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Blog: Pharma vs. The movies: Battle of the blockbusters

Rachel Howard, May 2020

Over the last few weeks living in lockdown, many of us (myself included) have found ourselves working our way through the back catalogues of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and the like to keep ourselves entertained.  Since Covid-19 first emerged earlier this year, the 2011 drama Contagion has shot back up the charts to become one of the most watched films online

Film reel
Film reel

Over the last few weeks living in lockdown, many of us (myself included) have found ourselves working our way through the back catalogues of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and the like to keep ourselves entertained.  Since Covid-19 first emerged earlier this year, the 2011 drama Contagion has shot back up the charts to become one of the most watched films online

At first I was surprised – isn’t a disaster movie about a pandemic the last thing people want to watch when they’re actually living through one in real life!? But then I thought, perhaps entertainment like this is a way of helping us make sense of the complexity and confusion that is currently surrounding us. Lending us a narrative to anchor ourselves to, by telling us a story that can structure the ongoing uncertainty into something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Especially since Contagion feels like an eerily prescient depiction of current events - although fortunately we haven’t (yet?) experienced quite the same level of raging anarchy, looting and shooting.

Working in biopharma, it struck me how the movie’s only references to pharma portray the industry in a less than positive light - killing monkeys and a suggestion the industry is profiteering from the crisis. Unlike what we are seeing today, where multiple pharma companies, biotechs and other industry players are involved in collaborating to develop vaccines, Contagion’s vaccine was a purely government-led initiative without any private enterprise. 

That said, pharma comes off rather more lightly than in other apocalyptic / zombie movies such as I Am Legend, World War Z, 28 Days Later and Resident Evil. These use variations of ‘scary’ science around viruses and laboratories to trot out the familiar trope of the ‘miracle cure’ spun by some big bad pharma corporation that goes on to mutate and threaten humanity. 

This got me thinking about the cinematic portrayal of the pharmaceutical industry more broadly. So I decided to make the most of my time in self-isolation and rewatch a few iconic pharma movies from the last decade. I’m not a huge fan of horror, so I decided to focus on those that depicted real events. (These criteria mean I exclude many ‘classics’ of the genre: honourable mentions to The Fugitive, The Constant Gardner, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Side Effects). Potential spoiler alerts ahead.

  • Love & Other Drugs (2010) is essentially a rom-com, but the plot is based on an insider memoir from a former Pfizer sales rep.  The ‘ironic twist’ is that while Jake Gyllenhaal’s character finds himself successfully selling Viagra (using a multitude of unethical marketing practices that pharma has spent years actively trying to distance itself from), the woman he falls for (Anne Hathaway) is living with Parkinson’s disease, for which pharma has no cure. 

  • Dallas Buyers Club (2013), a personal favourite, is based on the true story of based on the real life of Ron Woodroof, a man who contracted HIV in 1985 and – after reacting badly to illegally purchased AZT – went to great lengths to acquire non-FDA approved medications from other countries, and distribute them to other patients in his neighbourhood. The FDA is painted as the villain, in the pocket of the pharma companies and too bureaucratic to respond adequately to the AIDS crisis. The truth is more nuanced, with many of the drugs imported by Woodroof proving ineffective, and more leniency to buyers’ clubs and underground trials on the part of the regulatory authorities than the movie suggested. 

  • Dying to Survive (2018) – a low budget Chinese dark comedy that proved a surprise hit and opened up debate about healthcare costs in China.  In an international parallel with Dallas Buyers Club, the plot focuses on the true story of Lu Yong, a leukaemia patient who resorted to smuggling cheap generic drugs from India when he couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket for the treatment his doctors prescribed (Novartis’ Glivec), which at the time was not reimbursed by China’s national medical insurance. The movie has been credited with prompting China to speed up access to oncology drugs and aggressively pursue price cuts. 

My conclusion from my movie marathon? While Hollywood and pharma both love a blockbuster, it seems most movies that hit the big screen fail to fully understand the roles, responsibilities and purpose of pharma. Maybe that just makes for more exciting cinema – every story needs an antagonist, and in this context, it’s easy to see how remote, faceless corporate giants like pharma companies could lend themselves to being demonized for dramatic purposes.  With movies currently in the works about pharma’s role in the opioid crisis and the Theranos blood testing scandal, this trend looks set to continue.

However when digging deeper, particularly into the realm of indie cinema, there are positive stories to be found.  Inspirational real patient stories, and pharma’s contribution to improving their lives, are highlighted in the annual Rare Film Festival, for example. Extraordinary Measures (2010) is exceptional in its positive portrayal of the industry, telling the story of a family seeking treatment for their children’s Pompe disease, a rare genetic lysosomal storage disorder. Again based on a true story, the movie not only raises awareness of the disease, it also sheds light onto the process of bringing a new drug to the market, and the compromises that have to be made to navigate through the economic realities. 

There are plenty of other good news pharma stories out there that could potentially be told on the big screen. The successful approval of Ervebo, the world’s first Ebola vaccine, for example. Or other significant contributions to global human health, such as direct-acting antivirals making hepatitis C a curable disease, and transforming HIV/AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic condition. 

With over 100 vaccines and at least as many drugs and therapies being investigated in the current fight against Covid-19, biopharma technologies currently look like our best hope to find a way out of this pandemic. Does this potentially offer pharma a chance to rebuild its reputation from a PR standpoint? Surely plenty of movies will be made about this time in the future. With pharma companies increasingly connecting with their customers via social media and moving away from being the ‘faceless corporations’ of the past, perhaps this crisis will ultimately present an opportunity for pharma to finally tell its own story and take back control of the narrative?

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