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Values weighed against profits

November 25, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Alan HORN is an ardent environmentalist who drives a Toyota Prius, is on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council and introduced Robert Redford earlier this month at the dedication ceremony for the council's local headquarters, which is named after the star.

So when the Warner Bros. chief read a script recently for a Warners film portraying one of the heroes as driving a Hummer, little clouds of low-emission steam virtually puffed out of his ears. "To me, the Hummer has become the symbol of gas-guzzling excess," he explained over lunch at his studio office. Horn called one of his production executives and suggested they find another car. "I told him, 'We don't have to change it to a Prius. Let him drive a Porsche.' There are plenty of other cool cars that could make a statement that's right for the movie."

Horn isn't just another Hollywood spotted-owl softie. He has also insisted that filmmakers downplay violence toward women, pushed directors to trim obscene language and even called up John Travolta to ask why he needed to chain-smoke in "Swordfish." Horn's willingness to ask tough questions makes him something of an anomaly in the entertainment industry, which all too often will plumb any depths to make a buck, happily raking in profits from gangsta rappers, ultra-violent slasher films or tawdry reality TV shows.

It sometimes seems as if the only time showbiz executives engage in any self-reflection is when they're dragged before Congress or threatened with an advertiser boycott, as conservative activists did to CBS after news leaked out that the network's film "The Reagans" invented dialogue and portrayed the former president in an unflattering light. Surely when CBS chief Les Moonves told Variety that he believes "from the bottom of my heart that there's a public trust to being a television network," he had somehow forgotten it was CBS that was airing "The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show."

But should studio chiefs' personal values play a role in shaping the entertainment they present? And how far should they go to impose their beliefs? It's a hotly debated issue in Hollywood, which is especially sensitive about interfering with the creative process, having been attacked from the earliest days for purveying everything from moral decay to Marxist propaganda.

The biggest problem about being socially responsible is that it's a fuzzy concept -- hardly anyone agrees about where to draw the line. The same executive who has zero tolerance for bad language might be less exercised over gratuitous violence. To make things more complicated, it's a lot easier getting a no-name filmmaker to edit dirty words than it is to stop a final-cut director like Ridley Scott from having Nicolas Cage chain-smoke in "Matchstick Men."

"You have to let your values engage on some level in this job or you're just not alive," says Revolution Studios founder Joe Roth. "But you also have to be true to the story and spirit of a film."

When he ran Disney in the late 1990s, Roth insisted that the movies' heroes not smoke. But in his studio's new film, the Julia Roberts-starring "Mona Lisa Smile," several of the younger actresses smoke regularly. The difference, Roth says, is that the film is set in the 1950s. "It wouldn't be true to the period and the tone of the movie for them not to smoke. These are girls away at college, breaking away from the way they've been raised."

Thankless task

I'm sure I could find plenty of anti-smoking activists who would debate that distinction, but that's why promoting values is such a thankless task -- every choice leaves you open to second-guessing. As Universal Pictures chief Stacey Snider puts it: "Half the people are mad at you for being a censor while the other half are calling you a hypocrite."

In 2001, Snider dumped Rob Zombie's horror film "House of 1000 Corpses," saying she found the film's "uber-celebration of depravity" personally upsetting. Yet the move came just weeks after the release of "Hannibal," a film co-produced by Universal, about a serial killer who cooks and eats the brains of his victims. Snider admits she struggled with the decision. "I kept wondering, why am I uncomfortable with one film and not the other?" she recalls. "Ultimately, it was a matter of personal taste. For me, 'House of 1000 Corpses' just went too far."

Snider is honest enough to acknowledge another factor that might have influenced her decision. "Corpses" was a film with modest commercial potential while "Hannibal" was a big moneymaker for Universal and MGM, its domestic distributor.

Horn also admits that he is leery of letting his personal values interfere with a film's commercial prospects.

"This is Warner Bros. and my job is to protect its assets," he explains. "It would be wrong if the creative people felt I was unnecessarily interfering with the creative process. My job is to convince filmmakers to find an alternative that's comfortable for me and appropriate for them."

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