A Lower Body Count: Public Outcry and Government Scrutiny Have Entertainers Dialing Down the Violence. What Will a Softer Pop Culture Look Like?

Article excerpt

The entertainment industry loves to say it influences people. Television and radio stations promise advertisers that they can shape consumer preferences in shampoo or soft drinks. Stars use their celebrity to publicize causes like AIDS research or famine relief. But when it comes to the influence of violence in some movies, television, music and videogames on behavior, the same people get prickly. In the wake of recent atrocities, the industry has turned typically defensive. Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom International Inc., raised the battle cry at a conference of cable-TV professionals in June. "I'm outraged by a lot of what we hear blaming the media for what's going on," he argued. "I don't think we have anything to be ashamed of."

Now some entertainers and executives--most of whom would speak only anonymously--say this armor is starting to come down. In private, they are willing to talk about an evolving sense of responsibility. "I am more sensitive than a year ago because of what is in the air," says the head of one major film studio. "Not that I believe [violent entertainment] causes street violence. But there is validity to the idea that it is a contributing factor, along with guns." A recent Writers Guild conference devoted a panel to discussing the recent carnage. They called it "Guns Don't Kill People, Writers Do."

This hand-wringing coincides with pressure from government and the public. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll, 78 percent of respondents said violence in the media deserved "some" or "a lot" of the blame for the recent mass shootings, a higher percentage than blamed the increased availability of guns (70 percent). Last week the Federal Trade Commission began a $1 million investigation into the marketing of violent entertainment and games to children. "I don't want to take on Washington," says one studio head. "We've passed on three projects recently that were too violent."

The Motion Picture Association of America is pressing all its members to staunch the gratuitous flow of blood. Besides rating films, the trade group approves all advertising, including trailers and Web sites. "We've taken a hard look at guns" in ads, says the MPAA's Bethlyn Hand. "And quite frankly, that's a result of Littleton. Before that we'd let you have four guns on a poster. Now you can have one." The guidelines are equally stern, if less clear, concerning gore. The board occasionally bounces ads for showing too much blood on a knife. How much is too much? "We allow a trickle," says Hand, "and not a stream."

The public's appetite for destruction may also be waning. In the mid-1990s, Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis filled summer screens with an orgy of blood. But as the movies got dumber, audiences turned elsewhere. Only the cyberpunk hit "The Matrix" carries a high body count this season. "The Blair Witch Project," the summer's horror hit, shows no violence on the screen. "The public, through ticket sales, showed it is no longer interested in that," says Peter Strauss, president of Lions Gate Films, whose movies include "Gods and Monsters" and "Affliction." The irony, says Mark Amin, chairman of Trimark Pictures, which specializes in B fare, is that "we have to create more violent versions of our movies to please the Japanese market."

Black-oriented movies and rap music have been years ahead in the movement to disarm, likely because African-American communities felt the pain of random violence before the rest of the country. After the rash of 'hood movies like "New Jack City" and "Menace II Society" in the early 1990s, filmmakers and producers turned their focus to a larger slice of black life. This year's big releases, "The Wood" and the upcoming "The Best Man," are middle-class relationship movies. Hip-hop, led by acts like Lauryn Hill, has taken a similar step back from the brink. …