Friday marks the release of “The Last Stand,” an Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle in which the heroes include a well-armed citizenry, federal restrictions on paramilitary weaponry are openly mocked, and gunplay is frequent and plentiful.
So much for Hollywood toning down gun violence out of sensitivity to the public mood in the wake of the Sandy Hook schoolhouse massacre.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Hollywood would have to become more sensitive and less violent following the outrage over the latest school shooting, either voluntarily or under the threat of federal regulation. But given how past efforts to reform Hollywood content have fared, here’s how much change we’re likely to see: Nada.
Sure, there may be some quick cosmetic fixes, though even the moment for those is quickly passing. After the Aurora cineplex massacre, Warner Bros. yanked the trailer for “Gangster Squad,” edited a sequence of a movie-theater shooting out of the promo and the film, and delayed the movie’s release from September to January. The watered-down film opened last week and did just middling business. Beyond that, however, we may hear some noise from studio executives about changes, but even while they’re saying the right things, they’ll be releasing movies like “The Last Stand” and “Bullet to the Head,” the Sylvester Stalllone vehicle opening February 1.
There are two perhaps uncomfortable truths at work here. One is that there are too many vested interests at work, and too much money at stake, for any substantive change to occur. Remember, a year ago, Hollywood and Silicon Valley were arguing over SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), with the content industry on the pro side and the Web industry on the anti side. The bill was shelved and nothing changed. So it will be with this issue; it’s still two very powerful lobbying groups (in this case, the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Rifle Association) that will fight each other to a stalemate, resulting in the preservation of the status quo. The NRA wants as few restrictions as possible on the gun industry, just as the MPAA wants as few restrictions as possible on the entertainment industry. Both are likely to get their way.
One irony of this situation is that what ordinary Americans think may be of less consequences than the desires of people overseas. The last two products that America successfully exports are weapons and entertainment (or, if you like, depictions of those weapons being used). Foreign audiences love violent American movies as much as we do, maybe even more. The overseas market for Hollywood movies is now bigger than the domestic market, to the point that catering to foreign tastes, not American tastes, is what underlies decisions about which movies get made. Americans may or may not be squeamish about watching gun violence, but foreign viewers are as bloodthirsty as ever. So there’s no incentive for Hollywood to change its game.
And for all its willingness to demonize Hollywood as a more likely cause of gun massacres than, say, the easy availability of guns, the NRA recognizes that violent Hollywood fare is also the best advertisement for its constituents’ wares. Exhibits at the NRA museum in Fairfax, Va. are built around guns featured in violent Hollywood movies like “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” In public, the NRA and Hollywood may not get along much; aside from Charlton Heston, Chuck Norris, Gerald McRaney, and Tom Selleck, few movie and TV stars over the past 20 years have come out publicly in favor of the NRA’s stated positions. Of course, many of the most conservative stars, including Heston, Norris, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger, have starred in some of the most violent, trigger-happy movies of recent decades.
The other uncomfortable truth is that we, the moviegoers, don’t really want movies to change. At the very least, we’re ambivalent about the idea. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds the NRA more popular than Hollywood (the gun group gets a 41 percent positive rating and a 34 percent negative rating, contrasted with a 23 percent positive rating and 46 percent negative rating for the entertainment industry). Yet the same poll also says 56 percent want stricter laws on gun sales, a position the NRA opposes.
Similarly, a poll taken by The Hollywood Reporter at the end of December, a couple weeks after Sandy Hook, found that 44 percent of parents had become more aware since the shooting of the violent content of the fare their kids watched. Some 70 percent of respondents over age 30 felt there was too much violence in film and TV advertising. Thirty-four percent of all respondents thought there should be more restrictions on such advertising, but 75 percent of respondents did not think that the Federal government should pressure Hollywood to tone down the violence. Forty-six percent said Hollywood should make fewer violent movies, but 48 percent said content shouldn’t change.
It could be that those who wanted Hollywood to make less violent content were sincere, or they could have been saying what they thought pollsters wanted to hear. Over the same period that the survey was taken, moviegoers voted with their wallets and spent $63 million to see “Django Unchained” and $44 million seeing “Jack Reacher.” The following week, “Texas Chainsaw 3D” debuted at No. 1 Guess we’re not that skittish about enjoying movies depicting gun violence — or any other kind of violence — post-Sandy Hook.
The conservative media watchdog group the Media Research Center did its own study of the top five films from last weekend — “Zero Dark Thirty,” ‘A Haunted House,” “Gangster Squad,” “Django,” and “Les Miserables” — and counted 65 scenes of violence, including 38 scenes of gunplay, and 185 victims. To the MRC, this was a sign of Hollywood’s hypocrisy, since so much of Hollywood (including “Django” star” Jamie Foxx) has advocated for gun-control measures while appearing in movies like these that seem to glorify gun violence. Then again, to borrow the argument Kathryn Bigelow has used to defend the torture scenes in “ZDT,” depiction does not equal glamorization or endorsement. And moviegoers seem to get that, given the ambivalence toward movie violence expressed in the recent polls. No ticket-buyer who goes to see any of these five movies seems to think he or she will incur mental damaged or be influenced to pick up a gun and start shooting people.
One result of President Obama’s 23-point executive order mandating a to-do list of mild gun control measures will be a public health study of the causes of gun violence, including video games. The video game industry’s response, through lobbying group the Entertainment Software Association, has been much like the MPAA’s — it says it will cooperate with the government but notes that violent video games are just as popular in other countries yet don’t result in epidemics of real-life gun massacres in those countries.
It’s worth noting that no one in the administration has actually called for regulations on video games or movies; they’ve only urged the ESA and the MPAA to police themselves. It’s similar to what happened after 9/11, when studios voluntarily went to great lengths to change individual movies that might hit a raw nerve — erasing the Twin Towers from “Zoolander,” or postponing the release of Schwarzenegger’s terrorism-themed “Collateral Damage” for five months. Studios also said they would work with the government to make more patriotic movies backing the war on terror.
Remember those movies? No? Because they never got made. The changes Hollywood did make were largely cosmetic and lasted only a few weeks at best. After that, it was back to business as usual. Not even the worst terror attacks in American history could make Hollywood change its ways. Its doubtful that one of the worst elementary school massacres will have any great impact either.