On the Monday after the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., MPAA chairman-CEO Christopher Dodd telephoned the major Hollywood studio heads one by one. Violence in movies often comes under scrutiny following mass shootings, so Dodd wanted to touch base with his bosses, even though there was no indication that Adam Lanza's rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School was inspired by movies (he was an intense video gamer, however).
The MPAA issued a statement pledging Hollywood's support in assisting President Obama's call for a special task force on gun violence. "Those of us in the motion picture and television industry want to do our part to help America heal," he said in his statement. "We stand ready to be part of the national conversation."
But that conversation comes at a tricky time for Hollywood, which is preparing to release a slew of violence-laced films. January is a favorite time for genre fare, and next month is no exception, with eight of the 10 nationwide releases rated R. Five of those feature an array of guns -- including assault rifles.
National Rifle Association executive vp Wayne LaPierre took direct aim at Hollywood during a press conference Friday in Washington, D.C.
"Thousands of music videos, and you all know this, portray life as a joke, and they play murder -- portray murder as a way of life," LaPierre said. "And then they all have the nerve to call it entertainment. But is that what it really is? Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?"
Studio insiders say gun violence in movies is tempered by the fact that most are about good guys battling villains. At the same time, they acknowledge that the marketing materials might seem insensitive in the wake of the shooting.
Within 48 hours of the Sandy Hook shooting, Paramount reviewed its marketing materials for the Tom Cruise film "Jack Reacher." The movie, which opened Friday, begins with a sniper picking off victims on a city street. Among other tweaks, the studio removed a scene from television spots showing Cruise's character firing a semi-automatic weapon.
Warner Bros.' period cop-mob movie "Gangster Squad," which opens Jan. 11, features a poster showing Sean Penn's character holding a machine gun, and Josh Brolin's character is holding a handgun. And some NFL football viewers complained online about a television spot for "Gangster Squad" that ran repeatedly the Sunday following Sandy Hook because of a shoot-out scene. The movie was already delayed once -- after the July theater massacre during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises." The delay allowed the filmmakers to cut a scene of a shooting inside a theater and replace it with a gunfight in Los Angeles' Chinatown neighborhood.
Lionsgate's Arnold Schwarzenegger action pic "The Last Stand", opening Jan. 18, is even more intense in terms of its weaponry. According to the website Internet Movie Firearms Database, the movie features 10 different firearms, including a machine gun, assault rifles and a machine gun.
In the poster, Schwarzenegger is holding a massive Vickers machine gun, with a smiling Johnny Knoxville standing next to him.
Other January films with guns featured prominently in marketing materials include New Regency's "Broken City," starring Mark Wahlberg as a former cop who uncovers a political scandal involving the city's mayor, played by Russell Crowe. The movie, opening Jan. 18, isn't as heavy on weapons as other January films.
FilmDistrict's R-rated crime thriller "Parker" has Jason Statham playing a gun-toting professional thief who exacts revenge on those who betray him. He stars opposite Jennifer Lopez in the film, which opens Jan. 22.
In Paramount's action fantasy "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are heavily armed witch hunters. The siblings are grown up now, and expert hunters. The R-rated movie opens Jan. 25.
If there is one area where Hollywood has been willing to impose rules to assuage Washington, it is in the marketing arena, rather than the stories it tells. Such was the case in 2001 when the Federal Trade Commission concluded that Hollywood was marketing R-rated films to kids.
In response, the MPAA, which administers the ratings system, agreed to strengthen self-imposed industry rules about when R-rated trailers and television spots can air. It also agreed to include more information about why a film earns a certain rating.
Several studio insiders say they wouldn't be surprised if marketing rules tighten further in the wake of the Newtown shooting, but they say it depends upon the scrutiny Hollywood comes under.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers already are zeroing in on violent content. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has introduced legislation directing the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact violent video games and violent programming have on children.
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