IN MOVIES AS WELL AS TV, the portents are clear: Networks and studios are backing away from sex and violence and are pushing for family-oriented content. In so doing, they’re setting up some curious confrontations.

“Filmmakers parade in here with their hard-edge ‘R’ projects and we tell them , ‘No, that’s not what we’re looking for,’ ” reports a studio production chief. “They’ve been schooled for years to believe that sex and violence and profanity defined the difference between TV and film. If you made it gritty enough, it’s a feature.”

Now the lines have blurred, he points out. TV fare has been getting sexier and more violent. And the studios have seen their family-oriented PG movies registering higher grosses than the hard-edge stuff.

In his talk at ShoWest earlier this month, Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia, observed that PG-rated movies were almost three times more likely to reach the $ 100 million mark than R films. Columbia’s “Groundhog Day,” which is PG-rated, already is picking up significant business with the onset of Easter breaks.

STUDY THE STUDIO RELEASE SCHEDULES, however, and you find a preponderance of R pictures. Twenty years ago, there was a parity between G and PG ratings on the one hand and Rs on the other, but last year there were 374 R ratings awarded vs. 186 Gs and PGs and 119 PG-13s. “Some 58% of all movies are R-rated,” says Canton , “and the number of PG films has been dropping. Any smart business person can see what we must do — make more PG films.”

And the studios have started doing just that. Warners, for example, plans to release “Secret Garden,””Dennis the Menace” and “Free Willy” next summer. It recently picked up “Thumbelina.” At Columbia, “Last Action Hero” was carefully designed as a PG-13 film, in contrast to some previous Schwarzenegger epics that were R-rated.

TV is starting to follow suit. “There’s too much crime on TV — violence isn’t all the viewers want to see,” Jeff Sagansky of CBS Entertainment remarked recently. “We’ve gone too far.”

Congress and advocacy groups are joining the chorus, with noticeable results. At ABC, there’s an effort to rein in the “slasher, sex-crime-of-the-week” stuff, J. Max Robins reported in Variety last week.

No one in Hollywood wants to be associated with the Michael Medved school of prudery, to be sure.

The PBS critic propounds the theory that studio chiefs foment sexy pictures because they were somehow brainwashed during the ’60s. Medved’s idea of a hot picture is “The Sound of Music.”

The decision-makers in Hollywood, however, are trying to come to grips with demographic phenomena that reveal an oddly bifurcated marketplace.

While the kids continue to be the most ardent filmgoers, theater admissions in the over-40 age group have increased by more than 83% between 1985 and 1992. Mature folks now account for 30.4% of all admissions, twice that of seven years ago.

“The over-40 segment is interested in pictures of perceived quality,” observes MCA’s Tom Pollock. “They don’t care about ratings. They are interested in provocative themes.” Given the success of such films as “The Crying Game” and “Scent of a Woman,” MCA is carefully aiming more films toward this market, without ignoring the Clearasil crowd.

FILMMAKERS PREDICTABLY FIND ALL THIS a bewildering environment in which to function. Many who regard themselves as serious filmmakers identify first and foremost with projects carrying sexual content and even violence. “When you create a film or write a novel, you don’t say to yourself up front, ‘I want this to be for a family audience,’ ” says Gus Van Sant, who directed “My Own Private Idaho.”

Indeed, there’s arguably an emerging school of young filmmakers who are raising the level of violence — Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara among them. Watch their recent efforts and you’ll see a Mexican drug lord blast a guitar player’s hand into a bloody pulp. Or a dark-suited hoodlum slice off the ear of a cop who’s bound and gagged. Or crackheads gang-rape a nun on the altar of a church in the barrio.

For these filmmakers, violence is not just a flourish to pull in a wider audience but rather an organic part of their cinematic world — witness their recent films like “El Mariachi,””Reservoir Dogs” and “Bad Lieutenant,” respectively.

Add all this up and it is possible to come away with some encouraging conclusions. TV is cleaning up its act — that’s good. The studios are acknowledging a segmented market — that’s good, too.

Given the imminence of an interactive, multiplexed electronic highway, it is vital for purveyors of mass entertainment to start responding not just to the mass but the components of that mass. If people are to have a greater and more immediate voice in determining their entertainment menu, these forces had better be listened to.

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