the risk of paying a higher price.

And, understand the stress of one deployment to Afghanistan to Iraq can be debilitating in some ways.  Never mind 3 or 4 deployments.  These troops and vets need our support and understanding.  Our wounded warriors shouldn’t be ignored, either.

So, maybe this Best Picture Academy Award® (I love trademarks) winner deserves something more from us.  Maybe it requires that we look at it as a learning opportunity.  In our communities there are OIF/OEF vets quietly putting their lives back together, and they are doing their part to making our lives better.

Let’s return the favor.

Hurt Locker Star Anthony Mackie Salutes Our Troops

By Brian Price, Reporter for SNY

[Ed. note – Be sure to check out the companion post to this article, “Big East Salutes Our Troops,” where Price interviewed USO tour veteran and Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey, among others.]

After being on stage for the “Hurt Locker’s” Oscar win for best picture, Anthony Mackie has continued to tear it up on Broadway in the hit “A Behanding in Spokane.” He’s part of an all-star cast featuring Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, and Zoe Kazan. Mackie discussed the new show, his experience filming “The Hurt Locker,” and his appreciation for our servicemen and women with USO guest writer, Brian Price.

BP: Oscar night: You’re on stage after the “Hurt Locker” has just won best picture. Who came out the biggest winner?

AM: I’d say it was a 50/50 even split between the award being ours and it also belonging to all the men and women in the armed services who we made the film for. We all went into that movie with the right frame of mind. We didn’t go in thinking it would win best picture or that it would even get nominated. The only expectation we had was to go in, work hard, and do the best job possible. The thing about “Hurt Locker” that moved everybody so much was that it resonated so deeply with the men and women in the military. That was something that we made ourselves aware of everyday [when filming]: We were doing this to tell their story. The film is about the lives that are being [risked and] sacrificed for our freedom as American citizens.

BP: What did you do to prepare for your role as Sergeant JT Sanborn?

AM: Spending time on chat rooms and being on the internet gave me a great chance to talk to individuals who were serving all over the world. I would just log on, find a soldier and ask a question.

I spoke with a Sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He told me that at the end of the day, he joined the military thinking that it would give him a way to provide for his family and get his college degree.  He never realized the reality that he might not make it home alive. He never considered that he might not see his family again or that he might not be able to give his wife a baby. Hearing that was something I thought about, and continue to think about, everyday.

BP: Where did you film?

AM: We were stationed in Amman, Jordan for the majority of the filming. When we first arrived I didn’t know what to expect but I was so taken aback by how humble and welcoming the people there were. They were so kind and really tried to incorporate us into every aspect of their culture. It was a great experience for me and my co-stars, Jeremy Renner and Brian Geraghty.

BP: Was the overall experience of being there life changing?

AM: Yes. The thing about the Middle East is you’re walking through history. Everyday we had off we would go down to Aqaba or to Shonasheck. We’d also go down to the Red Sea or Petra. Filming in the Middle East gave us a chance to see so many amazing places. We were 25 minutes from the Dead Sea. We were a stones throw from Saudi Arabia and Israel. Having access to all these historical locations always gave us a chance to take a trip, clear our minds, and appreciate where we were and the importance of what we were involved in.

BP: While filming the Hurt Locker did sports help to maintain your mental sanity. Was it part of what you did recreationally?

AM: No, I wish. I played rugby once and just got pummeled and never played again. [laughs].

Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie played Sergeant JT Sanborn in the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker.

BP: How has John Crowley influenced your experience while starring in “A Behanding in Spokane?”

AM: My understanding of the play and my approach towards the play has changed (since we first started.) I’ve never done a comedy before. John Crowley took a huge risk by casting me in this play. John is such an amazing director because he really hones in beat to beat, moment to moment of the story. Not that many directors do that type of work. Because of his [fearless direction] the audience is presented with a very unique type of play. It all works so well. Spokane is not melodramatic or offensive. It’s not boring. You can sit for an hour and 30 minutes and be entertained from beginning to end. The work that John put in with the actors when rehearsals first began to the last preview set a tone. Not details were overlooked.

BP: Is Christopher Walken really a wild man?

AM: Not at all. I had heard so much about Chris coming in and I expected this [other worldly] person. He’s just a tame and totally regular dude. [laughs]. He doesn’t go out or party after the show. He doesn’t run around set doing crazy stuff. He comes in, has his little home prepared salad, we talk about politics and current events and after the show he goes home.

BP: He’s supposed to be a great cook. Can you confirm that?

AM: No, not yet but I did give him my recipe for brisket which he loved. [many laughs]

BP: What’s your take on March Madness this year?

AM: I will say that the refs kind of robbed Robert Morris of a victory over Villanova. I pull for those Cinderellas and I think there are a lot of teams that could be big surprises. I would love to see Sienna make a run. But the truth is if Kansas plays to their potential they’re going to be hard to stop. I think the Jayhawks are going all the way. Additionally, I would love to see Cal get knocked out in the first round.

BP. And other thoughts on sports?

AM. I’m hoping my Saints go undefeated next year. [laughs.]

BP: Favorite New York City restaurant?

AM: My New York is very quiet. Gansevoort 69 down in the West Village is one of my favorite restaurants.

Hallmark Channel’s “Meet My Mom Virtual Wall” Connects Families for Mother’s Day

This Mother’s Day, Hallmark Channel, America’s premier family-friendly entertainment company, is pulling double duty in not only celebrating the moms we love, but also the soldiers who protect our freedoms every day with the Hallmark Channel in HD Original Movie “Meet My Mom,” premiering Saturday, May 8 (9p.m. ET/PT, 8C).

As the film’s premiere approaches, Hallmark Channel is seizing the opportunity to celebrate moms and, in particular, military families, Hallmark Channel’s Facebook page will play host to a unique ‘Meet My Mom Virtual Wall,’ where not only viewers, but soldiers serving in all parts of the world, can submit photos, testimonials and videos as a tribute to their own moms.

Beginning March 17, soldiers can go to and upload photos of them and their moms, 60 second videos or text testimonials.  The interactive forum will go live on April 19 for all to see, and is just a small way to connect families who are far apart this Mother’s Day.
“90210” and “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin stars in the impactful story as Dana, a recent divorcee whose son becomes pen pals with Vince, a solider serving overseas.  When Vince returns stateside on leave, he visits his young friend, only to fall for Dana.  But with another tour of duty on the horizon, Dana must decide if she has the strength to love someone whose life is constantly in harm’s way.“Meet My Mom” starring Lori Loughlin, Stefanie Powers and Johnny Messner premieres Saturday, May 8 (9p.m. ET/PT, 8C) exclusively on Hallmark Channel.

EPIX and the USO Connect Families by Bringing the Theater to Your Living Room

Imagine viewing the biggest blockbusters online with your loved one serving in the military.  You see the same film at the same time – it’s almost like you’re in the theater together!  Now troops at four domestic military bases – Ft. Carson, Ft. Drum, Ft. Bliss, and at the USO Service Center in the DFW Airport in Dallas, TX – can participate in a screening room pilot program, courtesy of the USO and EPIX.

Epix for USO

These screening rooms let troops stationed stateside to chose from a wide variety of films and events in an online, on demand format.  Troops can then invite their families and friends in other parts of the country to chat and watch movies online with them.  To participate, troops can request an invite code at a dedicated USO landing page: Click here to visit this page!

Want to learn more?  Check out this short video from EPIX:

Currently this program is only available to Troops at the above locations.  If you know someone stationed there, pass this along!  Already tried EPIX?  Let us know what you think in the comments section below!