Update: Link to the article added. I forgot it earlier.

Interesting article in City Journal today by Brian Anderson, author of South Park Conservatives. In it, he makes a fairly convincing argument that Hollywood’s ticket-sales woes are directly related to their liberal social agenda.

The size of the market for such conservative films first grew clear in the late sixties and seventies, when Hollywood nearly stopped making them. Swept up in the era’s revolutionary spirit, the industry junked its decades-old production code—which mandated respect for marriage, the military, and religion, and forbade cussin’ and nudity—and went in for movies geared to “a rebellious generation . . . challenging every cherished tenet of American society,” as leftist film scholars Seth Cagin and Philip Dray approvingly put it…

But moviegoers turned up their noses. Weekly film attendance in 1967, the first year after Hollywood dumped the production code, plummeted to 17.8 million, from 38 million the year before (television had already eroded moviegoing from its late-1940s peak of 90 million a week).

He also compares the success of The Incredibles and Spiderman 2 to the utter failure of Kingdom of Heaven, pointing out the opposing social agendas in each film.

Anderson points out that there are indicators that Hollywood is becoming conservative once again:

For starters, Hollywood is home to a growing right- of-center presence, including hotshot young producers like Mike De Luca of DreamWorks and Gavin Pollone, and rising screenwriters like Craig Mazin, Cyrus Nowrasteh, and Klavan. What’s more, if reports are true, other young Hollywood types are on the Right, but keep their views quiet, for fear of career trouble in a still-liberal town.

This makes me optimistic. Making inroads in Hollywood seems crucial to maintaining conservative cultural values over a long period of time. Good thing the Biola MassCom department is expanding.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

9 Comments

  1. One has to be careful with the stats when looking at such a huge and disparate data set.

    Last year’s box office champ? Shrek 2. Pinocchio wears a thong.

    The top-grossing film of all time? Gone With the Wind. I suppose there’s a moral in there somewhere… something about tomorrow being another day.

    Or consider last week’s top draw, Saw II. Conservative values? Nope. Grisly gore, sadism, torture. (Wait a second… maybe I’m on to something.)

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  2. I don’t see why Shrek II was bad, especially compared with a lot of the other movies out there. I mean c’mon, a thong?

    The Passion wasn’t sadistic. It had sadistic characters in it (the Roman soldiers), but the purpose of all the gore and torture was to show what Christ went through for mankind’s sake, not for some pervert’s twisted pleasures.

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  3. Regarding the Passion, what Andrew C said. To suggest it was somehow against conservative values is, well, an interesting claim. Also, if you read the article, there’s room in his argument for people (even a lot of people!) watching Saw II, etc. His case is a bit more comphrensive than that.

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  4. Andrew, it wasn’t whether Shrek was “bad.” It was whether it was “good,” or in any way supported socially conservative values. It didn’t. Yet it led at the box office–because it’s a friggin’ cartoon. My whole point is that ignoring the wider context makes for an argument that discounts everything but the presupposed conclusion.

    Consider the thesis: “In a time of declining moviegoing, what gets people out to the theaters, it turns out, are conservative movies—conservative not so much politically but culturally and morally, focusing on the battle between good and evil, the worth of heroism and self- sacrifice, the indispensability of family values and martial honor, and the existence of Truth.”

    Wrong. What gets people to the theater is production value–special effects, interesting plotlines, funny and memorable characters, catchy songs. Shrek II is the perfect example.

    My point is made for me in another paragraph: “When Hollywood does put its liberal worldview aside to make movies that embody traditional values, it often scores big with the public. Consider 2004’s Spider-Man 2, a sequel far better than the original. Directed by Sam Raimi, the movie is a visual wonder: the scenes of Spider-Man (played by soft-spoken Tobey Maguire) battling the tentacled benefactor-of-humanity-turned-terrorist Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) high above New York—furious tangles of fists, mechanical arms, and shattered glass and stone—virtually explode off the screen. Spider-Man 2 is so eye-catching that you might miss the story’s old-fashioned moral truths.”

    You might even miss the primary reason people went to see Spider-Man. I’ll say it again: production values trump weltanschaaungs. (Titanic, that trashy leftist critique of the class structure, anyone?)

    (My point about The Passion was humorous. Really, if we want to talk about conservative values and torture, Dick Cheney, not Mel Gibson, is our man.)

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  5. One or two counterexamples don’t make a convincing counter-argument to the essay.

    Also, as it was explained to me, “production value” doesn’t generally include plot, characterization, etc. It usually refers to things that take money–costuming, effects, etc. Hence, it’s quantifiable. But if that’s the case, then high production value has nothing to do with ticket sales–see Alexander or Kingdom of Heaven to see that that’s the case.

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  6. 1. Make that three gigantic box-office champ counterexamples–Titanic, Gone With the Wind, Shrek II. Try to pigeon-hole those into (other) Anderson’s criteria for “conservative values.” Good luck.

    2. Mea culpa on the inaccurate use of the term “production values.” My point still stands, though. At $9 or more per ticket, people want to be “blown away” at the theater.

    3. I never really got to the other problems in the article–its oversimplification of the history of The Code (it was hardly enforced long before its official demise), its gratuitous use of the “complex cause fallacy” and post hoc reasoning, its ignorance of the DVD rental market, which keeps increasing in revenue every year even though theater sales have been stagnant or declining.

    Recently, I had a student approach me with a theory that the movies we watch now are the movies that are trying to provide us with Aristotelian catharsis for events two years previous (because of the lag in production time). I find his thesis (and his plethora of similarly-chosen examples) more compelling than other-Anderson’s.

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  7. 1. Big deal. He doesn’t say every top grossing movie is a conservative film.
    2. I agree.
    3. What do you make of this tidy little fact:

    Only five of the 50 top-grossing movies of all time have R ratings, and 13 of the top 100. A big 2005 Dove Foundation study examined the 3,000 most widely distributed Hollywood movies from 1989 through 2003 in each ratings category. It found PG- and PG-13-rated films between three and four times more profitable on average than R-rated ones—and G films, like this year’s hit nature documentary, March of the Penguins, more profitable still. The average R movie loses $6.9 million, the study showed; the average PG movie made nearly $30 million; the typical G movie made over $70 million. And a Christian Film and Television Commission study of the box-office receipts of the top 250 movies over the last three years found that films expres- sing a strong traditional moral message, whatever their ratings, earned four to seven times as much as movies pushing a left-wing cultural agenda.

    Hollywood owes its best recent years—2002 and 2003, when it cracked the 30 million ticket mark again for the first time since 1966—largely to the massive box-office success of a handful of conservative, family-friendly movies, including the first two Lord of the Rings installments, Finding Nemo, and the low-budget smash My Big Fat Greek Wedding, virtually an ethnic Father Knows Best. The non-R movies draw more children to the theaters, as you’d expect, and more moviegoers 40 and up, too—their parents.

    As for the DVD claim, I haven’t looked at the numbers regarding DVD sales, but I would presume that movies that do well in theatres generally do well in DVD sales and vice versa.

    Finally, remember that he makes two claims: conservative films generally sell better, and there’s a conservative movement afoot in Hollywood. The second seems confirmed from numerous sources–it was THE major story at the Biola Film Festival. It didn’t matter if it was Ralph Winter (X-Men, X2, etc) or Craig Detweiler, or Scott Derrikson, the story was the same: The Passion made Hollywood realize that conservatives exist and that they’ll go see movies if they’re appropriate. The fact that Hollywood has now begun catering films to the faith group (Kingdom of Heaven–albeit badly, in this instance!!!) seems further confirmation of this.

    The two new conservative film festivals seem further confirmation that it’s not the same Hollywood it used to be. In all, I still have yet to see a compelling reason to think he’s actually wrong in his assessment of Hollywood.

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  8. “Only five of the 50 top-grossing movies of all time have R ratings, and 13 of the top 100.”

    1. Some of those top grossers were made before the ratings system developed. Gone With the Wind, the number one movie of all time, was a public scandal because of its amoral main character and its shocking use of “damn.”

    2. Children drive the movie industry. Look at recent box-office winners–Spider-Man, Shrek II, Star Wars, and the obvious fact that G and PG and PG-13 movies make more money. Reason: they don’t automatically exclude a large and demanding audience.

    Does that mean that R-rated movies are all automatically “liberal” or espouse “liberal values?” Or that successful PG and PG-13 films are de facto conservative? Nope. In fact, not in the least.

    The youth movement at the box office is why I don’t watch PG or PG-13 movies at the theater anymore. It’s overrun with pre-teens, chatting up on their cellphones, yakking through the quiet parts of the film, runnning in and out of the theater. Call me a curmudgeon, but The Exorcism of Emily Rose (one of those “conservative” films) was an exercise in patience. I wanted to strangle several obnoxious adolescents, only one of which was on screen.

    I am not denying the fact that some liberal blah-blah nuances-of-everything films rate poorly at the box office. (Especially those that are largely character-based, subtle, richly textured, not effects-driven or action-packed.) What I am denying is that the reputed “conservative” values are what draw people in.

    It’s more an argument significance, teasing out complex causes, etc. Anderson’s thesis is interesting, but it’s a small slice of box-office reality.

    (Also note that I was talking about DVD rentals, not sales. Why buy one DVD for $20, when you can watch twenty in a month for the same price?)

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