WASHINGTON — Legendary studio lobbyist Jack Valenti has a novel response to the backlash against the major studios for bigscreen violence: He is lobbying the creative community to shoulder responsibility.
Valenti doesn’t really have much choice, since the people who actually pay his salary have been either silent or petulant when it comes to accusations that the flood of violent images spilling out of Hollywood each year may affect the actions and imaginations of the nation’s children.
Not a single studio chief accepted President Clinton’s invitation to attend Monday’s White House brainstorming session on children and violence.
Warner Bros.’ Bob Daly said the problem is not Hollywood but the proliferation of guns. Daly’s boss Gerald Levin said Washington is trying to use Hollywood as a scapegoat in a desperate search for answers in the wake of the April 20 rampage at a Littleton, Colo., high school that resulted in the deaths of 15 people.
POINTING THE FINGER: Republicans are trying to divert gun-control advocates by pointing the finger at Hollywood, but given political realities in Washington, a lobbyist like Valenti needs a positive response when facing down a hoard of angry legislators. He is forced to turn to the creative industry because his studio chief bosses are not being particularly helpful.
In contrast, creatives, such as Joel Schumacher and Gary Ross, along with Creative Coalition president William Baldwin, have stated publicly that the entertainment industry must own up to some responsibility for the violent actions of some vulnerable children. Baldwin and others also point out that the entertainment industry has responded over the years to the criticism that our culture is not always kid-friendly. That’s why the movie, television and videogame industries have rating systems to help parents judge what’s appropriate material for their kids.
Even Valenti concedes that a tide of violent movies, TV shows and videogames must have some effect on the children. “Bad art does savage the soul,” said Valenti at a recent Senate hearing. He said the real problem is finding out how much impact the violent media actually has and therefore he has endorsed President Clinton’s order that the surgeon general conduct a study on the issue.
LITTLE TO OFFER: Standing in the driveway of the White House, just minutes after a three-hour gabfest that included a group ranging from psychologists to network honchos, Valenti said there was little he could offer the White House from the companies that pay his salary. “The only encouragement that I could give (the White House) is that there is an increasing number of creative people … asking the question ‘is the violent or sensual language I have in this film gratuitous.'”
Valenti said he even hopes to line up “four or five really big stars” to start pressuring their peers to tone down excessive violence and sensuality in films.
The truth is Valenti needs all the ammunition he can get for a fight that is likely to stretch out for the next several weeks at least. This week the Senate is debating the Juvenile Justice Bill, which includes several amendments targeted at Hollywood.
DAMAGING PROPOSAL: Among the most damaging proposals is one backed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would require the Federal Trade Commission or Justice Department to investigate the marketing practices of studios. The purpose of the inquiry is to uncover evidence that the movie studios are using violence to attract children. A more nettlesome proposal would ban the making of violent movies from public lands. And yet another plan would ban studios from borrowing from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms weapons collection. Still another proposal would waive antitrust laws that would allow studios and networks to institute formal codes for fictional behavior.
As a lobbyist with more than 30 years of experience in Washington, Valenti knows that he needs to give legislators a reason to vote against these amendments. It’s difficult in the first place, but in the current inflamed environment, convincing legislators that it’s OK to support Hollywood on the issue is even harder.