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I have had little to no interest in a movie that claims it is "Based On a True Story" since Fargo. It's well known that it was a lie that Fargo was based on a true story. There are many movies though that alter so much of the real story though that they end up more fiction than reality. So what is the point of putting "Based on a True Story" in the movie description?

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I find it's more a marketing gimmick than an accurate description of the origins of a particular story. –  Bernard Jul 12 '12 at 0:22
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Because if they didn't put "Base on a true story" and claimed it to be a true account, but had made changes to the story to make it fit a 3 act structure more, then the people portrayed in the film might complain or file suit for defamation of character. I'm guessing that it's an essential legal precaution. –  Jamie Taylor Jul 12 '12 at 8:17
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"Based on a true story" is quite different from "A true story". "Based on" just indicates your "basis" or starting point. Where you go from there is, obviously, completely unrestricted. Therefore, such claims are accurate. In fact, given that many (most?) writers base stories on their own experiences, they could really claim that every story is "Based on a true story". –  Phong Jul 12 '12 at 18:03
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Phong and Jamie Taylor did you mean to make comments or enter Answers? Both of your comments sound like answers. –  Kevin Howell Jul 13 '12 at 14:26
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It means "not necessarily anything like the true story", but they don't want you to notice this. –  dmckee Jul 15 '12 at 4:52
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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Lots of reasons:

  • Usually, the creative team wishes to use artistic license to make the story more entertaining. They might condense the time frame, eliminate or combine minor characters, imagine sequences or conversations that cannot be known, or leave parts out that seem to distract from the primary story.
  • There may be a fear of litigation if they don't get the story exactly right.
  • There may be a wish to protect innocent parties.
  • The creators heard a great story and wanted to use it as a starting point for their own creation, yet they still wanted to give credit for the idea.
  • The creators want to build believability in from the start, so they give you the subtitle to pique your interest (which in your case does the opposite). The subtitle "Based on a True Story" has been so overutilized by cheap television productions emanating from salacious headlines, that it does tend to make you want to run!

In literature, sometimes an author (think Erik Larson) will publish a book as non-fiction even though it has fictionalized dialogue and a certain degree of supposition, which I find equally annoying. James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces contained enough fabrication that libraries don't know where to put it! If the story (movie or book) is interesting enough, "based on a true story" always makes me want to research the true story.

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Good Answer I like the different points for why it is used. Especially the fifth point of wanting to build believability. I've never thought of it in that term before. –  Kevin Howell Jul 17 '12 at 16:26
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The movie "Its All Gone Pete Tong" claims to be based on a true story, although it is not. Here is how writer and director Mike Dowse justified this lie:

Mike Dowse: (a bit embarrassed) This "truth/fiction" thing was totally the idea of the U.S. distributor, who wanted to propagate that myth. We never thought about doing that when we shot it. We say, "Based on a true story," but that was more of an homage to the Coen brothers. When they picked up the film after [the Toronto International Film Festival], they were all, "It’s gonna be a true story!" We’ve convinced a few people, even offended Guy Dixon [in The Globe and Mail] with our treatment of the handicapped. But I think it’s pretty fucking obvious it’s not a true story. Don’t you think?

Hour: I dunno… Americans might buy it. They buy Fox News, after all.

Dowse: I was terrible about lying about the true story thing. I was always hit-and-miss. I’m actually much more interesting when I pretend Frankie’s a real guy, because, you know, lying is so much more interesting than the truth. But then I would tell a whole festival crowd that I made it all up. And the distributor would get mad.

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