NEW YORK – It was a year ago this week that the sickening sound of gunfire rang out at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo. The mass shooting reverberated painfully in Hollywood, and how could it not? It happened at the movies.
Five months later, the horrific massacre of first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., launched yet more reflection – about gun control, certainly, but also about entertainment content, particularly violent video games said to be favored by the killer.
And yet, in the year since Aurora, seemingly little has overtly changed in the area of violence in entertainment, save the notable musings of actor Jim Carrey, who tweeted misgivings about his latest film, “Kick-Ass 2,” after Newtown: “Now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence,” he wrote.
And some ask: If nothing changes now, will it ever?
“My fear is that we have such a short attention span,” says Chuck Williams, a youth violence expert at Drexel University who’s especially troubled by movies that depict “stylized” violence. “And as a society, we don’t like being on a diet. We want to consume what we want, when we want it.”
Certainly, screen violence is a complex issue. Studies have not shown clear links with real-world violence; in video games, which have undergone the most scrutiny lately, many researchers say the evidence just isn’t there.
There’s also the specter of censorship and infringement on artistic freedom, something that raises hackles instantly in the entertainment industry. And, of course, there’s the issue of gun control. Many in Hollywood say that’s where the focus should be, while the gun lobby has suggested violent images in entertainment and games are more to blame than access to guns.
“The issue makes a lot of people uncomfortable in Hollywood – they don’t really want to deal with it,” says Janice Min, editor of The Hollywood Reporter trade publication. She notes that after Aurora, producer Harvey Weinstein called for a summit of filmmakers to discuss screen violence – but it never happened.
And one of Weinstein’s favored filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino, director of films like the bloody Western “Django Unchained,” is angered by the mere question of a link between entertainment and violent events. “I’ve been asked this question for 20 years,” he said in a tense exchange on NPR. “Obviously, I don’t think one has to do with the other.” Of Newtown, he said, “Obviously the issue is gun control and mental health.”
Others say it’s not so obvious; it’s a whole slew of issues. “We can’t allow this conversation to be only about gun control,” says Williams. “Nothing will happen.”
“There are so many competing factors,” says Timothy Gray, a senior VP at the industry trade publication Variety who edited a post-Newtown issue on violence. “The more you pull at the thread, it makes people crazy. People in entertainment say, ‘It’s not entirely our fault.’ OK, but there’s a difference between that and saying we’re not going to contribute at all to the discussion.”
Gray says he’d like to think the dialogue is changing, but he’s not so sure. And, he adds, “it’s hard, when the public seems to want this stuff.”
And yet, tastes may be shifting. An Associated Press-GfK poll in January found that 54 percent of adults would support a policy limiting “the amount and type of gun violence that can be portrayed in video games, in movies or on television.” Other polls at the time found similar misgivings about violent content.
And, says Min, while summer offerings are heavy on violent blockbusters, a number have tanked at the box office, perhaps indicating that the public – especially the female segment, she feels – is feeling alienated from the product. (Though four of the five top-grossing films so far this year have PG-13 ratings warning of violence.)
“I don’t think there’s any soul-searching about violence on the part of studio executives,” Min says. “But if a different kind of movie does well, you’ll see others coming out like it.”
After all: “It’s all driven by economics in Hollywood.”
VIDEO GAMES: IS THERE A LINK?
Video games got extra scrutiny after Newtown, especially the “first-person shooter” type apparently favored by 20-year-old killer Adam Lanza.
Industry executives say the scrutiny is unjustified.
“People who play video games have a very firm grasp on the distinction between the fantasy world of play and what happens in the real world,” Andrew House, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, said in a June interview.
Researchers tend to support him. “Everybody’s focusing on video games, but empirically, it just hasn’t been proven,” says Patrick Markey, a psychology professor at Villanova University who’s studied behavioral effects of video games.
Besides, he says, “it would have been surprising if Lanza hadn’t played those games, because most male adolescents play them.” He says games may marginally increase aggression — but not to the level of violence.
Other research, says psychology professor Sherry Hamby, has suggested possible negative effects of intense consumption of violent content across media platforms. “But just because a kid plays ‘Call of Duty’ doesn’t mean he’s going to become an assailant,” says Hamby, who’s on the American Psychological Association’s task force on media violence.
Industry heads say it’s about parental control. “Games are rated for a reason,” says Vince Zampella, co-creator of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.”
The appetite for shoot-’em-up games doesn’t seem to have waned. Each month since Aurora, mature-rated shooting games have been among the top 10 sold, according to industry tracker NPD Group.
TELEVISION: ZOMBIES AND SERIAL KILLERS
Shortly after Newtown, the entertainment presidents of both NBC and Fox said they didn’t believe there was any connection between violence their networks depict and real-life tragedies.
“Nothing that is on the air is inappropriate,” said Nina Tassler, entertainment chief for CBS.
Executives go with what’s buzz-worthy — like AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” a gory zombie drama. Fox’s most successful new show, “The Following,” features Kevin Bacon as an investigator chasing a charismatic killer who gouges out his victims’ eyes. There’s also NBC’s “Hannibal,” about serial killer Hannibal Lecter.
And one of the most talked-about TV moments this spring came on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”: a celebration leading to an orgy of stabbings (beginning with a pregnant woman), throat slittings and shootings.
Events like Aurora and Newtown have little impact on the thinking of television executives, says Tim Winter of the Parents Television Council.
It’s, “’We can get back to business as usual as soon as people stop talking of these things,’” he says.
For TV executives, “there’s so much money involved that they look the other way, even if they’re socially conscious, intelligent people,” says Dr. Victor Strasburger, pediatrics professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
There’s been at least one pang of hesitation. After Aurora, writer-producer Kurt Sutter, whose bloody “Sons of Anarchy” follows a group of outlaw bikers, said on Twitter that “this kinda thing always make me question my liberal use of violence in storytelling.”
MOVIES: A FOCUS ON RATINGS
After Aurora, Warner Bros. found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to pull trailers for its “Gangster Squad” due to a scene of gunmen shooting up a movie theater. The film was postponed and reshot.
Further scrutiny came with Newtown. In January, former Sen. Chris Dodd, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, met with Vice President Joe Biden, and said the industry was “ready to be part of the conversation” on gun violence — while still vehemently opposing content restrictions.
In April, the MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners announced a new “Check the Box” campaign meant to supplement the ratings system, which has been criticized as soft on violence, by making reasons for a rating slightly more prominent.
“Our industry has a long history of voluntary engagement on this issue,” the MPAA said in a statement for this report, declining an interview request.
Unveiling the “Check the Box” campaign, John Fithian, president of the theater owners group, suggested studios should make fewer R-rated movies: “It’s cool to be Quentin Tarantino ... But there’s a bit of a disconnect between exhibitors and the studios as to what works.”
Just what kind of screen violence is appropriate has been widely debated.
The recent Superman film “Man of Steel” was criticized, for example, for showing the demolition of huge swaths of a city as mere backdrop for a fight. A film like Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” on the other hand, illustrates the generations-long reverberations of a shooting between a police officer and a bank robber.
“I have strong feelings about guns, and how we’re using them in this film,” Cianfrance said when the film came out. “We’re using it not in a fetishized way, not in a cool violence way.
If I have to see another slow-motion bullet come out of a gun and paint brains on the wall ... It’s not beautiful to me.”
Associated Press writers Derrik Lang in Los Angeles, David Bauder and Jake Coyle in New York, and Lou Kesten in Washington contributed to this report.