Holly Wood’s Dirty Little Secrets: Losing Money on Films America Hates

Virtually every survey in recent years demonstrates a remarkably high level of dissatisfaction among Americans with motion pictures and with popular culture in general. I have just published a book that asks the question, Why? What’s the problem, is the camera out of focus? The camera work is dazzling. In the most wretched pieces of celluloid excrescence, you will see phenomenally beautiful camera work. Is the acting bad? My judgment would be that the actors are seldom at fault. No, my thesis is that most Americans dislike the movies because the values of the culture of Hollywood are out of focus.

Hollywood has a dirty little secret: despite all the good news we hear about the box office grosses (which only reflect ticket prices that have risen at more than twice the rate of inflation), attendance at movie theaters in 1991 was the worst in 15 years, and attendance in 1992. was the worst in 16 years. Forty percent of the people in this country now say that they don’t go to movies anymore. Fully 80 percent believe motion pictures contain too much sex and violence, according to a Newsweek poll last October. Tens of millions of people, in short, are disturbed by the popular culture, about the messages it sends, and about the values it promotes.

Yet my book Hollywood vs. America (HarperCollins/Zondervan) has precipitated a storm of controversy. For example, Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, wrote a front-page attack that read in part, “Hollywood vs. America is a chilling glimpse of what happens when a humorless, authoritarian mind is inundated by the noise of pop culture…. Purporting to be an analysis of the state of the arts, the book reads instead like a nervous breakdown set in type. By the end, it’s clear that all Medved wants is to be in seclusion someplace, watching The Sound of Music nonstop for the remainder of his days.” In the same spirit, my colleague David Denby, film critic for New York Magazine, wrote a lengthy review of my book for The New Republic in which he hailed my work as “the stupidest book on popular culture I have read to the end.”

Other big-gun critics have responded with similar howls of outrage. Lewis Menand in the New Yorker called me a modern-day Savonarola. Richard Corliss of Time magazine anointed me the magistrate of morals and compared me to “an impassioned Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on a movie marquee.” (I thought it a singular honor for a nice Jewish boy and synagogue president to be compared both to Savonarola and Martin Luther.) It’s not just the New York reviewers who are upset. In Memphis, Tennessee, the film critic for the Commercial Appeal wrote: “Medved would have been happy so years ago, functioning as the movie advisor to the House Un-American Activities Committee when that group was trying to prove that the Communist Party was in total control of the movie industry.” My favorite of all the reviews of my book appeared in the Detroit News, written by the paper’s television critic, under the interior headline, “Medved: Critic’s Diatribe Reflects His Own Vicious Self.”

Now, when one provokes this kind of enthusiastic response, I think it’s fair to say one has touched a nerve.

And I’m grateful that I’ve also received a great deal of encouragement from readers and reviewers. When the book was excerpted in USA Today, 450,000 people called from across the country, trying to reach the 800-line to register their agreement with what I had to say. The book also has been excerpted or serialized in such notorious right-wing extremist rags as the Washington Post, the Times of London, the Baltimore Sun, The Public Interest, Reader’s Digest, and Christianity Today, among other journals.

Presumably, the editors of these publications recognized something about my book that my more hysterical critics ignored: it is distinctly moderate in its analysis and in its recommended solutions for our pop culture crisis. For instance, I am outspokenly opposed to censorship and to governmental intrusion into popular culture in any form. In fact, I devote an entire chapter in the book to “The Censorship Temptation.” I am opposed to production codes and to conspiracy theories. Two chapters are devoted to the two most popular conspiracy theories about Hollywood. One of these theories is that some kind of mystical gay conspiracy controls the movie industry and is ruining its standards; the other theory alleges that Hollywood is part of an international Jewish conspiracy. I debunk these notions and demonstrate that they have no factual basis whatever.

Bad Business

Given these convictions, why has my book provoked a storm of condemnation? I am convinced that the most controversial aspect of my book is not my suggestion that the people in Hollywood are practicing bad artistry—everybody knows that—rather, it’s my suggestion that they are also practicing bad business. I contend that, in creating the trash they’re creating, Hollywood moviemakers not only are offending millions of people, they are losing money in the process. This is a relatively novel contention, but I think it’s an incontrovertible fact.

My central argument is that Hollywood is so grossly out of touch with the convictions of millions of Americans that it also is damaging if not destroying its own interests. Why is this point so uncomfortable for people in the movie business and their apologists? Because it removes their primary excuse for doing what they do. Time and again moviemakers tell us that sleaze and gore is what the country wants and will pay to see. We’re a perfect capitalistic candy machine, they say.

If they’re right, I may as well stop here, because the culture of Hollywood—what does it matter? It’s just a responsive institution that exists to give the public what it wants. We hear this all the time. For example, Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct, Robo Cop, and Total Recall declared, “Art is a reflection of the world. If the world is horrible, the reflection in the mirror is horrible.”

In other words, Hollywood filmmakers insist, “Don’t blame us, blame yourselves. We’re just holding up this ugly mirror to your own ugly reality in this corrupt, horrible country, where all major institutions, as we well know, are in total meltdown.” The problem is that this defense of Hollywood is based on not one scintilla of evidence. To the contrary, the movie industry has proven remarkably unresponsive to the public for at least 15 years.

One very clear bit of evidence for this assertion has generated a tremendous amount of discussion about my book. The simplest level for analyzing the contents of movies is the rating of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In 1991, according to the MPAA’s own figures of all movies released in America, 61 percent were rated R, aimed at “adult” audiences. Wouldn’t that fact suggest that R-rated movies are the ones that generate the most business? As the two stars of one of my favorite movies of 1992 would answer, not! In fact, R-rated movies do terribly in comparison to PG, PG-13, and G-rated films. The only category of film which does worse than R is NC-17, which is just as one would expect. Yet Hollywood apologists hammer us with such questions as, “But what about Basic Instinct, didn’t it succeed?” Of course it did well. If you have 61 percent of your releases rated R, obviously a few of them are occasionally going to draw a crowd, just because the market is so flooded with this material.

The simple fact, however, is that in 1991, PG and G films taken together, aimed at families, did three times the median box-office gross of R films. Between 1980 and 1990, only one of the ten top money-makers was R-rated. This is true even though, for PG- and G-rated films, many of the tickets are sold to children at half-price. This is why the figures on Aladdin are so staggering. Aladdin drew the largest audience of any film released in 1992 because so many of the tickets were sold to children at half-price.

Just a few weeks after publication of my book, these conclusions received powerful confirmation from Paul Kagan Associates, the most prestigious entertainment data analysis firm, which conducted its own survey of R- versus PG- versus PG-13- versus G-rated releases. They reported that, “based on an analysis of 1,187 films released from 1984 through 1991 that played on at least 100 screens during their peak, the most successful group of films were rated PG…. Ironically, while R-rated films are less likely to score big at the box office and are less profitable than films with all other ratings, the percentage of R-raters in the mix of releases has increased from 50.3 percent in 1989 to 58.2 percent in 1991.”

In short, Hollywood is manifestly ignoring a message from the public. According to my own figures, which were provided by the research director of the Screen Actor’s Guild, there is not a single year since 1983 when R films did as well as PG films. Yet during that entire period, the percentage of R-rated films increased every year.

Driving Hollywood

What is going on here? What is certainly not occurring is an intelligent and direct response to public demand. But if the movie industry isn’t driven by normal capitalistic mechanisms, what is driving the industry? I submit that the film industry is driven by the culture of Hollywood; or, because there are so many internal contradictions in that culture, I think one might more properly say, the cultures of Hollywood. These cultures, all of them, are dysfunctional. They are dysfunctional not only in terms of the attitudes that they endorse and promote, but as a force in the business. Let me illustrate my point by focusing on three principal elements of these Hollywood cultures: (1) the infatuation with foul language; (z) the profound hostility to religion and religious values; and (3) a love of and abiding commitment to left-wing message movies.

First, language. Anybody who has been to the theater recently has to have been struck by the number of F-words in motion pictures such as Body of Evidence, which stars Madonna and Willem DaFoe and could well turn out to be the worst film of this still-young decade. But the pattern is true of less explicitly racy movies: Hoffa has 263 F-words; Glengarry, Glen Ross, 148. That’s more than one a minute. In the recent champion among artistic and important films—GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece—there were 246 F-words, plus 14 S-words and 7 A-words, which computes to a major obscenity once every 32.2 seconds. Somehow, Jimmy Cagney and Raoul Walsh, who collaborated on White Heat, were able to create the idea of a maniacal, sadistic, crazed gangland killer with exactly 2.46 fewer F-words than Scorsese used in GoodFellas.

One could say that in some films we’ve come to expect this linguistic assault. But what is amazing is that 39 percent of all PG-13 movies released in 1991 used the F-word, and 73 percent used the S-word. Even in PG movies, to which parents gleefully take five- and six-year-olds, 46 percent in 1991 used the S-word.

Is this box-office driven? Not on your life. A Media General/Associated Press poll in 1989 asked 1,804 respondents if there was too much profanity in movies. Six percent thought the amount of profanity was warranted; 80 percent thought there was too much; the rest were undecided. Of the 1,804 respondents, not one said there was too little profanity in movies.

That profanity in movies is not a market-driven phenomenon is well proven by Hero, starring Dustin Hoffman. The picture was a decent effort to create an old-style Frank Capra feel-good movie, yet it included 14 totally gratuitous F- and S-words. After my review of the movie appeared, I talked by phone with an official at the studio that produced it and said, “You are going to lose $10 million at the box office because of those 14 words. It’s going to cost you.” He sort of sighed and replied, “Yeah, yeah, we know, we know. We wanted the softer rating, but you know….” I asked, “So why include those words?” He answered, “It was really Dustin. I mean, it was his artistry; he had to find the character.”

This response reveals that the notion of equating F-words and S-words with artistry is today so deeply embedded in Hollywood that it cannot be challenged. I recently heard a screenwriter with two Academy Awards complain how unjust it was that his new movie, which had no sex or violence, received an R rating because it had 11 F-words. But if he objected to the R rating, why not drop the words? No one would miss them. Why knowingly alienate as much as 80 percent of your audience? I’ve never heard of someone leaving the theater saying, “You know, that was a darn good movie, Mabel, but I do feel cheated I didn’t get to hear Dustin Hoffman say the F-word enough.” Only Hollywood thinks like that.

The Attack on Religion

The second point at which Hollywood clearly works against its own interest and ignores the sensitivities of the audience has to do with the portrayal of organized religion. For example, Steve Martin happens to be one of my favorite actors. He has also been identified with some of the better family-oriented projects of recent years, films like Roxanne and Father of the Bride. Martin announced several years ago a project called Leap of Faith, a stupid comedy about a crooked faith-healer who invades a town called Rustwater, Kansas, which is identified in the script as the Corn Relish Capital of America. For over a year, I predicted the film would flop at the box office. And now that the film has been released, it is a gigantic flop. Just to break even, the film would have had to earn back some $80 million, according to most industry analysts; so far, it has earned less than $9 million.

Now, it takes no brains to predict that a movie about corrupt clergy would not draw an audience. I have challenged my fellow critics, producers, and writers to name any film in the last ten years about a corrupt or crazy clergyman that’s made a dime; none of them have. And yet Hollywood keeps making them: The Handmaid’s Tale; At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which was an equal-opportunity offender that had corrupt Jews, Catholics, and Protestants; The Rapture; Guilty as Charged; Pass the Ammo; Monsignor; Agnes of God; We’re No Angels; The Pope Must Die; Nuns on the Run; The Vision; Salvation. All were bombs, yet Hollywood keeps repeating the formula despite the fact that none of these films were the product of an analysis of the public’s preferences. Rather, it is as though Hollywood replaced the old production code, which demanded that all religious characters be portrayed sympathetically, with some bizarre new code that requires religious characters be viewed only in negative light.

In Alien3, for example, a man-eating monster invades a penal colony in outer space. The penal colony is inhabited by convicted rapists and murderers—drooling, vicious, horrible fellows who identify themselves, twice, as fundamentalist Christians.

More recently there was the watchable movie A Few Good Men. Virtually every time the character portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland is on screen, he brings up something about his belief in God, or the fact that he’s a believing Christian. At one point he says in a menacing tone, “I believe in the Lord God, and His Son, Jesus Christ.” The viewer realizes, right away, that this character is going to be the worst character in the film—simply because he’s a Christian. And sure enough, in the last line of the film, Kevin Bacon prepares to arrest Kiefer Sutherland, apparently for having secretly and deceitfully engineered the fatal beating of a shy Latino recruit. Do you think this is an accident, just a passing detail of characterization? No, it reflects the unmistakable animus of director Rob Reiner, who also directed Misery. That film, too, was not about clergy; it was about a nutty woman who several times refers to her fundamentalist Christian faith while she’s torturing, maiming, and ultimately attempting to murder James Caan. In that critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning film the camera focusses repeatedly on the gold cross worn by this wretched character as she perpetrates her sadistic horrors.

The same week A Few Good Men was released, Reiner told the Los Angeles Times: “This kind of sanctimonious crap that all these Republicans running around, right-wing, moral majority, these people are f—ing destroying the country… They get these people all twisted around with ideas about how morality should be. How about just be decent to the other guy, huh? You know, if they really believed in anything, if they really believed in what they are now preaching, if they really believed in what Jesus Christ said, they wouldn’t be promoting family values.”

What is amazing to me about this statement—other than its profound intellectual depth—is the fact that Reiner chose to make it the same week he was releasing a $60 million movie. Did it not occur to him that people might be offended? If I were risking $60 million on a movie, I’d want everyone to come. You need to draw the halt, the lame, and the blind—you should exclude no one, yet Reiner chose to make this arrogant statement, openly insulting a not-insubstantial portion of his potential audience. What a bizarre way of doing business, and it’s based on Hollywood’s ignorance of the country.

In the old days before publication of my book, when I used to be invited to Hollywood parties, I would play a game where I asked other guests, what percentage of America goes to church or synagogue every week? No one ever guessed more than ten percent; the average guess was five percent. Of course, between 40 and 45 percent of Americans, according to every survey, go to church or synagogue every week. This is a reality we do not see reflected in Hollywood films. When I confront people in the business with the country’s churchgoing, they say, “it can’t be true.” Pressed as to why this widely reported fact isn’t true, they reply, “Because I don’t know anybody like that.” Because I don’t know anybody like that. This answer pinpoints the problem with Hollywood. It explains why, in those few films that display a sympathetic attitude toward religious life, the setting almost invariably is long ago and far away.

Consider A River Runs Through It, in which the father is quite sympathetic. He is a Presbyterian minister, a nice guy, and kind to his sons. But guess what: the setting is Montana in the i9zos. Films with sympathetic characterizations of religious people from Chariots of Fire to Driving Miss Daisy, from Witness to A Stranger Among Us, are similarly placed in distant or exotic settings. On the other hand, it is difficult to find a religious portrayal set in a contemporary urban setting that is even vaguely affectionate. Most exceptions to this rule prove that Hollywood’s motivations have nothing to do with greed for box office gold. Sister Act may not portray Roman Catholic nuns as intellectual giants, but it at least presents them as nice people. Its surprisingly uplifting message helped it to become the fourth highest money-maker of the year.

There is one more example to cite—a film that cost $37 million to make, but earned less than $2 million at the box office: King David, starring Richard Gere. The film concludes with King David—the biblical King David—losing his faith. He becomes an atheist because he is angry that his son Absalom has died. King David takes his sword and smashes the scale model of the temple he was going to build in Jerusalem. When I asked the movie’s producer why he changed the ending from “the book,” he replied, “We could have gone the easy way, played to the Bible Belt, and made King David into some kind of a Holy Joe, but we wanted a main character with more integrity.” The idea that the Psalmist might somehow lack integrity if portrayed as unshakably religious is the sort of peculiar notion that could only flourish in Hollywood.

Massaging the Message

My third and final point is Hollywood’s infatuation with “message movies.” At the moment, Hollywood is reeling from a series of megastar megaflops that were released during the Christmas season of 1992. The biggest flop of all has been Toys. It is a Robin Williams film, directed by Barry Levinson, who also was director of Rainman and Bugsy. The movie is about an evil general who takes over a toy company in the hopes of converting the poor, innocent little toys into war toys because there’s a Pentagon plot to use these toys as weapons of war to train all the children of America as a secret cadre of fighters able to defeat our enemies. The film’s script was written at the height of the Cold War by Barry Levinson. Why 20th Century Fox decided to wait until the Cold War was over to make the film, no one knows. But Fox released it as a big “message” movie, specifically an anti-military message movie, and it is a gigantic flop.

Even more striking as examples of Hollywood’s detachment from the mass audience it claims to serve were the holiday season’s three hugely expensive, grandly ambitious film-biographies: Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, Danny DeVito’s Hoffa, and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. What do the three figures celebrated in these films have in common? They were all crushed in some way by mainstream society and its institutions, and they all lived through fundamentally tragic, nightmarish experiences with America. And these three pictures, despite their flashes of undeniable cinematic brilliance, have something else in common—they all proved to be major disappointments at the box office. Most Americans do not feel that they have had nightmarish experiences with their country—they feel gratitude for the privilege of living here. It shouldn’t have taken a public relations genius to understand that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to persuade the mass audience to invest hard-earned money to come see these three very long, very tendentious, very downbeat movies about three alienated and doomed heroes.

The fact is, as the late Sam Goldwyn famously said: If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. Part of the problem with Hollywood today is that major movie studios have increasingly come to resemble telegraph offices. Messages are inserted again and again, even when you would least expect them. I think what we are dealing with here is a psychopathology. It’s not mysterious why someone would take a successful formula like Diehard, and then give us Diehard on a boat (Under Siege), and Diehard on a plane (Passenger 57). They all seem to work, and people come to see them no matter how bad they are. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that. But it takes some kind of mystic to understand why Hollywood keeps making movies about old-time radicals.

The most famous message movie flop was, of course, Reds, for which Warren Beatty won best director of the year at the Academy Awards. Produced in the early ’80s, the movie cost $45 million to make. Try to imagine that you’re an executive for Gulf-Western, which owns Paramount Pictures, and Warren Beatty comes to you and says, “Hey, guys, I’ve got a great idea. I want to make a movie about the tragic life of America’s best known Communist Party member, John Reed. And I want to make it about his love affair with Louise Bryant, an early feminist radical; and how John Reed died at a young age. And he’s so honored, he’s buried in the Kremlin Wall.” Keep in mind, this occurs at the height of the Reagan era. What did Paramount executives reply? They didn’t even suggest that Beatty re-title his movie, “Commie Dearest.” No, they handed him the $45 million, and Beatty went on his merry way, and the film lost millions upon millions of their dollars.

The whole series of message movie bombs includes The House on Carroll Street, a Kelly McGillis movie about left-wing activists who were persecuted, hounded, destroyed by merciless McCarthyites. Then there was Daniel, the domestic comedy about that fun-loving Rosenberg clan, and Insignificance, featuring Tony Curtis as Senator Joe McCarthy. Garbo Talks, about a one-time victim of McCarthyism, and Rocket Gibraltar, starring Burt Lancaster as a blacklisted screenwriter. More recently there was the Robert De Niro-Annette Benning film, Guilty by Suspicion. Hollywood produced one film after another about suffering screenwriters in the McCarthy era, and nobody came to view them.

The same thing is true about 196os radicals portrayed in movies like Far Out, Man; Running on Empty; Flashback; Rude Awakening, and many others. The only film about ’60s radicals that made any money was The Big Chill, and that was because the characters were portrayed, not as radicals, but as rather prosperous yuppies.

Despite these and many other flops, more are coming. There are four projects in active development about the life of Frida Kahlo, the brilliant bisexual painter and life-long Communist Party member who enjoyed a celebrated affair with Leon Trotsky. Major stars are being casted, including Madonna, who says this is her dream part. There are also five projects underway on the Black Panther Party, doubtless employing more people than were ever members of the Panthers. A Warner Brothers vice president says, “We look upon the Black Panther movement as a very positive one, but one that was repressed by white society.” No one in his right mind would want to invest in that movie.

The Adolescent Imperative

What does the gratuitous use of foul language, the hostility toward religion, and the addiction to solemn left-wing message movies reveal about the underlying culture of Hollywood? First, the foul language demonstrates that Hollywood culture is driven by the adolescent imperative—the need to remain a perpetual teenager. The addiction to foul language reveals volumes about the fundamental immaturity behind the entire moviemaking enterprise today. The same kind of adolescent attitude underlies the industry’s approach to sex, to violence, to a general obsession that we’re all going to be teenagers forever.

Second, Hollywood’s hostility toward religion illustrates the film industry’s underlying emphasis on alienation. There is a sense in Hollywood that in order to be a serious artist one must be an alienated artist convinced that life is bleak and meaningless and dishonest and hypocritical. Hollywood attacks religion so producers and actors can seem to be embattled, dangerous, and rebellious. It is really touching to pretend to be embattled when you drive a Rolls Royce and your salary is $15 million per picture. These people are at the pinnacle of our society in terms of financial rewards, achievement, and prominence, yet the more they succeed, the more they need to attack conventional institutions in order to make it clear they’ve kept faith with their roots as alienated, embattled, dangerous artists on the cutting edge. And what better institution to attack than religion?

Judaism and Christianity maintain that there are standards—standards of behavior, standards for life. But the attitude of a typical Hollywood artist is that standards are a violation of individuality and freedom. Consider the artistic credo of Gus Van Sant, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood: “I believe the properly manipulated image can provoke an audience to the Burroughsian limit of riot, rampant sex, instantaneous death, even spontaneous combustion…. The raw materials of inspiration include elements as primal and potentially frightening as violence, sex, and death—which have haunted us since we were reptiles slithering on the ground. Only in our dreams can we make the journey back through labyrinthine, DNA-encoded history to our fiery, barbaric origins. But the primitive world of blood and flame is still with us.” The primitive world of blood and flame certainly is still with us, as anybody who goes to his local multiplex can attest.

Third, and finally, the infatuation with message movies reflects Hollywood’s need to feel a sense of self-importance. The fact is that people in the movie business desperately want the respect of their peers, because artists tend to be insecure. Their pretentiousness, their preening, their desperate desire to be taken seriously runs very deep, and even leads to financial risk-taking on a grand scale, as the industry shows its “integrity” by ignoring—and even assaulting—the sensibilities of much of the public. It has recently appeared in their current efforts to send us messages about condoms, which now appear in numerous films.

If the culture of Hollywood is as ugly as all this, and if Hollywood is as dysfunctional as I say it is, a very obvious question arises: why not just turn off the TV and exercise our right not to go to any of these movies? I believe that ignoring Hollywood is not enough. Because in our country, to say that we don’t like popular culture and intend to turn it off is like saying we don’t like the smog so we’ll stop breathing. Popular culture is everywhere, insinuating itself into every crevice of our lives. To deal with the problems it causes calls for corporate accountability and responsibility, in the same way that environmental activists want to hold corporations accountable for the pollution of our air and water.

Many people would declare this a losing proposition; the “culture war,” they would say, ended in a loss on November 4. Yet only two weeks after Bill Clinton was elected president, he told TV Guide: “The cumulative impact of the banalization of sex and violence in the popular culture is a net negative for America. I think the question is: what can Hollywood do, not just to entertain, but to raise the human spirit?”

I do not know how sincere Clinton is on this point, but he does recognize that this is a proposition with which the overwhelming majority of his fellow citizens agree. It’s good politics. The 43 percent who voted for Clinton were not voting for more F-words in movies. They didn’t see the election as a referendum on the amount of violence in motion pictures. Few people in this country are thrilled with the current content of our popular culture, and Americans are sincerely worried over the impact of film, television, and motion pictures on their children and their society.

These concerns will not magically disappear with a changing of the guard in Washington. The culture war is not over. It has barely begun.


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