How Hollywood Responded to the Sandy Hook School Shooting

Four months later, what meaningful solutions have they come up with? The short answer: Not many

ryan gosling gangster squad
Jamie Trueblood/Warner Bros.
Ryan Gosling as Sgt. Jerry Wooters in 'Gangster Squad.'
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Back in January, a few weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, Vice President Joe Biden met with top executives from the film industry and urged them to make violent entertainment less readily available to children. Those present – distributors and exhibitors mainly, all of whom were eager to avoid any government regulation of their industry – issued a statement, assuring Americans that they would be on their best behavior when it came to releasing and marketing violent movies. "This industry has a longstanding commitment to provide parents the tools necessary to make the right viewing decisions for their families," the statement read. "We welcome the opportunity to share that history and look forward to doing our part to seek meaningful solutions."

Four months later, what "meaningful solutions" has Hollywood come up with? The short answer: Not many.

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Understandably, the industry is weary of government intervention. Early in the last century, local censorship boards across the country, each with its own set of standards, regulated the screenings of movies. Hollywood responded with voluntary self-censorship via the Hays Code, a set of rules that kept profanity and sexuality out of theaters from the 1930s through the 1960s. When filmmakers and audiences, both hungry for more mature content, drove the Code into the ground, the MPAA invented the current ratings system to keep the feds from intervening.

These days, the MPAA would challenge any kind of content restriction on First Amendment grounds, but it still fears that Congress might try to pass laws in a climate of public anti-Hollywood sentiment aggravated by atrocities like Sandy Hook. So, pressured in part by the Veep, Hollywood outlined their proposed adjustments at CinemaCon, the annual Las Vegas trade show where studio executives and theater owners meet to assess the state of the film business. It was there that the National Organization of Theater Owners (NATO) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) unveiled three initiatives intent on curbing movie violence.

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Make Fewer R-Rated Movies
This was the suggestion NATO president John Fithian made to the studios. After all, he said, "Americans have stated their choice," citing the poor, post-Newtown performance of such violent action flicks as Gangster Squad, Parker, Broken City, and Bullet to the Head.

Fithian's suggestion, however, ignores a few harsh realities. First, America's moviegoing choices weigh less in the consideration of Hollywood studios than the tastes of the rest of the world. Foreign ticket sales now account for the bulk of a mainstream Hollywood movie's grosses. And overseas, they really like violent escapist fantasies. (And yet, real-life gun violence is rare in those countries.)

Second, what about R-rated comedies, like Identity Thief, or last year's Ted? Both were big hits. And so were such violent but Oscar-worthy R-rated movies as Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty. Why penalize the moviegoers who might like to see those? Or the theater owners who would like to profit from them?

And what about PG-13 movies? They're often just as violent as R-rated films, but neither the exhibitors nor the studios wants to see them curtailed, because they're the most profitable films of all (since they attract kids and teens who want to see something edgy without freaking out their parents over the more restrictive R rating). So even if the studios implemented Fithian's suggestion, which they are unlikely to do, it wouldn't make violent movies any less available to children.

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Expand the Content Box
That's the box at the bottom of an ad that tells you what sort of content (violence, sexuality, profanity) earned a movie its rating. At CinemaCon, the MPAA announced it was making the box bigger and easier to read, and that it was launching a PR campaign called "Check the Box" to alert parents to the shift. The movies themselves won't change, and neither will the vague content descriptions that fill the box, but those warnings will be easier to read and harder to miss.

Add a New Disclaimer Before Trailers
In place of the old disclaimer, which simply relays that the MPAA had approved the contents of the ad for all audiences, the new disclaimer specifies (stay with us here) that the MPAA approved the trailer's content as suitable for the audience that came to see the particular movie it accompanies. In theory, this will keep trailers full of disturbing violence from being shown at screenings of movies with kid-friendly ratings. In practice, however, studios are already selective about which movies their trailers accompany (for marketing reasons). And red-band trailers of restricted content will still be readily available on the Internet. It's hard to see how this measure protects parents, kids, theater owners or anyone except the studios.

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And. . . that's all, folks. In the wake of a horrific schoolhouse massacre that inflamed the nation and led to government calls for action, that's all Hollywood is likely to do to shield kids from screen violence. At best, the result will be some barely noticeable changes in advertising.

 Of course, the notion that Hollywood should change its ways at all assumes that there is a causal link between screen violence and real-life violence. The fact that viewers in other countries watch these same movies without then shooting anyone would seem to refute that assumption.

Still, if you think that kids witness too much gun violence at the movies, there's one easy fix that the MPAA could do: make any depiction of gun violence worthy of an automatic R rating. Neither the studios nor the theater owners will ever allow this to happen, however, since it would kill the golden goose of the PG-13 rating.

But hey, they made the content box bigger, so Hollywood can congratulate itself on a job well done, right? Let us know in the comments section – has the film industry done enough to change its ways in the wake of the Newton massacre?