COMMENTARY: The Weinstein Company’s co-chairman Harvey Weinstein made some bold statements Friday on CNN to Piers Morgan about backing away from violent content. He spoke about his own children and how he no longer wanted to feel like a hypocrite. “The change starts here,” the man who produced Quentin Tarantino’s violent Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and D’jango Unchained told Morgan. “It has already. For me, I can’t do it. I can’t make one movie and say this is what I want for my kids and then just go out and be a hypocrite.” He added that he would still make a movie like Lone Survivor, which is a violent but accurate portrayal of our American military and their dedication to serving this country. “I’m not going to make some crazy action movie just to blow up people and exploit people just for the sake of making it,” he said. “I can’t do it.” Weinstein’s statements came only days after a fatal shooting of the father of a 3-year old in a Florida theater during a screening of Lone Survivor who was killed while texting his little girl by a supposed “good guy with a gun,” a 71 year-old former police captain.
“The insensitivity that the average person has now because of violence is because people have become so used to it. It’s an obsession as well as almost an addiction. It’s a cheap way of getting an audience, more people shot and more explosions, but it’s at the expense of the story,” said one entertainment marketer with 35 years of experience. “Abject violence has proven successful, and as long as it is, it will be produced because it’s profitable. It’s the accepted way of life rather than asking is this the right thing to do?”
The question is, of course, how Harvey is going to reconcile being in business with Tarantino. The filmmaker has made a lot of money for the company with violent fare. And therein lies the conundrum that all studio heads and TV executives face. I’ve interviewed several executives over the past few weeks and many have said privately that they think the gun violence — especially in video games — has gotten out of control. However, they also say they have an obligation to their shareholders to make a profit and violence sells. There will always be violence in movies, just as there is violence in the Bible and in the plays of William Shakespeare. But, Weinstein is trying to tip the scales; to shift Hollywood from glorifying violence in films, to showing the true human cost and destructiveness of it.
The Weinstein Company did just that when it released Fruitvale Station last year. The film does contain gun violence, but it’s told from the point of view of the victim of gun violence. And that, in itself, is unusual and powerful. When Weinstein said, “The change starts here. It has already for me,” I thought of Fruitvale. Produced by Forest Whitaker and directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler, you come to care about this boy, see him with his little girl, understand him as a father and a son before he is murdered. It was passed over by the Academy this past week for Oscar noms, but it shouldn’t have been. It did win the Producers Guild’s Stanley Kramer Award. Stanley Kramer, of course, was the patron saint of bringing social issues to the foreground with films such as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Fruitvale was the first film I saw in a theater (a large screening room) after the Aurora, CO shooting where my cousin’s daughter was among many murdered by a gunman at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, 2012. During the emergency room scene, I couldn’t bear it. I closed my eyes and sobbed. The film depicts the true face of violence — a very realistic depiction of how gun violence destroys a family. It was made for under $1M and brought in $16.7M at the box office is and still bringing in money in its ancillary markets.
There are other films with a similar theme (and budget) to Fruitvale Station looking for financing now. Building Bridges (roughly a $1M budget) tells the true story of Ron Moore, the father of the 14-year-old boy in the Seattle area who killed Moore’s wife and daughter before shooting himself in the head. Moore’s son had been picked on, relentlessly bullied and was emotionally destroyed when his best friend and protector was killed … in a school shooting, no less. The powerful presentation trailer begins with the words: “The moments that change our lives … are the ones we never see coming.” Screenwriter-actor Cullen Douglas stars with Katie Strickland (Private Practice), Elizabeth Perkins, and others from the hit ABC show Scandal – Guillermo Diaz, Jeff Perry (who is also producing) and Tom Verica who is directing. When I was first alerted to the presentation video, I thought it was a documentary because Douglas’ acting was so realistic. I thought this has to be the actual father whose family was destroyed:
People point to many reasons as to why such violence exists in our society – poor parenting, guns being bought without sufficient background checks, a lack of enforcement of existing gun laws, the media making the shooters into mini-celebs, a lack of efficiency of the country’s mental health system, the ease of buying hoards of ammunition and military gear off the Internet without a red flag being raised — and the entertainment industry – gun violence in film and TV and video games.
It’s controversial and people disagree vehemently. But what everyone can agree on is that, sadly, America has changed. Since Newtown, we’ve had 32 more school shootings, including at Santa Monica College; school lockdowns across this country are now commonplace; a man even opened fire at LAX, causing some of Hollywood’s own to scramble for cover (actress Tatum O’Neal, for instance, saw the shooter and hid in a storage room).
Most of these big-budget Hollywood pictures are full of explosions and shoot-em-ups. One former studio head remembers how he passed on Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “I didn’t think it was funny to have someone’s head blown off in a car and then picking up pieces of someone’s brain. But when it came out in the theaters, people laughed. And I think that is an indication of what is happening in our society.” Indeed, Tarantino’s 1994 landmark film was a big box office hit. In the late 1990s, some executives from the DEA came out from D.C. and met with various studio and TV executives around town. They met with journalists, too. I was one of them. Their mission was to end the glorification of drugs and cigarettes in entertainment content. And in large part, it succeeded. Studios lined up and even some directors did. In fact, the filmmakers wouldn’t put smoking in Pearl Harbor, an era where smoking was prevalent. However, one studio chairman said, “taking out smoking isn’t going to hurt the profitability of a film. It’s a different case with violence because it is action.”
Said another studio chairman, “The refrain I hear around town is wait a minute, the content of movies is one thing, but these play all over the world and there’s not the kind of violence that there is here and they bounce the conversation over to video games.” The evolution of video games from such innocuous beginnings as Pong, Asteroids, and Pac-Man have morphed into detailed 3D scenes where the player becomes part of the game and the winner is measured by killing the most people. Blood squirts out of bodies in real time. Today, the families of the Sandy Hook victims and other gun violence victims are trying to get three websites to take down a video game where the player can go into the Sandy Hook School and start shooting. It even uses the real-life layout of the school. Video games are training grounds. Literally. In many of these shooters’ homes, law enforcement find that these young men have been practicing shooting on video games. Even the military uses video games to train their soldiers. Many parents and mental health professionals believe that children are learning the wrong conflict resolution skills from video games. In many cases, the message these games present to children is that if you perceive something as negative, you just kill it. The video gaming industry, however, counters that a lot of children play violent video games and don’t go out and kill others. This is little comfort to the parents of children who were killed by violent video game-obsessed school shooters. As one parent of a murdered child told me, “My child played with a violent game and it didn’t affect him. However, another child playing the same game did affect my son. That kid took my son’s life.”
A month after the Sandy Hook massacre, President Barack Obama asked Congress to fund a study of the impact of violent video games on young minds. “I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it,” he said. “We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.” Immediately afterwards, the Entertainment Software Association (the video game arm of the entertainment industry), announced that they would welcome a “national dialogue” about this. I called a source at the ESA just a short time ago and asked whatever happened with that call to action? “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.”
When President Obama came to Hollywood in November of last year, he met privately with the heads of the studios and the TV networks — but according to one of the studio heads who met with him, there was no talk about violent content. When he spoke later at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation, Obama said publicly that Hollywood had a “remarkable legacy,” but also a “big responsibility.” Urging the entertainment industry to “think long and hard” about gun violence messages in movies, the president told an audience at DreamWorks: “We gotta make sure that we’re not glorifying it.” He also said that violence in video games needs to be addressed – which is about the only thing that leaders of the National Rifle Association agree with Obama on.
I spoke to a source at the MPAA ratings and classifications board and learned that after Newtown, the ratings board became more aware of the “rat-a-tat-tat” in movies, but that that awareness subsided as the news stories faded. Faded, perhaps, but not forgotten. Not long ago, Steven Spielberg went to D.C. to talk to the MPAA about the possibility of establishing a PG-15 rating. If adopted, it would scrap the existing PG-13 rating and replace it with one in which parents are “strongly cautioned” that “some material may be inappropriate for children under 15.” According to one MPAA executive, the question is: “Should there be a PG-15 rating? Are we ready for that now?” Apparently, the nation’s theater owners aren’t. “They don’t want to confuse the public and don’t want to become police officers,” said one executive. “But a 15-year-old today is different than the 15-year-old from the 1970s.”
Then again, so are the movies, which are much more violent today. A recent study of popular movies between 1950 and 2012 found that the level of gun violence has doubled and that gun-related violence in PG-13 movies exceeds that of the most successful R-rated movies. The MPAA rating is but one aspect. The ratings and classifications board has traditionally been light on violence and harder on sex. We’ve come a long way from The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah’s seminal Western that shocked audiences because of the graphic violence of blood splatter in slow motion after a character was shot. “When I saw The Wild Bunch, I was repulsed by it,” said a former studio chairman. “Sam Peckinpah’s idea was ‘I’m not going to glamorize it. I’m going to show the true side of it.’ That was his intent. I didn’t think at the time that it was art. I thought it was pretty sick and bothered by it. But society has changed.”
After the Aurora theater shooting where 12 people were killed (including my cousin’s beautiful 23 year-old daughter) and 70 others shot (some kids with brain injuries and permanent paralysis as these were AR-15 bullets that tumbled and turned designed for maximum destruction to the human body), Weinstein said, “Hollywood can’t shirk their responsibility” and said that maybe it was time that some of the top filmmakers that made violent films sit down for a discussion. That never happened. Now, once again, he has single-handedly brought the issue back to the fore. Last week, I was surprised when Weinstein told Deadline that he was producing The Senator’s Wife with Meryl Streep, a movie that will be no-holds-barred on the NRA and its behind-the-scenes machinations in defeating legislation that would have expanded background checks on all gun sales. That was only one day before he went on CNN to say, “the change starts here.”
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN AURORA
I know people were shaken after the Aurora shooting, but none more than those of us who experienced it personally. I have never written about this before or talked about the details, but it’s time now. We searched desperately for Micayla for 19 1/2 agonizing hours, only to find out that she was lying dead on a cold theater floor the entire time after being shot in the chest. Her parents (and we all) wonder if she suffered, how much she suffered, how long she suffered. Her father wonders if she cried out for him. He is haunted by the fact that there was no one there to hold her hand as she struggled to breathe and then passed away. Micayla was a very sweet girl. An exceptionally kind person. She loved Hello Kitty. She was accepting of – and friends with – all races. Three weeks after Micayla was murdered, my cousin and his wife escaped to my house in L.A. for a much-needed change of environment. One night, as we all slept, I was awakened with a jolt. His wife was screaming. I jumped out of bed to see if she was okay only to find that she was completely asleep and shouting, “God help us! God help us!” This is the face of violence that you don’t see after the news media closes shop and moves onto the next grim story.
One of the bravest boys you will ever hear about – who was every bit as courageous as the men depicted in Lone Survivor — was 24 year-old Alex Teves, who died a hero in the Aurora theater. This was a kid who loved superheroes like Spiderman, went to ComicCon, loved movies, grew up on The Lion King, and took care of his little brothers and other kids with disabilities. On that terrible night in the Aurora theater, when Alex saw the deranged gunman coming up the aisle, he covered his girlfriend’s body with his own, whispering words of comfort to her until a bullet hit him in the head. His parents, Tom and Caren Teves, now fight to keep the names of mass shooters out of the media’s coverage so they don’t get the notoriety they so desperately crave. Caren lost her business and struggles with Parkinson’s disease (which is made worse by stress) and she now tries to help other disadvantaged kids through the Alexander C. Teves Foundation. Seven of the 12 people killed that night were in their 20s. One of the victims, little Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was only six years old, when she was shot in the back as she ran with a brave 13 year-old up the aisle. (Her mother, Ashley, was shot in the neck and abdomen, she was pregnant with her second child and miscarried; she is now paralyzed from the waist down) Veronica’s father is devastated. The oldest among them, 51-year-old Gordon Cowden, was murdered in front of his children (one of which can’t sleep with the lights off anymore), and their mother who must take care of them on one salary. Rebecca Ann Wingo, 32, was a mother of two young girls. She had previously served in the military and was helping foster children. Robert Wingo, a wonderful father, is now on his own with one salary raising his girls. Jonathan Blunk, 26, was a Navyman and Dad to two little ones. That salary for his kids is also gone. John Larimer, 27, was an honorable kid an active duty member of the United States Navy and Jesse Childress, in the Air Force reserves, 29, all died heroes as did Matt McQuinn, 27, who was shot 9 times. Jessica Ghawi, who helped others when the fires broke out in Colorado, was 24. Alex Sullivan, celebrating his birthday that night, was 27. And sweet A.J. Boik who made everyone laugh and whose mother and uncle (a police officer) are among the finest people I’ve ever met, was only 18. These aren’t just names to us. These are our family members. For some of us, who lost an entire generation of our families that day, there will be no grandchildren. There will be no one to take care of us when we get old. When this happens to you, once the shock wears off, you realize that your life is nothing you recognize anymore. Your belief system changes. You can no longer watch the same films or TV shows you once loved because they contain so much senseless gun violence – violence that once you never thought about, but which now is abhorrent and disgusting. You question God. You can no longer function and lose your ability to work. You lose your financial security. Your health fails. You fall into despair. Behind the scenes, the Aurora families shoulder the pain for each other. And the pain is severe; unending. Those of us who are able to function do whatever we can because we don’t want another soul to experience the same grief and horror. And then when you speak up after all of this to try to help others, the families get verbal abuse and death threats and stalked by psychos. One grieving mother had to use rubber gloves to open her mail lest she become an anthrax victim. FBI agents have to intervene as so-called “charities” move in to rip off the families behind the scenes (hence we all joined together to establish the victim-based National Compassion Fund via the National Centers for Victims of Crime in D.C. so when Americans donate, every penny gets directly to the victims who need it). For the siblings amongst us, we lose our best friends, and for grandparents, our lineage. Those who were injured whose families I also came to know will never be the same again. And not one of us thought we’d ever be put in this position. And we all know now that if it happened to our families, it could happen to yours.
After Newtown, where 20 children and six educators were massacred – including the school principal Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung who was shot in the chest and died in the hallway as she bravely confronted the gunman in an effort to save her kids – many celebrities either signed letters or spoke out against gun violence, either through the Brady Campaign or through Mayors Against Illegal Guns. It was a who’s who in entertainment. There were industry executives like Jeffrey Katzenberg and former Fox chair Peter Chernin, talent agents like CAA’s Richard Lovett, actors like Jamie Foxx, Will Ferrell, Peter Dinklage, John Hamm, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo (whose brother was a victim of gun violence), actresses like Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Carey Mulligan, Michelle Williams, Amy Poehler and others like Judd Apatow, former SAG president Melissa Gilbert, Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien and Jim Carrey. The question is now: Who will take the next step and stand openly with Weinstein to start this discussion? Or will he be left standing alone? This week as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., a victim of gun violence, I am reminded of something the great civil rights leader once said: “Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent on things that matter.”
Is it time for all of us, no matter what industry we are in, to begin the conversation about what can be done to stem the tide of America’s culture of violence? It’s a national problem; shouldn’t there be a multi-faceted, national resolution? In the wake of the horrors of Aurora, Oak Creek and Newtown, we must recognize that we all – each and every one of us – have a social responsibility. Isn’t there enough darkness in the world without bringing more into it?
As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
As my own father taught me before he died (he received last rites as I held his hand, unbelievably, on the year mark of the Aurora theater shooting), ‘if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.’ My father, who was my Atticus Finch, and I shared the same hero: Martin Luther King, Jr. So, as we celebrate the birth of Dr. King – most will just see it as another big box office holiday time for the industry — but my family (and I mean my entire family from Columbine, Va Tech, Oak Creek, NIU, Aurora, Newtown and 33 other families that come into the fold every day) will think about this great man of peace whose life was cut short by gun violence. And I am struck by another quote from Dr. King: “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing … we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
And finally, I must explain something: For the parents of murdered children who have been relentlessly hounded by the media, I allowed them to speak off the record. I couldn’t get any of the power players I spoke with in Hollywood to reveal themselves on the record for this story … and that makes what Harvey Weinstein did in speaking out publicly all the more remarkable.