11 September 2001>News Stories>Scratching Violence for Family Fare and Patriotism

Scratching Violence for Family Fare and Patriotism

Bernard Weinraub . NYTimes . 16 September

In response to the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon on Tuesday, television and film executives say movies involving terrorism, explosions, hijackings and the kind of jokey violence popular in the films of the 1990's will be rapidly replaced by patriotic stories, family dramas touching on parents and children and escapist comedies.

"You don't want to hear anything right now that's a dark, gritty drama," said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces 24 current series, more than any other studio. "A lot of people will be looking for blue skies and escapist dramas and programs as an alternative to the realities that all of us are dealing with now and for years to come."

Similarly, Ed Gernon, executive vice president of movies and mini- series for Alliance Atlantis, a prominent television film and mini-series producer, said: "We see entertainment now as much more wholesome, where movies reinforce American values and family and community. We are definitely moving into a kinder, gentler time."

To many writers, directors and executives, the deadliest terrorist attack on the United States will have the same impact on the nation's culture and how people want to be entertained as such times in history as World War II and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when the nation became entranced with family entertainment that had little relevance to their lives: films like "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music" and television shows like "Gilligan's Island" and "The Munsters."

Doug Wick, producer of "Gladiator," said: "When the world is troubled, people look to Hollywood for two hours of refuge. There are American flags all over the studio lot. Movies about the grays of the military and the intelligence services are of much less interest now and will be of much less interest for many years."

NBC and ABC said that in some ways it was simply too early for detailed assessments about the future. Scott Sassa, the president of NBC West Coast, said: "Right now we're trying to figure out the balance between news and entertainment. In this atmosphere, I don't think anybody should be making decisions about what should and shouldn't be developed."

Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group, said, "Conventional wisdom would tell you with the passing of time we revert to our old television habits." But Mr. Braun added: "The postwar generation has never been traumatized like this. It's all new territory."

Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, declined to comment.

For some time, executives and directors said, films and television programs involving terrorism and explosions and threats to civilians are out of the question. For example, a five-hour "Law and Order" mini- series scheduled for May about a biological warfare attack in New York has been canceled, one of numerous television and feature films that are being dropped, delayed or remade because of the terrorist attacks. A reference to the Islamic militant Osama bin Laden in a new CBS drama about the C.I.A., "The Agency" has been removed.

Even comedies are affected. "Greg the Bunny," a new midseason show on Fox set backstage at a children's show, had a passing reference to a suicide bomber. "The joke went in on Friday," said Steve Levitan, one of the creators. "We saw it on Wednesday, and we were horrified. We pulled it right out."

Some of the most successful producers seem uncertain about how to proceed.

Brian Grazer, a producer of hits including "Apollo 13" and "Liar, Liar," said: "I have one or two projects that I won't talk about and won't make now. They're arenas I just don't want to be in." One of these arenas, Mr. Grazer said, is "anything that involves explosions, anything where a person's life is at stake."

"I think every mainstream producer and director and studio and television executive will be very cautious about entering into a world where people's lives are in jeopardy," he said. "I think people will look toward more escapism, more comedies, more dramas about family love. I don't think people will want to make movies with a hard R rating or one of those movies that were made in the 1980's and 90's."

Mr. Grazer, responding to a question, said that in the current climate he would even avoid approving one of his most successful movies, "Ransom," the 1996 film directed by Ron Howard about a team that kidnaps the young son of a millionaire played by Mel Gibson. The film took in $136.5 million at the box office.

Mr. Grazer has some immediate issues. He is serving as executive producer of a new Fox series, "24," about a C.I.A. anti-terrorism agent. Television advertisements for the first episode have been pulled because it features a terrorist jumping out of an exploding plane. But Mr. Grazer said that, so far, no changes are being planned although future episodes will not feature planes crashing or buildings exploding.

And Walter Parkes, co-head of the motion picture unit at DreamWorks, said that in this atmosphere he would have shied from making films like "The Peacemaker" (1997), about a nuclear threat to New York, and "Deep Impact" (1998), about a comet hurtling to Earth and destroying cities.

"We make the movies that reflect, in one way or another, the experiences we all have," Mr. Parkes said. "There are just some movies that you can't make from here on in."

Mr. Parkes is also a producer of "Men in Black 2," the ending of which initially took place at the base of the World Trade Center and will now, he said, be shifted to the Chrysler Building. Another movie he is producing, "The Time Machine," initially ended with shards of the moon falling on New York. The finale is being changed.

Several executives and producers warned against overreaction to the terrorist attack. Like numerous others, Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, said it was difficult to work and make decisions because of the enormity of the tragedy.

"Everybody's emotions are so raw," Ms. Lansing said. But she said that it would be dishonest to avoid depicting violence in films. "We can't just show the pretty side of life," Ms. Lansing said. "That's unrealistic. Violence is part of the world. But it's our responsibility not to trivialize violence, not to glamorize violence, not to make it look cartoony."

To many in Hollywood, the mood is a throwback to other wrenching and traumatic times like World War II, when the most successful films were as remote as possible from the battlefield. Americans surged to films like "National Velvet," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Going My Way," "Woman of the Year," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Now Voyager." In the mid-60's, after the assassination of President Kennedy, the nation favored often highly entertaining spectacles and escapist movies like "The Sound of Music," "Doctor Zhivago," "Goldfinger," and "Mary Poppins."

Television was even more escapist.

As David Kissinger, president of the USA Television Production Group, which makes "Law and Order" and other series, said: "We are in the midst of an unfolding shift because of the horror and the level of trauma of what happened. There was a period of total escapism on TV after J.F.K.'s death `Gilligan's Island,' `I Dream of Jeanie,' `The Munsters,' `Bewitched.' That's what we see now. There's an enormous volume of material that would have been interesting to us on Monday that would be unthinkable today."

(By contrast, in the late 60's and 70's, with the Vietnam War and the country in upheaval, the films turned darker, with titles like "The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy," "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Godfather," and "Easy Rider.")

Whether films and television mirror the culture or lead it remains a mystery. In recent years, the proliferation of violence in the nation, including the raft of school shootings, has fueled criticism of Hollywood and resulted in scattered critics say halfhearted efforts by studios and networks to curtail displays of mayhem that were popular in films from the late 1980's to the mid-1990's.

The stars of many of these films, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Steven Seagal, have seen their careers decline. Mr. Schwarzenegger's newest film, "Collateral Damage," about a fireman seeking justice after his family is killed in a terrorist attack, was set to be released on Oct. 5, and has been postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, television and film directors and writers are scrambling to remove any reminder of the terrorist acts from their shows and movies. Darren Star, creator of HBO's "Sex and the City," about single women in New York, said editors were reviewing episodes to make sure that no glimpses of the World Trade Center were visible.

"You feel a certain amount of irrelevance about what you do for a living in a situation like this," Mr. Star said. "It's hard to think about entertainment."