Jewish World Review August 2, 2002 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5762

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Hollywood reconnects with families | At a time when most forms of entertainment face shrinking audiences and plummeting public support, Hollywood movies have been enjoying a startling summertime surge in popularity. The booming box office simultaneously delights and puzzles powerful producers, since no one has an easy explanation for the dramatic 20% increase over last year's figures.

The conventional wisdom suggests that people seek escape at times of national crisis: "Moviegoers Are Flocking to Forget Their Troubles," proclaimed a headline in The New York Times. But such facile analysis can't account for the fact that the public seems indifferent to other forms of diversion at the same time they enthusiastically embrace new motion pictures.

Major television networks have experienced dramatic declines in viewership, while total spending on CDs and other recorded music formats has suffered painful retreats. Crowds are dwindling at concerts, sporting events and theme parks, while magazine and book sales similarly sag.

Only movies boast booming business. They do so because Hollywood has begun to reconnect with the mainstream family audience that other media shun - and that Tinseltown itself insulted and assaulted some 30 years ago.

The best way to understand the movie industry's current success is to come to terms with its period of greatest failure. Between 1960 and 1970, Americans rejected motion pictures with unprecedented ferocity and produced the sharpest audience decline in movie history. What happened between 1960 (when 22% of the population went to the movies every week) and 1970 (when only 9% did) to cause literally tens of millions of people to break the film-going habit? Contrary to popular belief, this abrupt collapse in the size of movie audiences had little to do with the introduction of television, because more than four out of five American homes already owned at least one television set by 1960.

The racy content of films - not their inconvenience or cost - drove ordinary families away from their local theatres. In 1973, the chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners, B.V. Sturdivant, "blamed a commensurate drop in the morality quotient of films for much of the erosion in patronage," according to The Hollywood Reporter, which covered a speech he gave. Sturdivant declared that the box-office plunge originated "when the scatological stench permeated so many production circles and obscenity coupled with violence threatened to explode beyond acceptable limits."

The basis for such alarm involved the 1966 scrapping of the old Production Code that had placed strict limits on harsh language, graphic sex and excessive violence in motion pictures. Suddenly, moviemakers felt liberated to test the limits of artistic expression and to redefine their fundamental ideas of what constituted motion picture greatness.

In 1965, the Academy Award for best picture went to the irresistibly wholesome smash hit The Sound of Music. Just four years later, as mass audiences turned in disgust from the industry's increasingly edgy fare, the most prestigious Oscar went to the homeless/hustler melodrama Midnight Cowboy -the only X-rated offering ever to win best picture.

For the next 30 years, Hollywood indulged its counterproductive obsession with adults-only fare. Nearly two-thirds of all releases during these decades drew the restrictive "R" rating, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

As a result, ticket sales remained sluggish, rising more slowly than the overall increase in population. The steady rise in ticket prices masked the problem. Unduly optimistic numbers about record-setting "box office dollars" were reported even as the size of the audience remained disappointingly static. The American Enterprise reported a growth in the domestic film audience of only 20% between 1975 and 2000; meanwhile, the population rose by more than 25% and the overall size of the U.S. economy more than doubled.

Finally, after more than a half-dozen statistical studies reporting that R-rated fare performed more poorly at the box office than titles aimed at family audiences, Hollywood began to get the idea. This summer, the release schedule fully reflected a self-conscious reorientation that began several years ago. Forty "PG" or "G" films are among the offerings, compared to only 28 in 1999. The biggest box office winners aimed at broad family audiences, who responded enthusiastically and profitably to Stuart Little 2 (released last weekend), Spider-Man, Star Wars Episode II, Ice Age, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Lilo & Stitch,Like Mike, and even the wretchedly inept (but PG-rated and undeniably popular) Scooby-Doo.

The result has been a slight but significant change in the image of motion pictures. Parents in particular eagerly support the more wholesome alternatives now made available week after week. No other form of entertainment showed a similar shift, and no other form of entertainment showed a similar upswing in terms of public response.

It's hard to imagine that any wary consumer would suggest that television or popular music became notably less smutty in the last few months - though a number of TV networks (particularly, ABC) talk about getting on board the family-friendly bandwagon for the new season.

Hollywood's new approach represents an overdue return to balance and common sense rather than some moralistic revival. After all, the summer schedule has also produced commercial success for thematically dark but artistically excellent releases like the superb Tom Hanks-Paul Newman vehicle Road to Perdition (rated R) and the Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise collaboration Minority Report (rated an intense PG-13). Even those who prefer such challenging material should celebrate the fresh availability of softer alternatives. They provide an outreach to an audience segment needlessly alienated some 30 years ago and encourage parents to share the movie-going experience with their kids rather than hire a sitter.

As the legendary mogul and Hollywood pioneer Samuel Goldwyn reputedly (and sagely) observed: "It is better to sell four tickets than two."

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JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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