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Hollywood Today

Digital History TOPIC ID 130

In a 1992 bestseller, Hollywood vs. America, Michael Medved, co-host of public television's Sneak Previews, described Hollywood as a "poison factory," befouling America's moral atmosphere and assaulting the country's "most cherished values." Today's films, he argued, use their enormous capacity to influence opinion by glamorizing violence, maligning marriage, mocking authority, promoting sexual promiscuity, ridiculing religion, and bombarding viewers with an endless stream of profanity, gratuitous sex, and loutish forms of behavior. Where once the movies offered sentiment, elegance, and romance, now, Medved contends, ideologically-motivated producers and directors promote their own divisive agenda: anti-religion, anti-family, anti-military.

In fact, the picture is more complicated than Medved suggests. As film critic David Denby has observed, abandonment of the Production Code in 1966 did indeed increase the amount of sex, violence, and profanity on the screen; but particularly in the 1980s and '90s, Hollywood has also increased the amount of family entertainment it offers, including feature-length cartoons like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast; family comedies, like Honey I Shrunk the Kids; and positive portrayals of the teaching profession, like Dead Poet's Society and Stand and Deliver. At the same time that some films merely exploited history as a backdrop for action and adventure, like the Indiana Jones or the Back to the Future trilogies, there has also been a revival of serious historical films like Glory and Malcolm X. Meanwhile, independent directors released a growing number of idiosyncratic and inexpensive films, like The Crying Game, while within Hollywood itself female movie makers, like Penny Marshall and Susan Seidelman, and African-American film makers, like Spike Lee, have received unprecedented opportunity to bring fresh viewpoints to the screen.

Nevertheless, as the movie industry enters its second century, many Americans worry about Hollywood's future. Medved is not alone in complaining that "they don't make movies like they used to." A basic problem facing today's Hollywood is the rapidly rising cost of making and marketing a movie: an average of $40 million today. The immense cost of producing movies has led the studios to seek guaranteed hits: blockbuster loaded with high-tech special effects, sequels, and remakes of earlier movies, foreign films, and even old TV shows.

Hollywood has also sought to cope with rising costs by focusing ever more intently on its core audiences. Since the mid-1980s, the movie going audience has continued to decrease in size. Ticket sales fell from 1.2 billion in 1983 to 950 million in 1992, with the biggest drop occuring among adults. With the decline in the size of the adult audience, the single largest group of movie-goers now consists of teenage boys, who are particularly attracted to thrills, violence, and crude laughs.And since over half of Hollywood's profits are earned overseas, the industry has concentrated much of its energy on crude action films easily understood by an international audience, featuring stars like Arnold Schwartenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

For a century, the movie industry has been the nation's most important purveyor of culture and entertainment to the masses, playing a critical role in the shift from Victorian to distinctively modern, consumer values; from a world of words to a visual culture; from a society rooted in islands of localities and ethnic groups to a commercialized mass culture. The movies taught Americans how to kiss, make love, conceive of gender roles, and understand their place in the world. Whether film will continue to serve as the nation's preeminent instrument of cultural expression--reflecting and also shaping values and cultural ideals--remains to be seen.

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