The moral importance of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized." So said the Hollywood Production Code, distinguishing between "Entertainment which tends to improve" and "Entertainment which tends to degrade human beings."
That voluntary, self-regulating code, which the film industry agreed to follow between 1930 and 1968, offered specific guidelines to ensure that "no picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it." Evil should not be made to seem attractive, and good must not be made unattractive. Nudity, bad language, and disrespect for law and religion were not allowed.
And yet, far from limiting movies artistically, the Production Code ushered in the Golden Age of Film, when the biggest percentage of Americans flocked to see Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Audrey Hepburn in movies directed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, and John Ford.
But in 1968, as part of the counter-culture revolution, Hollywood scrapped the Production Code. In its place, the Motion Picture Association of America substituted a rating system (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) based primarily on the age of the audience.
That is to say, according to David Stidham, founder of Conservative Film & Entertainment, "morality is only for people under 10," a matter of protecting children, with no relevance for adults. Indeed, Jack Valenti, former head of the MPAA who supervised the ratings, says as much on the MPAA website: "If you are 18 or over, or if you have no children, the rating system has no meaning for you." But don't adults too need a moral imagination, perhaps-because they are capable of doing more harm-even more so than children?
Mr. Stidham walked out of film school because his professors kept shooting down his ideas as "too conservative." But he went on to become a successful producer of TV commercials. Like other Christians, he recoils from the sex and profanity that mars the theater-going experience and that has made millions of Americans stop going to movies altogether. But he founded Conservative Films & Entertainment to make it possible for that audience to go back to the movies in good conscience.
His first project is instituting a new rating system based on an updated version of the classic Hollywood Production Code. No movie will get a "C" rating that takes the name of God in vain, that contains nudity, or that glamorizes evil. Yet the system acknowledges that some films are appropriate only for certain age groups and may deal with tough, even controversial subjects.
The basic ratings are CE (for everyone); C8 (for 8 and over); CM (mature); CG (graphic). Then the rating specifies the target audience: C (Children), T (Teens), A (Adults), F (Faith viewers). The Passion of the Christ, for example, might be rated CG: TAF, meaning that it upholds the moral code, but is graphic and aimed at teenagers, adults, and people of faith. (See conservativeratings.com.)
Studios can submit movies, just as they do to the MPAA, and Mr. Stidham hopes they will snip out gratuitous bad stuff in order to attract viewers concerned about morality.
Conservative Films & Entertainment will also be producing and distributing movies that meet the code. In October, CFE will release Think Tank, a quirky comedy from the same people who made Napoleon Dynamite.
Mr. Stidham stressed to WORLD that the point is not to make movies that are necessarily preachy. "The goal of CFE is to entertain you," he said. He wants Christians to be able to go to a movie "and have a good time, but walk out feeling your conscience hasn't been attacked."
With movie-going rates declining-and 25 percent of Americans never going to movies at all-Mr. Stidham hopes to marshal the power of the marketplace to reform Hollywood. Once Americans-with the help of the conservative rating system-can identify movies that honor morality, he hopes they will flock to those movies. "If Hollywood sees the moral movies making money," he said, it "will turn around."