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Hollywood's liberal losses
By Brian C. Anderson
It was hard to parody Hollywood's loony limousine liberalism this summer. "I'm coming out," trumpeted actress Jane Fonda about her plans for an anti-Iraq-war bus tour. "I have not taken a stand on any war since Vietnam" -- if "stand" is the right word for her 1972 lovefest with the enemy. Paramount announced that conspiracy-minded director Oliver Stone, who described the 9/11 terrorists' "revolt" as a legitimate "f - - - you, f - - - your order" to culture-controlling American movie corporations (of all things), will helm Tinseltown's first large-scale drama about the attacks. David Koepp, co-writer of Steven Spielberg's remake of "War of the Worlds," likened the movie's ravaging aliens to the U.S. military in Iraq. And on the Huffington Post Web site, such celebrity lefties as Rob Reiner and Laurie David huffed daily about President Bush's outrages against civil liberties, Mother Earth and all that's proper.
But guess what: Ever more Americans are shunning Hollywood's wares -- and disgust with Left Coast politics, on and off screen, clearly plays a part. In a time of declining moviegoing, what gets people out to the theaters, it turns out, are conservative movies -- conservative not so much politically but culturally and morally, focusing on the battle between good and evil, the worth of heroism and self-sacrifice, the indispensability of family values and martial honor, and the existence of Truth. Hollywood used to turn out a steady supply of such movies -- watch just about any film from its Golden Age of the '30s and '40s -- and it still makes them once in a while. We may soon see a lot more of them.
There's no question Hollywood is reeling. Film attendance is down a wrenching 12 percent from last year, and a May USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that nearly half of American adults go to movies less often than they did in 2000. Some pundits have blamed the rising price of tickets, but in constant dollars a ticket costs less than it did 25 years ago. Others believe that it's all those DVDs that people are buying -- except that DVD sales are slumping, too. The most likely explanation is the left-wing politics.
"You can date the recent box-office decline from the end of the summer last year, with the intensification of the presidential campaign," notes conservative film critic and talk-radio host Michael Medved. "It wasn't just Hollywood's hostility toward President Bush; it was the naked, raw partisanship."
If even one in 10 Bush voters boycotted Hollywood after hearing the latest Tim Robbins anti-Bush diatribe or seeing yet another big-screen conservative villain (like the Dick Cheney look-alike who nearly destroyed the world in last year's "The Day After Tomorrow"), it would add up to 6 million fewer viewers, Medved points out. "This is what many people in the movie industry don't get: When you express hostility to conservatives, many Americans feel that you're expressing hostility to them."
Surveys support Medved's theory. A Hollywood Reporter poll finds that nearly one in two Americans might shun a film starring an actor whose politics repulsed them. "The politics is definitely having an impact," observes Govindini Murty, an actress and editor of Libertas, an influential conservative film blog. "Do car companies insult Republicans in their ads?"
'EVERYBODY LOVES A HERO'
When Hollywood does put its liberal worldview aside to make movies that embody traditional values, it often scores big with the public. Consider 2004's "Spider-Man 2," a sequel far better than the original. Directed by Sam Raimi, the movie is a visual wonder: The scenes of Spider-Man (played by soft-spoken Tobey Maguire) battling the terrorist Doctor Octavius (Alfred Molina) high above New York virtually explode off the screen. "Spider-Man 2" is so eye-catching that you might miss the story's old-fashioned moral truths.
The movie is a fable about duty and heroism. Young Peter Parker decides to hang up his Spider-Man costume, since his super-heroics -- made possible by the bite of a genetically mutated spider -- have kept him from chasing his dreams, which include, above all, winning Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Parker takes this step after visiting an aging hippie doctor, Grateful Dead shirt under white scrubs, who advises, in vintage if-it-feels-good-do-it style: "You always have a choice."
Yet as city crime skyrockets and the threat of Doc Ock grows, Parker's conscience haunts him. In a crucial scene, his loving Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), the moral center of his life, sets him straight. "Everybody loves a hero," she says. "People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer."
Struck by her plain wisdom, Parker eventually does the right thing, not his own thing: Spider-Man returns and saves Gotham from Doc Ock. The movie's essential message is exactly contrary to the guilt-free "just do it" ethos of the '60s: sometimes the choice you have to make, to live a morally meaningful life, is to do your duty. The movie resonated powerfully with the public, grossing a whopping $374 million domestically, and it took in another $400 million or so overseas. Factor in DVD sales, and you're getting close to a billion-dollar movie.
Pixar Studio's dazzling animated superhero film "The Incredibles" (2004) is another box-office winner -- domestic gross $261 million -- with a surprisingly right-of-center worldview. Writer and director Brad Bird's story, enjoyable for kids and their folks too, revolves around an appealing family of five, who just happen to be hiding the fact that they're superhuman. Like others with enhanced abilities, parents Bob and Helen Parr (the former Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) "retired" with the help of the federal government's "superhero relocation program." Tort-crazy lawyers, you see, had slapped the superheroes with so many spurious lawsuits on behalf of those they'd saved that it became impossible to use special abilities without incurring financial ruin. The Parrs now raise their kids in a typical American suburb, a seemingly typical family.
The defense of excellence -- and frustration with the politically correct war against it -- is a central theme of "The Incredibles," as in a scene when Helen chides Bob for not attending their son Dash's "graduation" from fourth grade. "It's psychotic," Bob thunders. "They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional . . ."
"The Incredibles" affectionately embraces the bourgeois family, flaws and all. The Parrs have their difficulties: Teenager Violet is sullen, the kids fight, Mom and Dad bicker, Bob hates his drab insurance job. But for the Parr kids, the family bond is all-important: A worried Violet, suspecting (wrongly) that their middle-aged father might be having an affair -- Helen has rushed off to rescue him -- tells Dash, "Mom and Dad's lives could be in danger. Or worse -- their marriage." And the parents will risk anything to protect their children, as the film thrillingly demonstrates more than once. The movie shows children "what adults are supposed to do," writes author Frederica Mathewes-Green on National Review Online -- "to be brave and self-sacrificing, to defend children even at risk to themselves, to give, even in the face of ingratitude."
Martial virtues, long jeered at by liberal Hollywood, have enjoyed a big-screen comeback over the last half-decade or so. Peter Jackson's sweeping adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (2001-2003) teaches us about the need for free men and women to stand up with military force to totalitarian evil -- and about the potential of power to corrupt even the most decent from within. Many observers have likened Mordor's destructive horror in the movies to the Islamofascism that now threatens the West, just as readers of Tolkien's novels likened it to Nazism. The films have grossed over $1 billion domestically and twice that overseas. Spielberg's 1998 World War II blockbuster, "Saving Private Ryan," devastatingly realistic in capturing the horror of military combat, also extols martial virtues, in the heroism and honor of U.S. soldiers.
And all this is before coming to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," the 2004 movie that became a flashpoint in the nation's culture wars. An emotionally gripping and devout retelling of Christ's crucifixion in the dead languages of Aramaic and Latin, "The Passion" filled theaters worldwide with tradition-minded evangelicals and Catholics, many of whom rarely go to the movies. Despite fierce (and unjustified) criticism that the film was intolerant and anti-Semitic, "The Passion," made for $30 million, grossed a staggering $370 million domestically and another $240 million overseas, making it one of the biggest movie sensations ever.
PG AND PG-13 MOVIES MAKE MORE
The size of the market for such conservative films first grew clear in the late '60 and '70s, when Hollywood nearly stopped making them. Swept up in the era's revolutionary spirit, the industry junked its decades-old production code -- which mandated respect for marriage, the military and religion and forbade cussin' and nudity. The countercultural movies of "New Hollywood" -- such as Arthur Penn's violent, criminal-glorifying "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), Robert Altman's cynical antiwar comedy "M.A.S.H." (1970), Hal Ashby's sordid paean to the sexual revolution "Shampoo" (1975), and Martin Scorcese's urban nightmare "Taxi Driver" (1976) -- wowed critics, who shared their anti-establishment and anti-American attitudes. But moviegoers turned up their noses. Weekly film attendance in 1967, the first year after Hollywood dumped the production code, plummeted to 17.8 million, from 38 million the year before. "In a single one-year period," Medved notes, "more than half the movie audience disappeared -- by far the largest one-year decline in the history of the motion picture business." That audience then hovered around 20 million for the next three decades, despite a growing U.S. population.
There's no mystery why so many stay home. Still dominated by countercultural types, Hollywood keeps churning out "edgy," envelope-pushing movies -- more than half of its films receive R ratings, for example -- and Americans keep giving them thumbs-down, as the correlation of profit and ratings shows. Only five of the 50 top-grossing movies of all time have R ratings, and 13 of the top 100. A big 2005 Dove Foundation study examined the 3,000 most widely distributed Hollywood movies from 1989 through 2003 in each ratings category. It found PG- and PG-13-rated films between three and four times more profitable on average than R-rated ones -- and G films, like this year's hit nature documentary "March of the Penguins" more profitable still. The average R movie loses $6.9 million, the study showed; the average PG movie made nearly $30 million; the typical G movie made over $70 million. And a Christian Film and Television Commission study of the box-office receipts of the top 250 movies over the last three years found that films expressing a strong traditional moral message, whatever their ratings, earned four to seven times as much as movies pushing a left-wing cultural agenda.
Hollywood owes its best recent years -- 2002 and 2003, when it cracked the 30 million ticket mark again for the first time since 1966 -- largely to the massive box-office success of a handful of conservative, family-friendly movies, including the first two "Lord of the Rings" installments, "Finding Nemo" and the low-budget smash "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," virtually an ethnic "Father Knows Best."
There's a simple explanation of why Tinseltown churns out so many commercial duds. Elite filmmakers want to make moola, of course -- and they still do, lots of it, though not nearly as much as they could be making. But giving the public what it wants isn't their prime motivation. More important is their wish for recognition as artists from peers, critics, and the liberal elites, says Emmy- and Oscar-nominated writer and director Lionel Chetwynd, one of Hollywood's most vocal conservatives. "And it has been true from the late '60s on that if you wanted to be seen as an artist, you have to be a liberal -- you have to rail against the government, be edgy," he adds.
Further reinforcing Hollywood's leftish leanings are liberal interest groups that monitor script content for "offensive" -- read: politically incorrect -- content. This pressure can utterly transform a film project, as Tom Clancy will tell you. In his novel The Sum of All Fears, Muslim terrorists explode a nuke at the Super Bowl. When Clancy optioned the book and the film went into development, the Council on American Islamic Relations got to work. The 2002 film villains: white neo-Nazis, not Muslim fanatics. Some Hollywood production companies actually have outreach offices that contact advocacy groups ahead of production to vet potential film scripts.
The PC concerns, internalized in scriptwriters' heads even before any advocate complains, can produce bizarre incoherence. Novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan's True Crime is about an innocent white man on death row, railroaded because officials needed to prove that the death penalty isn't racially biased. "The only one who figures this out is this politically incorrect journalist who can see through the B.S.," Klavan relates. The gripping 1999 movie version, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as journalist Steve Everett, transforms the innocent death-row inmate into a black man (played by Isaiah Washington). The movie works, even if it takes the anti-PC edge off Klavan's novel.
But the screenplay leaves in a sequence depicting a black woman confronting journalist Everett for caring only about injustices against whites and not blacks -- even though the movie now revolves around the reporter's relentless quest to exonerate a wrongly convicted African American. "That scene no longer makes any sense," Klavan laughs. "The screenwriter apparently found the original politically inappropriate."
MOVING TO THE RIGHT
Even so, jolted by "The Passion's" huge success, Hollywood seems to be catching on that it is neglecting a large part of its potential audience. "When something does nearly $400 million in U.S. box office, and it isn't in English -- it makes an impression," says former Universal Pictures boss Frank Price. The New York Times reported in July that studios have hired "newly minted experts in Christian marketing" to help sell movies with religious or family themes to red-state America.
But a movie comes out of a worldview, and the Hollywood of Barbra Streisand, Rob Reiner and Alec Baldwin may still not get it. Libertas' Murty says that a publicist for Ridley Scott's expensive 2005 flop about the Crusades, "Kingdom of Heaven," asked her and her filmmaker husband, Jason Apuzzo, for advice on marketing the film to conservatives and Christians. Invited to a press screening along with representatives of various Christian groups, the two watched in disbelief as the movie opened with a Catholic priest beheading a woman and stealing her rosary -- and went on in that vein, while also presenting the Muslims as noble and wise. "Every single person directly associated with the church in the movie is a murderer or a liar. They really thought this would appeal to Christians," Murty recounts. "Some of these people live in this completely sealed world in West Hollywood and didn't register how offensive the movie would be."
Nevertheless, several indicators suggest that the film industry's cultural stance may be changing more dramatically than hiring some new marketers. For starters, Hollywood is home to a growing right-of-center presence, including hotshot young producers like Mike De Luca, until recently of DreamWorks, and Gavin Pollone, and rising screenwriters like Craig Mazin, Cyrus Nowrasteh and Klavan. What's more, if reports are true, other young Hollywood types are on the right, but keep their views quiet, for fear of career trouble in a still-liberal town. "It's becoming increasingly clear that a significant majority of the young people coming into Hollywood are conservative," opined Chetwynd this summer. Last fall, Details magazine's expose "Young and Republican in Hollywood" caused a stir by "outing" comedian Adam Sandler, actor Freddie Prinze Jr. and others as secret right-wingers. AMC's 2004 documentary "Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood," directed by former Democratic speechwriter Jesse Mosse, concludes that Hollywood will be shifting right as the under-40s become its new establishment. Already reinforcing David Horowitz's long-established Wednesday Morning Club, which hosts conservative speakers for open-minded industry listeners, are such newly formed right-wing salons as the Hollywood Congress of Republicans and the discreet Sunday Evening Club, for still-closeted rightists.
When a trendsetter like Polone can observe that "we live in a much more conservative country than the entertainment industry had thought it was, and it would be much smarter for them to move in that direction," it's a pretty safe bet that the new Hollywood establishment will indeed be very different from the one that it soon will replace.
No one seems better positioned to move Hollywood right than billionaire Philip Anschutz, whose Anschutz Film Group oversees two studios: Walden Media and Bristol Bay Productions. Owner of everything from oil fields to railroads to newspapers, Anschutz decided not long ago to begin a career as a 21st-century Louis B. Mayer. His agenda: producing humanistic, family-oriented films. "We expect them to be entertaining, but also to be life affirming and to carry a moral message," he told a Hillsdale College audience last year.
Like an old-time film mogul, Anschutz has nailed down the distribution side. His Regal Entertainment is the nation's largest movie-theater chain, with about 18 percent of all U.S. indoor screens. He keeps a firm hand on the creative process. "Many things happen between the time you hatch an idea for a movie and the time that it gets to theaters -- and most of them are bad," he told his Hillsdale listeners. "So you need to control the type of writers you have, the type of directors you get, the type of actors you employ and the type of editors that work on the final product."
Anschutz demanded, for instance, that director Taylor Hackford revise the 2004 Ray Charles biopic, "Ray," toning down the film's focus on the performer's drug problems and sexual exploits. The resulting movie is an honest -- there's no effort to whitewash the drugs and womanizing -- but ultimately inspiring narrative of Charles' successful perseverance against the great odds of his own blindness and moral flaws and society's racism. The movie -- funded entirely by Anschutz, after every major studio had rejected it -- garnered six Oscar nominations, winning two.
Anschutz is off to a gangbuster start, and not just because of "Ray." This year's bittersweet "Because of Winn-Dixie," based on the children's novel by Kate DiCamillo, tells the story of 10-year-old Opal (newcomer Annasophia Robb) and her preacher father (Jeff Daniels), who've just moved to a lower-middle-class Florida town as the movie opens. Opal's mother, hating being a preacher's wife, had abandoned the family several years earlier. The film unsentimentally captures the pain and loneliness that divorce causes children to feel. Portraying both small-town America and the Baptist faith with unpretentious sympathy, "Winn-Dixie" made back most of its modest $14 million production budget on its opening weekend and is currently one of the top-selling DVDs in the country.
Anschutz's most ambitious effort yet is the forthcoming $150 million adaptation of C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," a Walden Media/Disney co-production opening in December. The Narnia books, an extended allegory of Christ's resurrection, have sold 120 million copies worldwide. Walden will work closely with Christian organizations to market the film.
©2005 Chicago Sun-Times
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