The Christian Oscars

Culture | How peer pressure motivates Hollywood

Issue: "Surviving the Y2K panic," April 3, 1999

Nearly 60 percent of all movies released since the rating system was introduced in 1968 are rated R. This restricted rating is 17 times more common than G ratings. And yet, G-rated movies earn eight times the profit of those with R ratings. A study by the top Hollywood consulting firm Kagan Media Appraisals, funded by the Dove Foundation, proved what many critics of Hollywood have been saying for years, that the economic marketplace favors wholesome movies. Overall, PG-13 movies earn 35 percent more on the initial investment than R movies. PG movies perform 40 percent better. And G-rated movies earn 78 percent more than R-rated fare. Yet, despite these economic facts, Hollywood makes only a miniscule number of G movies. Over half and approaching two-thirds include the sex, violence, and bad language that artificially restrict their audiences and their investors' returns. As old-time movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn said, referring to his tactic of marketing to families, "It is better to sell four tickets than two." So why does the movie world favor R ratings? Free-market economics would predict that the supply would conform to the demand and that the most profitable enterprises would drive out those that fail. But in the film world the reverse is happening, with the number of G-rated movies dwindling to almost nothing, while big-budget R-rated films keep being churned out no matter how often they bomb. Apparently, with all due respect to laissez faire capitalists, there must be more to human nature than the iron hand of the marketplace. Conservative film critic Michael Medved, who cites these facts in USA Today (March 18, 1999), says the reason is that Hollywood types consider themselves artists. They think they are creative. They are more interested in impressing their peers than in selling a product to the public. Boycotts, says Mr. Medved, don't work because many filmmakers already work against their financial self-interest. Few are fazed by poor sales, since they are primarily motivated by their desire for social approval from their fellow artists. As Tom Wolfe said of the New York art world, Hollywood is nothing more than a small town, with its pecking order, in-groups and out-groups, and frantic social climbing. Actually, it is more like a high school. That teenagers face peer pressure is well known. What is not always admitted is that peer pressure is just as powerful and possibly more harmful among adults. The Hollywood elite's insulation from the American public is furthered by the confusion today about the nature of art. According to the aesthetically distorted assumptions of the contemporary art world, art is all about self-expression, "pushing the envelope," and either titillating or shocking one's audience. This is in stark contrast to the classical view, that being an artist involves creating works of meaning, beauty, and value. "The only way to change the industry," writes Mr. Medved, "is to alter its fundamental idea of what constitutes worthy and admirable work." To that end, the week before the Academy Awards, an academy of Christians gave awards of their own. The MovieGuide awards, sponsored by Ted Baehr's media organization, honored movies and television programs that upheld moral values and a Christian worldview. The nominees were, for the most part, mainline, critically and financially successful Hollywood fare, demonstrating that Christians are not asking for that much. The winner of the Epiphany Prize for the most inspiring movie was The Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks), the animated saga about the young Moses. The other nominees sold much popcorn, while being unself-consciously wholesome. Deep Impact (Paramount Pictures & DreamWorks SKG) was an apocalyptic thriller about an asteroid striking the earth, the prospect of which, understandably, provokes prayer. Les Miserables (Columbia/Sony) -not to be confused with the Broadway musical-dramatized Victor Hugo's novel and merely stayed faithful to the Christian references that were in the book. >i>Simon Birch (Hollywood Pictures/Disney) was about a handicapped child who articulates an explicit faith in God. Wide Awake (Miramax) depicted a 10-year-old's hunt to find God after his grandmother died. The Epiphany prize for most inspiring TV program was given to "Here Comes Santa Claus," an episode of Warner Brother's life-in-a-parsonage series, Seventh Heaven. Two other nominees were from two presumably unlikely networks: ABC's documentary on Billy Graham titled Common Ground and Barbra Streisand's The Rescuers: Two Couples, from Showtime. The other nominees reflect explicit efforts by Christians to break into TV: The VeggieTales Christmas Spectacular broadcast on the new family-values network PAX TV, and The Ride, an evangelistic movie from Billy Graham's World Wide Pictures, aired on local TV stations around the country. The Grace awards, honoring those actors and actresses who "through their outstanding performances, exemplify God's grace and mercy toward us as human beings," went to comedian Jim Carrey, for his performance in The Truman Show, and the young Ian Michael Smith of Simon Birch. Other nominees were Joseph Cross for Wide Awake; Shanesia Davis-Williams for Early Edition; Roma Downey for Touched by an Angel; Mariel Hemingway for Louisa May Alcott's Little Men; Ashley Judd for Simon Birch; Frances McDormand for Madeline; and Liam Neeson for Les Miserables. Few, if any, of these winners are theological heavyweights. Few are explicitly Christian in content or explore issues of faith in genuine depth. But these are mainstream movies that were commercially-and artistically-viable without violating the tenets of civilization. Adhering to standards of decency is by no means limiting artistically. For proof, tune in to American Movie Classics and notice how well the movies from the film industry's "golden age" managed without bad language, explicit sex, or buckets of gore. And notice in those old Hepburn, Bogart, and Cary Grant movies how interesting the characters are, how ingenious are the plots, and how respectful they usually are of prayer, church, God, and right and wrong. Hollywood could easily reform itself without sacrificing artistry or audience share. With a little taste, the film industry could make a killing.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…