Once again, Hollywood is on the defensive about violence in movies, TV, and videogames. So will anything change—including our appetite for destruction.
One week after the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — a shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 28 people, including 20 children — NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre laid the responsibility for America’s gun-violence epidemic largely at the feet of the movie, TV, and videogame industries. They ”portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life,” LaPierre told reporters, ”and then they have the nerve to call it entertainment.” While those accusations were criticized as a transparent effort to shift blame away from the gun lobby, many in Hollywood acknowledged that the underlying sentiment couldn’t be totally dismissed. As the nation wrestles with the question of how to reduce gun violence, the Newtown tragedy — and, sadly, more incidents since then, like the Jan. 30 shooting in a Phoenix office building — presents an opportunity for the creators of intense films, TV, and videogames, as well as all of us who consume and celebrate them, to examine the role entertainment plays in perpetuating America’s culture of violence.
To a film community that had just five months earlier navigated the fallout from the mass shooting during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., it was immediately clear that the issues raised by the Newtown tragedy, no matter how thorny and uncomfortable, were impossible to avoid. In his opening speech at the Sundance Film Festival last month, Robert Redford addressed them head-on: ”Does my industry think guns sell movies? I think it’s worth asking that question.” Six days after the Newtown shootings, Motion Picture Association of America chairman (and former U.S. senator) Christopher Dodd vowed that his industry stood ”ready to be part of the national conversation” about gun violence. A number of celebrities, including Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Banks, Steve Carell, and Jamie Foxx, banded together for a public-service announcement to urge enactment of stricter gun-control laws (a viral video intercutting the PSA with scenes of those stars wielding guns on screen soon followed). Denzel Washington, who will star this summer in an action movie called 2 Guns, told an interviewer that going forward he will be ”more aware of [violence] in terms of choosing roles.” Foxx — whose hyperviolent Django Unchained opened just 11 days after the Newtown shootings and would soon become director Quentin Tarantino’s highest-grossing movie ever — told the Associated Press that the film business needed to own up to its share of responsibility for such tragedies: ”We cannot turn our back and say that violence in films or anything that we do doesn’t have a sort of influence. It does.”
As the weeks have passed, though, some question whether the film business really intends to address gun violence in movies in any serious or sustained way. The most tangible measures the industry has taken thus far — such as the postponement of the premiere of Tom Cruise’s action film Jack Reacher and the cancellation of the Django premiere — have been cautious and mainly symbolic. Even as Dodd and other industry leaders met with Vice President Biden at the White House last month to discuss the problem, the MPAA chief insisted that the movie business remains ”vehemently opposed” to any kind of regulation of the content of movies. In the wake of Newtown, no films featuring gun violence have been pulled from the release schedule, as Gangster Squad had been following the Aurora shootings. (The drama, which originally featured a shooting in a movie theater, underwent reshoots and was released on Jan. 11.) That said, according to one insider, the MPAA — which must approve publicity materials for the films it rates — has started trying to tamp down images of guns in movie advertising, which may explain why a large rifle slung over Jeremy Renner’s shoulder in the original ad for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters suddenly disappeared from many posters and billboards. And some studios have at least temporarily stopped releasing movie stills featuring weapons to outlets like Entertainment Weekly, even when the movies in question have far more gunplay than dialogue.
But you’d be hard-pressed to see any dramatic shift in the marketing for some of the more violent fare released since Newtown, whether it’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie The Last Stand, the uncomfortably titled Sylvester Stallone film Bullet to the Head, or director Harmony Korine’s upcoming indie Spring Breakers, a film whose gun-packed trailer features bikini-clad girls working up the nerve to commit armed robbery with assault rifles with the line ”Pretend like it’s a videogame!” Even getting people in the industry to speak publicly on the issue is difficult, as most see little upside in wading into such a divisive debate. Representatives for the major studios declined to comment for this story, referring EW to the MPAA — but the MPAA said Dodd was unavailable. One actor from a popular action franchise told EW he couldn’t be interviewed about gun violence in movies because the franchise’s director had asked everyone involved not to comment on the topic.
Those in Hollywood who will speak out frequently argue that no clear causal link between violence in entertainment and real-life violence has ever been established — President Obama has asked Congress to approve a $10 million study to investigate whether such a link exists — and that the film business is merely a convenient scapegoat. Tarantino told NPR’s Terry Gross he felt it was ”totally disrespectful” to the victims of Newtown to even discuss violence in movies, since, in his view, ”obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.” Director Taylor Hackford, who helmed the recently released Jason Statham action film Parker, argues that filmmakers who depict gun violence on screen have nothing to apologize for, as long as they also depict the consequences of that violence. ”There are guns in this movie because criminals have guns,” Hackford says. ”The difference is, I don’t take it beyond the pale. I’m not saying it’s a fantasy world where people just bounce back. Is violence real? Yeah. And you should deal with it because I think filmmakers have to reflect life.” Director Michael Bay, who has never been accused of depicting violence too realistically, goes even further: ”Filmmakers have the right to do what they want,” he says. ”What do [Hollywood’s critics] want — that we should only make nice movies, so let’s make every movie G-rated from now on? Maybe we should go back and strip all the Oscar statues from the past that went to violent movies: You’d have to get rid of Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Platoon, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List. Whole genres would need to go — Westerns, most of sci-fi.”
Ang Lee, the Oscar-nominated director of Life of Pi, feels differently: ”I think we should use restraint. You should have the freedom to create whatever is in your mind. Of course, you pay a price for that. When it takes [depicting violence] to get the point across, when it’s for a higher purpose, I will do it. I want to make sure I don’t enjoy it, though.” And even Bay, whose action film Pain & Gain opens in April, admits he has evolved over the years: ”I’ve become a different audience member. I can’t watch really rough stuff. Sean Connery stabbed somebody in the hand in my second movie [The Rock], and [producer Jerry] Bruckheimer said it was disgusting, and we took it out. I did it because I thought it was cool. Now I would never shoot it.”
The fact is, every single weekend since the Newtown shootings the box office has been topped by a film featuring graphic violence of one kind or another, from the fantastical lopping off of goblins’ heads in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to the unflinching depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty to the over-the-top gunplay of Django to the grisly gore of Texas Chainsaw 3D. As long as the public maintains that kind of appetite for violence, it’s hard to envision the film industry dramatically changing course of its own volition. Harvey Weinstein insists that a serious conversation has been sparked about the issue. ”We’re all finding answers to these questions,” he says. ”We’re participating [in discussions about gun violence], and we’ll continue to participate. And good things are moving forward.” Last July Weinstein called for a filmmakers’ summit to address the issue of violence in the wake of the Aurora shootings. No such summit has yet taken place.
As with the movie business, the TV industry says that it wants to be part of the solution when it comes to gun violence. Two of the industry’s biggest trade organizations — the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association — participated alongside the MPAA in meetings with Vice President Biden in advance of the release of President Obama’s gun-control plan. A few weeks later top TV executives, questioned about the issue of gun violence in entertainment during the biannual Television Critics Association press tour, tried to reassure the public that they were mindful of their responsibility as broadcasters. ”What’s happened has shaken me and all of us to our core,” CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler told a gaggle of reporters. ”To the sense that people come to work with a renewed sense of sensitivity — absolutely. We are parents, and we respect the jobs that we have. We respect the relationship we have with our audience.”
But like the film studios, TV execs also can’t ignore the audience’s insatiable appetite for mayhem. Some of the most popular shows on TV today feature gunplay and other violent content, often of an extreme nature. AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s Sons of Anarchy just aired their most-watched seasons yet. Criminal Minds, an eight-year-old drama on CBS that focuses on twisted killers, lures some 13.5 million viewers weekly. Even Telemundo notched its second-best finale ratings ever with the bloody Jan. 24 ender to Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal, an artillery-heavy series about the notorious Colombian drug lord.
Perhaps that’s why the industry’s lobbying groups have been loath to weigh in on the topic beyond the initial joint statement saying they ”support the president’s goal of reducing gun violence in this country… and welcome further academic examination and consideration on these issues.” One industry insider admitted there was little to gain from speaking publicly about violence in entertainment when, in the insider’s view, most of the attention should be focused on gun-control legislation and mental health care — a viewpoint shared by many in the business. ”It would be ridiculous to try to argue our massacre-by-gun problem is caused by entertainment,” says John Landgraf, president of FX, which is home to gun-filled series like Sons and Justified. ”That’s demonstrably false when you see that entertainment doesn’t vary across many societies but the level of gun violence does.” Given such attitudes, Melissa Henson, director of communications for the Parents Television Council, questions whether the industry will actually make any meaningful changes: ”It seems like they’re just waiting for it to blow over. If you look at what they’ve done in the wake of Newtown, I think it demonstrates very little concern about the issue generally.”
Even as the debate over violence in entertainment rages on, in many respects it’s been business as usual for the folks looking for future prime-time hits. The networks did draw the line on some projects: Fox, for example, opted against making a pilot inspired by the Warren Ellis novel Gun Machine, which is about a serial killer who collects historic guns to murder his prey. (”I can still see it getting picked up to pilot,” Ellis says. ”It’s hard for me to think about it as having any relationship to that awful day in Newtown.”) But there’s no shortage of gunplay among the dramas being developed for the 2013–14 season. Fox has a show in the works from producer John Wells (ER) about a family of assassins, while CBS just picked up a procedural called Anatomy of Violence, about a psychologist and a detective who solve crimes involving sociopaths. NBC ordered a modern-day take on the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, which follows on the heels of the History channel’s Hatfields & McCoys, a miniseries that was seen by 14 million viewers and earned five Emmys, including one for star Kevin Costner. ”Violence is a fact of life,” says actor Darrell Fetty, who played Doc Rutherford in the History project. ”The point is how you do it. You have to show it responsibly, with the emotional impact, as well as the physical impact to victims, family, and friends. It’s not just the fun videogames.”
As for videogames…well, that industry will not talk about violence. For this article, Entertainment Weekly contacted the studios behind many of the popular gun-violence franchises of the past decade — Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Gears of War, BioShock, Far Cry — and one after another, they declined to speak publicly about the issue. Most of them referred us to the Entertainment Software Association, the game industry’s lobbying arm in Washington. The ESA, which also declined to speak on the record, sent us a document touting studies that found no link between videogame violence and actual violence. In a conference call with bank analysts last week, Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello reiterated that point, and added, ”While there may not be an actual problem, given all the finger-pointing going on in the press, there appears to be the perception of a problem, and we do have to wrestle with that.”
The industry is secretive by nature, partly out of necessity: Every game is a product, built with proprietary technology that is worth not millions but potentially billions of dollars. But the secrecy is also a legal precaution. The history of videogames as a popular entertainment medium is a history of attacks from parents and politicians. Post-Newtown, Vice President Biden urged more research into videogame violence. Sen. Lamar Alexander told MSNBC that videogames are ”a bigger problem than guns.” And the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre called videogames ”a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people.”
Jenova Chen, the pioneering independent game designer behind nonviolent games like Flower and Journey, sums up the reason game designers tend to stay quiet. ”What can you get that’s going to be positive from answering this subject? Nothing. And you can screw it up by saying something that offends the general audience. If I’m their PR strategist, I wouldn’t let them answer either.” Chen doesn’t think videogames cause violence, and believes the preponderance of guns in games is simply a reflection of their demographic: ”Videogames today serve a majority audience of young males. Young men want to be empowered.” As the medium has evolved, developers have begun to explore violence with a maturing moral clarity. Games including BioShock and Red Dead Redemption portray the tragic consequences of violence. Last year’s low-selling Spec Ops: The Line went one step further into self-critique: It’s a fun military shooter, but it’s also an argument that the idea of a ”fun military shooter” is sociopathic. These games are saying interesting things about violence. Unfortunately, the people who make the games have only one thing to say: No comment.
The Parent Trap
Father and geek extraordinaire Jeff Jensen details his struggle to raise kids who know right from wrong—and Superman and Spider-man
There have been only a few moments in my life when I’ve felt like a successful parent, and one of them occurred in 2008 while watching Speed Racer. It was the intense bit where the villains threatened to put a man’s arm in the piranha tank. ”Dad,” said my son, then 7, ”I don’t think this movie is appropriate for me. I want to leave.” I was a little annoyed — I was enjoying the Wachowski siblings’ heady, hyperactive live-action cartoon! — but I was also impressed with Ben’s ability to recognize his threshold for violence in entertainment. I wanted to affirm that, so we left. To this day, we still don’t know if those poor fish got fed.
Ben’s victory seemed to validate a policy my wife and I adopted early in our parenting to regulate our children’s pop culture intake and limit, if not eliminate, their exposure to screen violence. We waited until they were 7 to show them a live-action film that was more intense than, say, The Lion King, and even since then, we have limited their selection to a small offering of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero movies: Star Wars. Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. We’re stingy about allowing them to see anything with depictions of real violence against human beings. My kids will never play a first-person shooter game — or any game — in which the objective is to kill another person, dead or undead. At least not in our house.
From the beginning, our motivations were mostly personal. My wife and I are religious, and we wanted to cultivate the spiritual values of our faith. But the times influenced us too. It was the early 2000s. Columbine was on our minds. America was vengeful after 9/11 and spoiling for war. My wife and I wanted kids who rejected violence as a solution to problems and a means of expression. By being careful, deliberate, and self-conscious about exposing our children to violent material, we hoped to teach them to take guns seriously, and model for them a thoughtful engagement with culture in general.
What makes all this a bit tricky is that I am a geek. I was weaned on Star Wars and Spider-Man comics. I came of age on morally ambiguous vigilantes like Wolverine (”I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice”) and glib gun-toting action heroes like Bruce Willis’ John McClane (”Yippee-ki-yay, mother-shutyourmouth!”). Long before I began to value stories like Star Wars and Watchmen or characters like Spider-Man and Batman for their themes — including two at the heart of most violent hero-fiction: ”With great power comes great responsibility” and ”He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster” — I sought them out because they were ”cool.” But at a certain point, I wanted to know what that meant, because I recognized how pop culture had profoundly influenced me — my humor, my temperament, my notions of good and evil, my sexual attitudes, and more — whether I wanted it to or not. Pop culture didn’t turn me into a psycho. But it did inspire me to become a journalist who writes about pop culture. I wanted to better understand the stuff that shaped me.
And shapes me still. I remain a passionate consumer of entertainment, and my tastes skew toward dark fantasy that tends to contain a great deal of violence. I love me a good blood-spurty, head-bursting zombie kill as much as any other fan of The Walking Dead. One of the most exhilarating action sequences I’ve seen in recent movies was Chloë Grace Moretz’s Hit Girl creatively killing a hallway full of bad guys in Kick-Ass. Yet I am more discriminating and selective in what I see these days, and I need more than just ”cool” to get me raving about it. I need provocative themes, emotional resonance, or sly satire to justify the spectacular sensationalism.
I want my kids to be more discerning about entertainment than I was as a kid, and more aware of how they are relating to pop culture. So my wife and I might need to rethink some of our parenting strategies, which until now have erred more on the side of avoidance than engagement. My son has never seen The Walking Dead. But his friends have, and they’re obsessed with it, and now so is he. He told me last week — just days after he went through the frightening ordeal of a school lockdown when a student reported a man on campus with a gun (false alarm) — that he and his buddies wish they could ”live in a postapocalyptic world eating canned food and shooting zombies all day.” When I asked him what was so appealing about that, I wanted him to say something like, Don’t worry, Dad. It’s just a fantasy that offers catharsis for the fears I feel about our scary world. Instead, he said, ”I don’t know. I just think warfare is cool.” I get where he’s coming from, and I don’t take his sentiments too seriously. But I would like him to reconsider the sentiment nonetheless. And I have an idea where to begin: I think it’s time he started watching The Walking Dead with his old man.
Guns and Anarchy
Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter on what it means to be a creator of a very violent, very popular TV drama in a post-Newtown world.
Sons of Anarchy, with its audience of 6.4 million fervent fans, is one of the most popular shows on cable TV. It also happens to be one of the most violent, which is not too surprising given that it focuses on a motorcycle club whose drug deals and gunrunning schemes often go very bad. EW talked to Sons creator/executive producer Kurt Sutter, never a shrinking violet when it comes to hot-button issues, about how a tragedy like Newtown affects how he approaches his job.
EW: When any sort of tragedy involving gun violence makes headlines, do you expect the nation to start pointing a finger at Hollywood?
Kurt Sutter: When it was happening every few years, the blame was sort of doled out in a more general way. I think as it has happened more frequently and more horrifically, there is a bigger reaction, and a bigger need to look for causes and ways to stop it from happening again. I had a knee-jerk reaction when the NRA was silent for a week after Newtown, then the first thing they came out with was not-so-subtle finger-pointing at all the other reasons for why gun violence happens, and they took no responsibility in terms of gun laws and gun ownership. They basically said it was mental health care [issues] and videogames and TV. I think the good thing is that people are not leaning on one cause. It is a combination of many different things.
Can you imagine making Sons of Anarchy without gun violence?
I write a show about an outlaw community that makes its primary living dealing guns, so I have to take responsibility for that in terms of the nature of it and what that means in this climate…. I will say this about the violence on Sons of Anarchy — that it’s definitely the nature of the world, which is a very violent world. But I feel like I’m being socially and morally responsible in my narrative in that none of the violence is done in a vacuum, nor is it glorified or romanticized. There are consequences to be paid for every bad action. Guys aren’t walking in, shooting stuff up, having a beer, and riding into the sunset. As the show narrows down toward the last couple of seasons, you are seeing more and more consequences.
Do you have conversations in the writers’ room about things going too far?
I have a really strong sense of the absurd in my creativity. When we break stories, I look at it through the lens of what’s the most interesting, compelling, and provocative way for us to tell this story. What haven’t I seen before? As long as we can make those choices and remain organic to character and to the world, then I will make those choices. I run up to that absurd line all the time and I guess sometimes I’m guilty of crossing it, but I don’t think it happens a lot. In terms of the level of violence, we have standards and practices weighing in. Of course, they are much more liberal with the level of gore and violence. We can show a girl burning to death, but God help us if we show a piece of a nipple. It’s crazy. But even with the burning scene we had this season in the premiere, there’s probably four or five frames where you actually see the young girl on fire.
Why is the appetite for violence so strong among consumers?
I don’t know if it’s violence. I think there is so much content out there right now for people to watch that shows just need to be a lot noisier than they used to be. You really need things that cut through the clutter over everything that’s out there, and it seems that horror and violence and gore and sex are the things that cut through the noise. Not that we are all idiots, but it’s like someone shaking the keys. Look over here! That’s what is going on in terms of these shows that tend to one-up each other with the level of gore and violence.
Do you think there will be any real change in what entertainment gets made post-Newtown?
I hope that if there is change, it’s change that’s brought about thoughtfully for the right reasons. Meaning, if there is a discussion that happens where people take a certain amount of responsibility and then make the creative decisions either to look at the use of violence or to comment on it, that’s a good thing. What won’t be a good thing is if ultimately change comes from a bottom line or from a dollar perspective — people are saying you can’t do this because sponsors will go away. That will be a bad thing. That’s being restrictive, and that’s not coming from a creative or thoughtful place. I’m a little cautious that [Hollywood] will ultimately become the scapegoat because the NRA doesn’t want to take a look at the things that are being looked at now — assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, all the things that are somewhat ludicrous in terms of personal gun ownership.