Hollywoods Three Big Lies About Media and Society
December 8, 1993
President, The Independent Institute:
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Our program today could not be more timely. Has Hollywood the American dream factory become Hollywood the American nightmare factory? Could Hollywood actually be self-destructive as it ridicules business and mainstream values? And why is there today such a proliferation of cruelty and brutality in popular music, films, and on television?
In the past, the private and localized institutions of home, church, synagogue, school, neighborhood and business provided the framework for civility and values in society. But, in our highly politicized age, government has come to be the new parent, to set the standards and values of so much of our lives, from education to health to business to safety, and most recently even the politically correct elements of human relationships.
This civic religion of government as parent has dominated our culture for decades, and little by little, private institutions have been undermined or eliminated as government has expanded. But, a society that increasingly turns for moral leadership to the professional duplicity of the politician and the Catch 22 mindlessness and arrogance of the bureaucrat is asking for trouble.
Had recent events such as the Polly Klass kidnapping, the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beatings, the Los Angeles riots, and the tragedy in Waco involved a government of, say, Jeffersons age, and throughout most of our history, they would not have been tolerated. But in our age, such events have become all too commonplace, with sensitivity to the horror of violence and human degradation trivialized and in fact exhalted in popular culture and entertainment. However, within recent years, many people have once again begun to seek responsibility for their own lives. Despite the rumblings in Washington for ever more power, there indeed is a growing grassroots movement for empowerment and decentralization in America, to take charge of our own lives in education, crime prevention, and a host of other areas. And I would suggest that in the area of communication and entertainment, our speaker today has been the leader.
In survey after survey, large majorities are registering a distaste today for the entertainment industrys torrent of nihilistic and violent work. Voting with their money, the public has increasingly been turning such projects into financial ruin, while those films, TV, and other programs that embody values of individual achievement and humaneness are increasingly proving to be the real economic success stories.
In his book, Hollywood vs. America, our speaker today presents a comprehensive and devastating critique of why movies, popular music and television have become dominated by brutality and a hatred for civility. Today, he will discuss how an industry can ignore the message of the market and lose touch with its audiences and the values of a free society.
Unlike any single book, Hollywood vs. America is transforming the debate over popular culture, calling the bluff of a too often cynical media. In response to this new debate, this past weekend, President Clinton spoke out against violence in popular entertainment at a fund-raising event hosted in southern California by a number of film celebrities. However as I have suggested, Americans have for too long turned to government for direction, only to fall prey to even greater travesties. In rejecting censorship as a dangerous offshoot of the governments assault on values, our speaker will demonstrate instead how public pressures can produce powerful results in bringing Hollywood into a business and cultural arena where beauty is not ridiculed; men, women, and children are not brutalized; and cruelty is not exalted.
Michael Medved is film critic for The New York Post and co-host of Sneak Previews, the weekly movie review program which airs on more than two hundred stations on PBS-TV.
An honors graduate of Yale University and a former film screenwriter, he is the author of seven books, including The Shadow Presidents, What Really Happened to the Class of 65 and Hospital. He is a co-founder of the Pacific Jewish Center, and in 1993, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Hebrew Theological College/Jewish University of America.
I am very pleased to introduce him now to speak on Hollywoods Three Big Lies About Media and Society, after which he will be happy to answer your questions. May I present Michael Medved.
Presentation by Michael Medved:
Thank you, David, and thank you to all of you for braving the elements here and joining us here today and its always very nice to sit back after lunch and hear these kind words about my work. Particularly because when it initially came out, you should know if you are not aware that not all responses were quite as generous. This book provoked some of the most enthusiastic reviews that I have ever encountered, and Ill give you just a few examples. Michael Winter, who is a film director who directed Death Wish, Death Wish II, and Death Wish III, and has a new film out in February, Death Wish IV, thats for real. Michael Winter reviewed my book and called it the worst read of the decade, which I was enormously flattered by. Its only 1993. Seemed a bit premature.
But Variety had a front page editorial attacking me and my book with a really very unflattering caricature, I must say, of me on it. And the headline for that editorial was The hills are alive with the sound Medved. And it concluded the editorial saying that a good case can now be made that Medved should be banned from all future screenings, which concerning the issues of censorship that David had invoked before. I think it is fascinating that, heres this industry that is absolutely committed to free expression, except if you use that right of free expression to criticize them. And one of my favorite encounters was when I was on the BBC. They did an hour long special called Medveds Hollywood. And they threw in a bunch of studio heads and directors. The director, Paul Verhoven, was there and hes the author of such worthy contributions to our civilization as Robocop, and Total Recall and Basic Instinct, which I had previously reviewed under the title Basicly, it Stinks. And Mr. Verhoven was kind enough to call me a Nazi. And I took particular umbrage at that, since my mother had escaped from Germany in 1935 with her family when she was 9 years old. And so it went. And you know, I must tell you that I knew this book was going to be controversial. You dont write a book and call it Hollywood vs. America and expect to get the Man of the Year Award from the Motion Picture Association. No, that is not going to happen. But the kind of violent, angry furious response that was engendered here rather surprised me. It surprised me because just as David Theroux told you, the general acknowledgment that our popular culture is in sad shape is well-nigh universal. You dont even find people within the entertainment industry who will maintain with a straight face that movies today are better than ever.
There is an absolute agreement among Americans of every political persuasion that we have some problems with the entertainment industry and its impact. Have you ever met anybody who said, You know, Ive got a terrible problem at home, I wish I could get my kids to watch more TV. You know, I am afraid they are not watching enough of this benign force in their lives.
This doesnt exist in this country. People are dissatisfied. So it wasnt the fact that I have some critical things to say about the aesthetic standards of the industry that provoke the kind of response that my book generated. I believe what upset people so much was that what I set out to do was to undermine the three basic exculpatory lies that the industry always uses to try to escape any responsibility for what it is doing to society. And what I want to do with you very briefly is talk about those three lies and then open it up to your questions. Because I think that by focusing on some of the lies that are hammered home again and again and again, we can begin to see what the real issues are. And the three lies are, first of all, We dont influence anybody, we just entertain people. Lie number 2 is We dont shape society, just reflect social reality. And lie number 3 is, Were just good businessmen who give the public what it wants, so dont blame us, blame yourselves.
How many of you here have heard one or more of these lies? Okay. Very common. The first lie: We dont influence anybody, we just entertain people. You know I had a fascinating illustration of this hypocritical thinking, this absurd double-standard, when I was invited a few months ago, believe it or not, to participate in a panel along with three presidents of major film studios, and one these gentlemen got up after I spoke and he said, you know the trouble with Michael Medved is he only looks at the damage we do. He never acknowledges the good that we do for the society. He said, for instance, you wont hear Michael Medved say that our movie, Lethal Weapon III, saved thousands of American lives. Now, he then went on and Im sitting here feeling incredibly obtuse. I had seen the movie, I have reviewed it, you know its life-giving messages were not immediately discernible to me. So when it came time for me to have a rebuttal statement, I began by saying, you know I think I may have missed something in what you just said. Would you explain to me how it is that Lethal Weapon III saved all these lives? He said, Oh, thats very simple. I think that everybody else here saw and understood even if you didnt. Theres a key scene in the movie where right before Danny Glover and Mel Gibson go off on their high-speed chase, we do an intense close-up and you see for four seconds them fastening their seat belts. Now, you know, think about the logic here. The logic is that four seconds of seat-belt fastening will be imitated by millions of people. But the rest of the movies running time, the other 99.9 percent of the movies running time, which is eye gougings and eviscerations and knife wounds and gun shot wounds and explosions encourages that which nobody will imitate. I mean, are we supposed to believe that the audience is sleeping and wake up for the seat belt scene? And the same logic applies to advertising on TV.
I was very struck. In 1982, the Surgeon General of the United States released a major report about the risks and the dangers of televised violence. And the report was accompanied by five standing volumes of research, totaling about 4,000 pages, proving beyond any question that prolonged exposure to televised images of violence creates violent, hostile, aggressive attitudes and behaviors in a significant portion of the people who are so exposed.
Do you know how an ABC Network officially responded to this study? The vice president of ABC for public affairs declared, and I quote him in my book, There is no conclusive evidence whatsoever that televised imagery impacts real world behavior in any way. Do you know what the response should be to that? Oh yeah, thats the case! Then begin refunding billions of dollars in advertising revenue. Because if televised imagery doesnt impact real world behavior, then what right do you have to charge hard-working businessmen hundreds of thousands of dollars for thirty seconds of ad time to sell everything from canned goods to candidates? How absurd! Are we supposed to believe the American people out there are watching their TV sets, but they are sort of dozing off, but then all of a sudden a commercial comes on and bing they pay attention, that 30 seconds will influence them, but 30 minutes wont? How ridiculous this is. It is so ridiculous, my former law school class mate, who currently serves as President of the United States, even commented on precisely this point this weekend. Duped a lot of people who had given him a great deal of money to get elected. The fact is that the influence is inescapable. Now does that mean that everybodys influenced? No, it does not. And it is very important to understand this.
The advertising model is very useful for dealing with another argument that you hear from time to time. Recently, I was on Crossfire with my old buddy, Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America. But I am the only person in history who has been officially condemned by three formal statements from the Motion Picture Association. I mean I take that as a great honor. In any event, we were debating, and Valenti makes this line and he says, you know, the fact is that my wife and I have successfully raised three fine children, outstanding children, two girls and one boy and they watched a great deal of violent televised material when they were younger, we couldnt get them away from those TV screens. They watched murders, they watched gun fights, they watched a great deal of material that some might consider harmful. And they have grown up to be fine citizens, mothers and fathers, people who are a credit to their parents and to their country. But, you know, great, what wonderful logic. It is so simple but so difficult to try to make people understand that the fact that televised imagery doesnt impact everybody, doesnt mean that it doesnt impact anybody.
Let me try a little game here. In this group it might be a little bit risky but I am going to do it anyway. How many people here have ever tuned in to television and seen an ad for the Lexus automobile? Okay, pretty much all of you. How many people here drive a Lexus? One person. Well, I think weve proven with this group that the Japanese are not as smart as we thought they were, that Toyota Motors, which owns Lexus, is wasting all this money on these TV ads, right? Look at all the people who saw the ad. And only one of you bought the car. What a waste of money. That is just like Jack Valentis logic. They dont have to get everybody to buy the car to have an impact on that corporations bottom line.
Anybody here whos ever bought advertising for your company or your product knows youre crazy if you try to sell to everybody. You have a small target group and if you reach that target group, the advertising can be profoundly effective. The same thing is true of images of violence, and self-destructive sexual behavior, and other kinds of anti-social behavior in TV and the movies. You dont have to influence everybody or even a majority of people in order to have a profound impact on society. If one percent of the people who see that material are influenced to perpetrate violent behavior through what they see, and statistics indicate that it is significantly more than 1 percent, it could be as much as 5 percent. What an impact that has on society. What an impact it has on the overall crime rate. What an impact it has on the climate of violence. And there is something else. That ad for Lexus may not have sold you the car, but it did do something, even for those of you who havent bought the car. What it did, it changed your image of that product. It makes Lexus look desirable, chic, hip, sexy, a status symbol, something to reach for. By the same token, repeated exposures to images of sexuality and violence in the mass media, even for those who dont imitate it directly, changes your attitude toward that behavior. It makes it look normal. In that way, the fundamental power of television and motion pictures, popular music, is the power to redefine what constitutes normal behavior in this society. It is through the popular culture that millions upon millions of Americans not only learn different standards of what is accepted, but learn different standards about what is expected.
And that brings us to the second lie. And it is a more difficult one to address. And has probably become even more common. Only rarely now will you hear people saying, Well, we have no influence at all. There is a great guilty feeling sort of beginning in Hollywood, appropriately. But so they go back to the second standard. They say, well, yeah, we do work that may be damaging, but dont blame us. We just reflect whats there in society. If the world you see up there on screen is ugly and dangerous, its because the real world is ugly and dangerous. We are just holding a mirror up to nature as Hamlet told the player prince to do in Act III, and reflecting back to you what exists in real life. This has a certain credibility to it, but not after you spend more than 5 minutes investigating the subject. Ill give you the most clear and obvious demonstration. The demonstration from a rabid, radical, fire-breathing, right-wing extremist organization called The Screen Actors Guild. Not, as they say in Waynes World. Waynes World II is coming out this Friday, so I am very Waynes World conscious.
No, the Screen Actors Guild is not a right wing organization, but one of the things that they did was monitor over the last five years who got jobs among actors. And do you know what is fascinating? In motion pictures over the last five years, 72 percent of all speaking parts went to men. In television series, 64 percent of all speaking parts went to men. When it comes to lead roles, those roles that are listed usually above the title, over 75 percent of the parts went to men in both TV and movies. Is that reality? Thank God it is not! Can you imagine if we lived in a world that was 75 percent male? That world would be brutal and nasty, coarse and violent just like the world up there on screen. Because the whole addiction to using men at the exclusion of women is precisely related to the addiction to violence and the need to overstate the levels of violence horribly and irresponsibly.
Another little survey here: How many people here have ever in real life witnessed a murder? No one. Thank God. How many people here have ever seen a murder on TV? How many people here have ever seen a murder dramatized, or reported on, oh say, in the last day? We all have. We see it constantly. This notion that we just report on reality is just absurd. It is destructive, it is poisonous. Not true. The most violent ghetto in American life isnt South Central Los Angeles, it is prime time television, where violence is overstated grotesquely. By the way, this is particularly true with portrayals of African Americans. You know I was fascinated recently. Just a couple of months ago there was a Gallup Poll. It was an unusually large Gallup Poll, 3,000 respondents. And they asked people to self-describe themselves. Thirty-two percent of all Americans described themselves as born-again Christians, fifty-two percent of African Americansfifty-two percentdo you see that a lot on TV? Do you see that a lot in the movies? All you see in portrayals of African Americans are thugs and drugs. And it doesnt make it any better that it may be a black director whos doing it. It is not reality. But there it is: it becomes reality when it is there on screen. And you know it is also one of the sources of violence. Not just the fact that violence is grossly overstated.
Do you know what the most murderous dangerous, irresponsible, bloody handed group in society is according to network TV? There is one occupational group responsible for 40 percent of all murders on television. That is a higher percentage than members of the Mafia, or any other group. Do you know what occupation group that is? Businessmen! So, after lunch, when you go back to the office, you pick up a bullet proof vest, because you have no way of telling who is keeping a gun in his drawer who is going to shoot you. Now, this is absurd!
I actually went to some trouble to go to the FBIs Bureau of Crime Statistics. The actual statistic is about one half of one percent of all murders are committed by businessmen, not 40 percent. And almost all of those are domestic tragedies. This is absurd. It is not reality. Hollywood doesnt reflect reality. And there is something else related very much to what we are talking about in the African American community. You know, there is a certain kind of activity in which Americans engage with great frequency which never occurs in television or at the movies. It is an activity in which 5 times the number of people engage in that activity every weekend as those who go to the movies. Do you know what I am talking about? Church and synagogue. Worship services. According to CNN, Newsweek, Harris Poll, the Gallup Poll, every major survey, between 40 and 45 percent of all Americans go to church or synagogue every week. Do you see that a lot on TV? Hardly.
Religiosity has to be the least reflected aspect of American life. In that same Gallup Poll I talked about before, 64 percent of Americans said that they regularly bless their food before they eat it. The only kind of grace that I can think of that takes place on TV beside from The Waltons Reunion show, which by the way, got the biggest ratings of any TV movie of the last 4 years, when it just played on November 22. But aside from The Waltons Reunion show, there is a segment on The Simpsons where Bart says, Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothin. Not reality.
So the question here would be, well, maybe it is true, Hollywood distorts things, but it has always distorted things. And remember, at the height of the Great Depression, when a third of the country was out of work, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were gliding together over polished marble. Hollywood has always distorted reality. And who says that reproducing reality makes good entertainment? They are right, but the distortions of the past used to be distortions to make the world more beautiful, more dramatic, more elegant, more heroic. Today, and this is why Hollywood is in trouble financially, today, it is the other direction. If reality is distorted, it is to make things look worse than they are, to make them look more violent, less organized, more broken down, more threatening, more menacing, more ugly, and to concentrate on characters who are low-lives. I mean, I cant tell you; I see five and six movies a week. You come home from a lot of these things feeling like you need a shower. What is the point of this? Focusing on characters who are less decent, less intelligent, less noble, than our own friends and neighbors. So what impact does it have, what difference does it make.
Let me tell you something, one of the most fascinating books I have ever read I will highly recommend it to you. If it is not carried by the Independent Institute, it should be on you book list. It is a book called, Thinking About Crime, by the outstanding sociologist James Q. Wilson. He has another wonderful book out called The Moral Sense. He is a great writer. In Thinking About Crime, Wilson makes an observation about a statistical quirk that had been observed in every continent of the world. And that is a quirk called the broken windows effect. If there was a factory or an apartment, or a home, with broken windows that go unrepaired, then that block on which that occurs will become a center for crime. In other words they can look at broken windows, graffiti, and wherever you go in the world that particular street that has those markings will have a higher crime rate than a street one block away where the windows have been repaired.
So Wilson asks a very profound question. Why? What difference should it make? Why should broken windows that go unrepaired cause crime? The answer he gives is very profound. Very, very important to remember. Those broken windows are an eloquent witness. They send a message. Do you know what that message is? The message is that here chaos reigns. Authority is broken down. This is a dangerous place. Good people stay away. Law-abiding people keep out. Criminal elements, this is your place.
Television and movies have become gigantic broken windows to this entire society. That is why it matters that they reflect reality so poorly. Aside from the fact that this pessimistic, nihilistic, unjustifiably dark view of our society doesnt work at the box office. And that brings me to my third point.
The third point is a response to their line, Well, you know, you cant blame us, were just capitalists, were just in it for the money and we give the public what it wants, so once again, dont blame us, blame yourselves. If you stop buying tickets, wed stop making these movies.
Let me tell you about a movie I saw last night. It is one of the big Oscar contenders for this year. It is approximately a 40 million dollar picture. It is called Philadelphia. Has anyone else here seen it? It will be released on Christmas day. It is a wonderful holiday delight in which in the course of 2 hours you can see Tom Hanks die of AIDS. The only thing that is convincing in the film is the way they show the changing color of his skin and the pallor and the deathliness and the lesions, really great makeup effects they use for these lesions. But here is a film, the plot of the film, basically, is Tom Hanks is a hawk-shop lawyer in Philadelphia who is keeping a secretthe fact that he has AIDS. And then he starts having to take time off to go to the hospital to get blood transfusions and the evil people who run his firm terminate him because they feel he cant do his work because he is spending too much time in the hospital. So Tom Hanks sues with the help of Denzel Washington and I dont want to tell you how it comes out, you can imagine. There is one question about this movie. Do they really believe they are going to make money on it? No. You know how people go to the movies, going to the movies is a date experience, Come on honey, lets go see that movie about AIDS. There is not a chance in the world. They are going to have to subpoena people to go see this movie. But it also happens to not be very good. But its 40 million dollars of Tri-Stars money. It is a big movie.
And there is another movie I saw last week. And this one happens to be great movie. I am glad they made it. But it is another very big commercial long-shot. It is called Schindlers List. It is Steven Spielbergs movie. It is a three and a half hour black and white film about the Holocaust. It is brilliant. It probably will win the Oscar this year for best picture. It is going to be an incredibly tough sell. If you think that Universal Studios authorized Schindlers List, in order to clean up the box office because they are greedy capitalists. . . I mean what is the market tie-in for Schindlers List? All of Spielbergs other movies have marketing tie-ins.
It is not money. Steven Spielberg, earlier this year made more money than God himself. He had the top grossing commercial film in history with Jurassic Park. So why Schindlers List? Why a three and a half hour black and white movie about the Holocaust? Because the profound motivator in this industry is the desire for respect. The desire to win the respect of your peers. That is why all these inexplicable decisions from a commercial viewpoint. Movie after movie, even TV show after TV show that comes out where there is no chance it will play out commercially. Do you think that they made money on When the Band Plays On? No, but they won awards from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. And HBO got lots of credit and lots of pats on the back for what they were doing. What has happened in Hollywood has been that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Sometimes it has wonderful impact for movies like Schindlers List, sometimes it has insane impact. One thing you can see in film after film is this is not, as people believe, a simple capitalist candy machine where they only give you what the public pays for. All the time they make movies that are good for you. Or, they will put elements in other movies that the public clearly doesnt want.
Has anybody here seen the movie Beethoven? About a big slobbery Saint Bernard? A 185 pound drooling hunk? I saw it with my kids and it was a very likable movie. It made 80 million dollars. Now they have Beethoven II also coming out a week from Friday. Beethoven II has a scene in it about date rape. It is a movie for four year olds! A sound on the soundtrack in this movie for four year olds that says, I want you to come spend the night with me tonight because I have got a rocket full of Kryptonite. What are they thinking of? Is this a commercial decision? No way. And the best illustration of how the movie industry is not commercially motivated isnt with violence. Because, yes, there is an audience for violence. Largely comprising of drooling sub-literate hormone addled adolescent boys. You know who you are. But what is the audience for language? Where is the commercial demand for all the F words and the S words in movies?
In PG movies last year, 46 percent of movies rated PG had either the F word or the S word. Who would miss this language in such a movie? It is insane. It is ludicrous. You know, last year on Christmas Day, and today, one of the highlights of insanity, the whole history of Hollywood. 20th Century Fox released a warm, cuddly, feel good Christmas treasure called Hoffa. About everybodys favorite dead Teamster leader. A 50 million dollar stinkeroo starring Jack Nicholson and Danny Devito. I mean, it is extraordinary. Do you know how many F words there were in that movie? Now, I dont count these, I subscribe to a service. It is comprised of, I think, little gnomes who go out with little counters and keep their thumbs busy. But Hoffa was a 112 minute movie, 268 F words. Do you think that there is an audience that demanded that? I mean think of how easy that makes it for the screen writer. He just hits the same key of the word processor again and again and again. What amazed me is that they recently announced that they were doing an airline version of Hoffa. It will only be about ten minutes long! Again, they had to subpoena people to see it. It absolutely died at the box office. I have never in my life heard of anyone who came out of a theater saying, You know Mabel, I really liked that picture, but the language in it was just too clean for me. Who thinks like that?
You know what it is? When you are 12 years old, maybe 13, and you are a boy, a hormone addled boy, you very often will say, Well, you know I am going to use that language and my parents will be upset, and you do that kind of thing, you talk dirty and you get bawled out. Most of us outgrow it. Not the people who make movies. They are still there wanting so desperately to pose as rebellious, cutting-edge artists they dont want to be seen as members of the Establishment. They dont want to be seen as entrepreneurs or entertainers, they want to be seen as artists to hook up with the good old days when they wore black turtlenecks and drank strong coffee and talked together about existentialism. This is nonsense.
To me, one of the most important things in my entire book is the statistical analysis that proves that, and by the way has now been confirmed by four other studies since my book came out that proves that movies aimed at family audiences rated PG & G, have an average box office performance 2 to 3 times higher than R rated movies. It has been like that for over 10 years. They do better. The top grossing movie of any film released in 1992, anybody know? Aladdin. One of only 14 movies rated that entire year rated G, earned 50 million dollars more than anything else that year.
This notion that youve been told you have to put in the language and the sex and the violence, otherwise it doesnt sell, is garbage. It is a giant lie.
In 1992 the average PG and G rated films taken together earned 3 times as much on average box office as a film rated R, yet 61 percent of all titles were rated R, and that percentage of R raters had gone up and up and up. From 46 percent in 1983 up to 61 percent in 1992.
Okay, now to conclude all of this. What do you do about it? We have talked about 3 big lies. How do you answer lies? You only answer lies in one way. And that is by telling the truth, telling the truth to your family, to your friends, to society, and most of all, telling the truth to yourselves. And for each of these lies, that is crucial. On the first lie, the idea that We dont influence people, we just entertain them, recognize that it is a lie, become more discerning consumers. Not only in restricting in what children watch, that is important, but restricting what you, yourself watch. Because, it always strikes me, you have parents all the time who talk to their kids about watching less. But anyone here who is a parent knows that the only way that you really influence children is by changing your behavior. Your own behavior, not by talking at them. And do you know what strikes me as extraordinary. Right now, there are so many parents, particularly in California, who are very concerned about their kids eating too much cholesterol, unrefined sugar, or polyunsaturated fat, but they seem not to care what the kids place in their minds and their imaginations and their very souls. Recognize that these images do influence. Messages matter. Become more discerning consumers. And ideally consume less.
For the second lie, the lie that We just reflect reality: Too many Americans fall into that. They watch TV news. They get their entire impressions of what is going on in the world from that box in their household. Sometimes, I think, if a Martian had his impression of America, based only on reflecting a satellite dish that received messages and signals from Earth, American TV, do you know what he would conclude? He would conclude from watching the morning shows, Geraldo, and Opra and Phil Donahue and Montel Williams and Jane Whitney and do you know what he would conclude? That this was a country that had more transvestites in it than churchgoers. Keep in mind at all times that the world you see in the media isnt reality. The world is better than that. There is more decency, there is more hope. There is more goodness among every racial and ethnic group in every corner of the society. The hugest, under-reported instance in the media is goodness. Simple wholesomeness and decency.
And on the third point, and this is particularly challenging, the idea that their lie, Well, we just give the public what it wants. The question that one could well ask is, since they dont give the public what it wants, what hope do we have? If they are willing to lose money on this material, then how do you influence them? There are two things. First of all, it does make a difference to point out that it is stupid business. People do get embarrassed about losing tons of money. Sometimes they will say that shows how noble I was and how selfless. I do think that frankly, all the discussion of ratings and the different box office performance of different rated movies was launched by my book? It has had an impact. A real impact, and I am real proud of it.
1993 is not over yet, but I have the statistics up through December 1. In 1992, 12 percent of all movies were rated PG or G. In 1993, it is over 30 percent. In 1992, 61 percent were rated R, and in 1993 up through December 1, it was less than 40 percent. There is a readjustment going on. It is healthy. It is overdue. And that is one of the reasons, by the way, this year has been some what better for the box office. After a whole series of disastrous seasons, they are making people talk. With enough public pressure, with enough organization, it changes the idea of the basis for honor and for pride. What we need to do is to show people that making a shocking, cutting edge, blood-soaked project not only is not going to make money, but its not worth praise. It is one of the reasons that I am very hopeful that this year, after 2 years worth of Academy Award honor to pictures like Silence of the Lambs.
Unforgiven incidentally, I thought was a pretty good picture by the way, but it was also a very bloody picturethat maybe well have some different kinds of Oscar contenders this year. Because this question of respect and how respect is handed out in Hollywood is very important. And I believe that is changing and has to change as well.
What does all of it mean? It doesnt mean that we are suddenly going to get inspiration from our TV screens or from our movies, that it will suddenly become a huge force for goodness. But I think it means that we can reduce the damage that the popular culture does.
What I am eager for, is not something where we turn out all Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or all Aladdin. I am eager again for a popular culture that reflects the diversity, as well as the decency of the truly wonderful people who live in this country. I look forward to your questions.
Question: How does TV influence what movies are made? Arent programs like NYPD also based on the appeal of violence?
Medved: Let me answer both of those questions. On the first one, the idea of the new shows promoting TV movies and so-forth. Of course they do that. One of the biggest problems on TV is TV news, and its so-called reality-based programming. They call it reality-based programming, and what is it? I mean Geraldo just did a reality-based program last week, where he showed for the first time on live TV a sex change operation. I mean, do you know how few people get sex change operations? This is reality? It is a side show. You know, when Barnum was displaying two-headed calves and little people 2 feet high, thats also reality, but it is a side show, it is not reflective. The difficulty with TV, is this emphasis you get in the news, in talk shows, in the network programming, made-for-TV movies. Havent we had enough with Lorena Bobbit? I mean, is this the most over reported story in the 20th century or what? I am sorry, but, do you know there are 4 different movies, there is one feature film and 3 made for TV movies about Lorena Bobbit? I mean we just had lunch, but. So, this is a very big problem.
What you were saying about NYPD Blue was interesting. I am not familiar with the show. I dont watch a lot of TV. I mean, basically, I watch no TV. I did more TV watching to research my book than I have done in the previous 20 years combined. And I have not seen that show. I have heard that it is a pretty good show and it is an interesting show. What people objected to was not the violence. They objected to the nudity and the language. And what they objected to was not just a few instances of nudity and language, they objected to a very clearly deliberate attempt to change the standards, to push the envelope. To make it acceptable suddenly to say certain words on prime-time TV that have never been said before and to show bare buns and from what I understand, bare breasts in a way that it had never been shown before on prime time TV. And the fear is not that particular one show, which I do understand is a quality show and has gotten pretty respectable ratings, but the fear is that becomes the new standard and then gets sent out to everybodys living room. It makes it even harder to control what your children are exposed to.
Question: How would you have rated Unforgiven?
Medved: Sure, I would have given it 3 stars. I certainly wouldnt have given it the Oscar for best picture of the year, which was basically a belated recognition of Clint Eastwood and all that he has done for the industry, etc. But what is interesting about that is this has more graphic sexual content. It begins, as you know, with the mutilation of a prostitute. It is such a bizarre statement when the motion picture academy holds that up as the example of the finest that our industry can achieve. It used to be that Oscar was fairly dependably handed to movies like Ghandi or Amadeus that were about something, that really tried to teach people something.
What I liked about Unforgiven, frankly, was, I thought it was full of great performances. Hackman was sensational. I thought Eastwood was quite good and it did seem to me to raise this profound question about the nature of evil, and about the nature of redemption. And from a religious point of view, the movie seemed to contain the message that unless there is an inner transformation, simply stopping your external actions leaves you very amenable to being dragged back into the life of evil, to the life of the devil, if you will. And I thought it was a serious and an interesting and challenging film, and a pretty good western. But again, by my saying it was a fine film, I respected it much more than I respected Silence of the Lambs, which I just thought was a lurid freak show and had almost nothing to it, except a fine performance by Anthony Hopkins.
Question: Why have not more of the books by Ayn Rand been made into movies?
Medved: The question is about Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand was very difficult. She was not thrilled about the way The Fountainhead had turned out in the movie with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. And so she got very sticky about selling the rights to Atlas Shrugged when she was alive. And she was insisting that she have control and they wont give anyone control. They just wont do that. Since her death, there have been at least 4 serious efforts to make that movie. And that is because, though there are very few what we call main stream conservatives in Hollywood, there are several Randroids, you know, followers of Ayn Rand. It is a difficult film to make because it would be very expensive, and I think also at the studios there is a sense that, well, this right-wing nut, lets leave it alone.
I was telling David Theroux before, a friend of mine bought the rights to a fine book by Robert Conquest called The Great Terror. And paid a lot of money for the rights and wanted to make the movie and actually told by all of the studios, you cant do this. The Great Terror is about the Stalinist purges. They said it is a war mongering movie and it cant be done. Political correctness is a very powerful force in the industry and I dont think that weve gotten to the point yet where Atlas Shrugged would be considered politically correct. Though it has a built in terrific advertising campaign, Ive always thought; I can imagine all the billboards, Who is John Galt?
Question: What about the problems facing blacks in the entertainment business, including as actors, producers, directors, etc.?
Medved: Those are all different questions. And you raise a very important point, which is that we are in a very anomalous situation right now where we have more black stars who earn bigger money and have bigger audiences than at any time in the history of the industry. Forbes magazine does a list of the top paid entertainers of the year, and I believe last year, 5 of the 10 top paid entertainers in America were black. And you know, it is extraordinary, now you have a whole generation of remarkably gifted black performers, the latest of whom is Will Smith, who is brilliant in Six Degrees of Separation, and Denzel Washington and Danny Glover, and Morgan Freeman and on and onpeople who are genuinely talented. But they are in front of the cameras or sometimes they will work as directors.
But you are absolutely right in terms of the upper executive strata, nothing, in terms of national critics, nothing. There is one black critic I know of named Elvis Mitchell who does commentary for NPR. But I do want you to know that they were trying to give Elvis Mitchell the slot at CBS news and it didnt work out. I know that there have been statements that have been made by various spokespeople about some kind of organized attempt to keep black people out. I dont think that exists. I think that frankly, because of the whole political correctness craze, would welcomeand they havea number of the companies trying to promote people into executive ranks. But this is such a brutally competitive industry and until you find people who are trying to work in the executive suites, the way that they have worked their way on to the sets in front of the screen, I dont think anything will happen. I think what you are hinting at, at least if I pick it up correctly, I would support and agree with very much because I think it would be a terrific thing if some of these very successful black entertainers got together and launched some kind of company as an alternative. Black Entertainment Television to some extent tries to do that.
Question: Despite what you have said, doesnt film, as with all art forms merely reflect social developments?
Medved: Come back to my analogy about the Lexus. In other words, I dont believe that the industry controls reality. In other words, I believe it influences it. They dont influence everybody, they influence enough people to matter.
Question: Now that Schindlers List has been made, what about the prospects for film depicting the horrors under communist rule?
Medved: I am afraid that there is no balance. Absolutely none. Let me try to respond to that, too very quickly. Because I am also concerned about that balance. I was talking to David Theroux before. I think it is absolutely ridiculous that we have had so many fine films and some not very good ones about the Holocaust and almost nothing about the 50 million non-wartime casualties of the communists. It is a greater mass-murder of our century, which has been totally uncovered, not covered at all in motion pictures or on television. They had this one HBO thing on Stalin. That is it. Really.
Question: Does not Schindlers List merely indicate that cause movies are only made when they are commercially viable and that Hollywood is not making politically correct decisions in its production of films?
Medved: No, but Dances with Wolves won the Oscar 3 years ago. And Geronimo is coming out this Friday, which is another politically correct vision of Native Americans. What I am saying about this, you and I are agreeing. They didnt make Schindlers List out of commercial considerations. They made it because Steven Spielberg wanted to make it. People who are at his level of success, people who are at the level of success frankly of Danny Glover or Morgan Freeman, or Denzel Washington can get a project made. They can decide what they want to see made. Why did they make a movie about Malcolm X? Warner Brothers for 30 million dollars. Do you think they had a market study? Do you know who didnt go to that movie? Young black males did not go. They failed at marketing that movie with young black males. But they made it because Spike Lee wanted to make it and he was successful enough so he could do it.
So, if they are going to do better at the box office, it is appropriate to have more of a sense of balance, and frankly, not to do so many of these personal indulgences. Because personal cause movies, sometimes turn out very well, but sometimes they turn out very miserably. Who calls for the balance? The role in the industry where that is necessary is the people who are running the studios. One of the problems that has happened is that it used to be in the old days of classic Hollywood, Harry Cohen or Sam Goldwyn or Jack Warner, somebody would come and try and make a project and Sam Goldwyns famous line is that If you want to send a message, go see Western Union. You know, I am in the business of connecting with the public. I dont think that is a bad attitude. I think it is an appropriate attitude. And that might have meant that a great movie, Schindlers List, didnt get made. Or that Spielberg spent his own money instead of spending Universals money. But the fact is, I think that kind of balance can only be healthy for the industry and for the country.
Question: How can the public make sense of the films being produced and sort through them?
Medved: Ill tell you how you do it. Tune in to Sneak Previews every week. Or, find a critic or subscribe to the New York Post, find a print critic that you trust or a television critic that you trust and pay attention. It is amazing. It is a fairly big investment of time and money to go to the movies. And it is shocking how many people, you are right, dont even bother to make the most rudimentary investigation.
Question: Havent we begum seeing a change in the content of TV especially as it has become more competitive via cable, etc.?
Medved: Yes, it is, and I think thats true. The one area where television has improved, is television has gotten less violent this year. It is raunchier. There is no question about it. I mean this thing with Geraldo Rivera showing this man having a sex change, I mean this was like a surgical Bobbit that he showed on the air, it was really gut-churning. Did anyone see this? It was the most extraordinary thing, it was on daytime, national TV with a live operation of a male having his sexual organ removed. And it got good ratings. Never again, it will get good ratings once. Not the second time.
But, no, youre right, TV has gotten raunchier. Here is a question. In actual terms, do I think TV is better today or better 20 years ago? No question it is better today. There are more alternatives, there is C-SPAN, there is Bravo, there is A&E, there is PBS, you know, why is it with all of these new alternatives and some better shows on the networks, as well, that every survey shows that the American people think that TV is worse than ever? That the American people are less likely to watch a TV show through to its conclusion. That for the first time since they have been measuring this, the last couple of years, the amount of weekly watching has gone down. This is amazing. With all these new alternatives, people are watching less TV. It is a blessing, but it is amazing. The reason for it is precisely what you are saying, that there is a general perception that TV has gotten raunchy, it has gotten dirty. I dont like it. It is corrupting my kids.
Now one of the answers to this, by the way, which I strongly support is what people call a lock box, which is going to be available widely in the United States. It will cost you about 90 dollars. And you can then put that on your TV set and program in certain times of day and certain channels where the TV simply wont work. For instance, if you choose that your children should not watch that wonderful educational show, Beavis and Butthead, then you simply program it in to MTV at the 1030 hour when that show is on, and it wont work. The TV wont receive MTV at those hours. Now, this is going to help fuel a revolution in American life. Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts has introduced legislation to require all TV manufacturers to include the lock box as part of the equipment for new sets. Because, while it costs us about 90 dollars to buy one, it would cause the TV manufacturers to add about 15 dollars to the price of the TV. So, it is interesting what is happening. This is coming just in time for the so-called 500 channel universe, which is why it is so important to address these issues now, before the whole picture changes and you have even more of a difficulty in getting the idea across that messages do matter and people do have to become more discerning consumers.
Question: What about the influence of conservative ideas in the entertainment industry?
Medved: I think to some extent, yes. I think you have more variety in print journalism. You know, there are conservative voices in print journalism. There are virtually no conservative voices on television, Rush Limbaugh is an obvious example of an exception. The fact is that, what you have right now, and it is very important that everybody understands this. When you are talking about corporate structure, Warner Brothers, controls not only Warner Brothers movies, they control HBO, they control Time Magazine, they control Warner Brothers Records, they control People Magazine, they control Premier Magazine, and they control Warner Books. These companies are huge. If you look at Fox, you know, Fox is Rupert Murdoch. Fox controls two papers I write for, The Times of London and the New York Post, Fox TV, Fox Network, HarperCollins Publishers, TV Guide is a Murdoch publication. These are very powerful institutions. Disney has its own record label nowa huge record label. And the fact is that, what you find is partially because of that corporate organization is the same mind set in all divisions. In popular music, in television and motion picture and very much in electronic journalism. I think it is somewhat different in print journalism, simply because there are more outlets and more variety, just as it is somewhat different in radio. Radio is the one area whereand I think thats one of the reasons that people are so disturbed at radio, because you hear all kinds of voices on radio that you normally wouldnt hear in television journalism.
Question: The influence of American entertainment worldwide in huge and many countries are clamoring for protectionism. Do you have any comments?
Medved: That is a very good question. Look, it is a very, very hot issue right now because the GATT talks. And one of the issues that a lot of countries are concerned about, is what we have been doing is dumping out toxic trash abroad. In other words, one of the questions that people often ask is, how is it that these studios stay in business if they are losing all this money on all this material? And do you know how it is? Because they make up for it by selling the stuff abroad. What has happened in the last few years is the American movie-going audience has collapsed and turned off. Weve opened up huge new audiences in China, Russia and Eastern Europe. In Italy, they just built 3 times the number of theaters and put in air conditioning which brings more people to theaters. So, what has happened, is the percentage of revenue from foreign sales to American studios has gone from 30 percent in 1980, and they think this year, in 1994 it will be the first year that a majority of revenue has come from abroad.
Now, this has been devastating to foreign film industries. The French are horrified at it. It has destroyed British films. Because basically, people are fascinated with America. I believe that the reason that American films do so much better abroad than any other kind of films is not because they are better made, but because the fascination with life in this country. The same reason that Italians buy American jeans and pay big money for them. It is not that they dont make good pants in Italy, they do. A lot of studio executives wear Italian pants. But it is because there is a fascination with all things American. And I think that we are in danger of losing that partially because of the over saturation of violence, but also one has to be concerned about the messages that are sent out about this country and about the state of this country.
I know that we are running late. I do want to say that I am very grateful for your attention, for the opportunity to be able to exchange ideas and I hope well have the chance to talk in a few moments. Thank you.