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Hollywood in the Year AD 1 (After Dole)

Entertainment: How has the industry responded since the Republican leader's initial criticisms in May 1995?

July 31, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA and CLAUDIA PUIG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Television director Steve Robman, who describes himself as a onetime "Berkeley lefty," came face to face recently with Hollywood's political realities.

While directing an episode of the acclaimed Fox television show "Party of Five," Robman found himself in an extensive discussion with network and corporate brass over a plot line that called for the 16-year-old female lead to terminate her pregnancy.

"I preferred that she'd have the abortion and deal with the emotional fallout," Robman said. "The producers and network questioned whether the public could accept that decision. They decided probably not, and in the end, she had a miscarriage. The decision might have been different in a different time and place. . . . Even the writers--die-hard liberals--had to admit there was a certain amount of electricity surrounding the issue. There is no question that at the network and corporate level, sensitivities are heightened now."

Discussions such as these have grown increasingly common since Bob Dole took the film and television industry to task in May 1995 for turning out "nightmares of depravity." With the likely Republican presidential candidate returning to Hollywood Tuesday for his "sequel"--a more conciliatory yet still critical address--industry insiders weighed the impact of Dole's earlier attack.

The broadcast television industry has changed the most, they say, but most attribute it less to Dole than to pressures from both sides of the political spectrum. For his part, President Clinton has also leaned on the industry by supporting the controversial V-chip legislation and by pushing for increased children's educational programming on the major networks.

"A lot of people are getting in on this act," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. "Criticizing our business is high-reward, low-risk. Politicians have found that it moves their numbers and there has been increased sensitivity on our part, as a result."

Studios and filmmakers, who aren't subject to Federal Communications Commission regulation or internal standards and practices oversight, have largely ignored Dole's criticism. Studio executives say their consciences and the box office are their guides.

"The industry has always listened to what the public tells them, in the form of whether they go to the movies or not," said Tom Sherak, senior executive vice president of 20th Century Fox. "This summer, whether intentional or not, there seem to be a number of pictures devoid of the sex and violence for which we're criticized. There was only one four-letter word in 'Independence Day.' 'Twister' and 'Mission: Impossible' were movies for everyone. Even in 'Eraser' the violence was comic book, bigger than life, rather than the graphic kind that turns people off."

Producer Mark Johnson ("A Little Princess," "Bugsy," "Rain Man") said that pocketbook, not politics, dictates what kind of films get made.

"[Recent] movies like 'A Little Princess' or 'Indian in the Cupboard,' 'Andre' and 'Black Beauty' didn't do as well as they should have," Johnson said. "So you'll see certain studios didn't have any family films this summer. That's a direct result of those others not doing well, not political pressure at the box office."

Studio heads worry about the poor receipts for some uplifting fare.

"The frustrating thing for a lot of us is that there were a lot of family films out last year and audiences didn't go to them," said Mike Marcus, president of MGM Pictures. "If audiences don't want to see it, why make it? But, violent, anti-family films fall on their face too. . . . 'Showgirls' and 'Striptease' didn't find an audience, but the country isn't turning one direction or another. Certain things strike people's fancy and others don't. People don't sit around thinking, 'Let's go to a family-values movie' or a really violent one. Nothing has changed since Dole lashed out."

Some studio executives said their desire to make movies with positive values are dictated from within.

"We all have moral standards we want to live up to," said Hal Lieberman, president of production at Universal Pictures. "That's our guide. They're not dictated by Dole. . . . But we should excite and titillate and touch people's fantasies. That's what movies are. Those arenas aren't taboo. . . . Movies are elective. No one makes you go."

"Hollywood is synonymous with Sodom and Gomorrah, but [among] the biggest movies last year were 'Apollo,' 'Babe,' 'Batman Forever,' " said director Joel Schumacher ("A Time to Kill," "Batman Forever," "The Client"). "Those were all suitable for families. But family films have to be as good as the others."

Veteran movie producer Robert Evans--a lifelong Republican-- said his most recent film, "The Phantom," was intended for families, but few went to see it.

He accused Dole of peddling "cheap politics and show business sound bites."

"No one [in Hollywood] has paid attention to him," Evans said. "They look for the bottom line."

No matter which side of the political fence they are on, Hollywood observers said that blaming movies and television for the violence in society is off-base.

"Hollywood is an easy target, but the wrong one," said David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a Los Angeles-based conservative think tank. "It reflects more than it leads. Hollywood is part of the American community and doesn't impose its values on the country."

* DOLE'S NEW TAKE

Bob Dole offers Hollywood a new critique to barely polite applause. Section A.

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