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Michael Medved drowns by numbers.

"This book will undoubtedly outrage a heavy majority of show-business professionals. I am painfully aware that one of the consequences of its publication will be my potentially permanent estrangement from some of the thoughtful and well-intentioned people in Hollywood I have been proud to call my friends. In their view, I am a traitor . . . and the criticisms I raise here are misguided, offensive, even dangerous."

Michael Medved uses this traditional crank's gambit at the very beginning of his new book, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. Medved styles himself as a maverick prophet-heretic - Lot to Hollywood's Sodom - while the rest of the movie industry is a bubbling slime-pit of fanatical "loony-left" figures who refuse to provide the public with the family-oriented films it demands. A dust-jacket blurb by conservative economist George Gilder sums up Medved's critique in a nutshell: "Hollywood is forfeiting both profits and paying customers in a crazy campaign to foist its own loony lifestyles and muddled world views on the American people."

Central to this demonization of the film industry is Medved's citation of market data. "These statistics," he writes, "available upon request from the Motion Picture Association of America, tell a dismal tale of an industry that has needlessly and and stupidly sacrified the majority of its available audience." These statistics, for Medved, are the equivalent of Galileo's telescope: the facts that the "loony-left" fanatics in Hollywood refuse to consider.

This is Medved's one great reach for empiricism. The thesis presented in Hollywood vs. America is not just a matter of opinion, he argues, but qualitative, statistical fact. Thus he can dismiss any objections to his book as the predictable whinings and ravings of liberals and loony-lefties, because, after all, he has facts that back him up.

On close and skeptical examination of this Gordian knot of statistics, one finds disturbing instances of inadequate documentation, unsupported assumptions, skewed interpretations, and sweeping claims based upon tiny sample sizes, as well as at least one instance of outright misrepresentatirn. Medved's use of statistics is so incompetent - and his ideological agenda so extreme and uncompromising - that one has a hard time believing that this was not intentional.

In Hollywood vs. America, Medved charges that the movie industry is guilty of fraud on a massive scale. "I am increasingly convinced," he writes, "that industry leaders deliberately emphasize the numbers on |box office grosses' in order to deliberately mislead the public (and themselves) and to disguise the depth of their dilemma." But nowhere in the book does Medved reprint the MPAA data in a direct and concise manner. Unless readers are willing to call the MPAA (at 212-840-6161) and request the material (U.S. Economic Review and Incidence of Motion Picture Attendance), or raise a few critical questions, they have to take Medved at his word.

Discussing the MPAA data for the year 1990, Medved writes: "Significantly, 45 percent of all Americans are identified as |infrequent' moviegoers (less than twice a year) and a full 33 percent declared that they never go to the movies." This ambiguous sentence strongly implies that, according to the motion-picture industry's own data, 78 percent of the American public either stays away from movie theaters entirely or ventures in, at best, maybe once or twice a year. But this is not true, according to Medved's own source - the MPAA figures. The actual breakdown is depicted in Table I (I have added the figures for 1989 and 1991 to provide context).
 Table I
 Americans as Moviegoers
Frequency of attendance 1989 1990 1991
Frequent 24% 21% 21%
 (at least once a month)
Occasional 32 34 34
 (once in 2 to 6 months)
Infrequent 10 12 12
 (less than once in 6 months)
Never 32 33 32
Not reported 2 1 1

Notice that, in the figures for 1990 that Medved uses, only 12 percent of the public is identified as "infrequent" moviegoers. So where does Medved get his 45 percent figure? My guess is that he added the "infrequent" and "never" categories to, gether and caued this new total "infrequent." This allows Medved, in effect, to count the 33 percent "never" category twice and leave the misleading impression that the "infrequent" and "never" categories, combined, constitute 78 percent of the public.

Why this misrepresentation? Because, if you re-examine Medved's assertion that Hollywood has "needlessly and stupidly sacrificed the majority of its available audience," the MPAA data show just the opposite. In the MPAA's 1990 figures, the "frequent" and "occasional" categories - the people who still go to the movies on a regular basis - constitute 55 percent of the public. Last I checked (and nine out of 10 statisticians agree), 55 percent is a majority.

Medved also writes: "The only numbers which accurately reflect the industry's ability to connect with the general public are figures on |admissions' - the total number of American moviegoers who actually go to the theaters and pay to see Hollywood's product." As far as the admissions statistics go, Medved says that "1991 brought only 960 million motion picture admissions - the lowest total in fifteen years." (He cites Variety as a source; the MPAA figure for this year, compiled more recently, is 981.9 milhon - same ballpark.) But between average attendance has been 1.089 billion admissions - and no year since 1980 has varied more than about 10 percent from this average. (In fact, 1982, 1983, and 1984 were all 10 percent higher than the average.)

So while 1991 was a bad year for the industry, it's speculative at best to say that this shows a massive abandonment of the movies, motivated specifically by moral outrage. It much more certainly reflects the serious recession that had battered the American economy by 1991 (although Medved dismisses this objection with the dubious assertion that Hollywood "should be and always has been recession-proof'). Other factors that should be taken into account are the massive increases in admission prices (up a whopping 81.8 percent since 1980; real wages certainly didn't jump that much), cable-TV movie channels and pay-per-view screenings, and the home, video boom. The MPAA's own figures show that, in 1980, 1.85 million households owned VCRs; by 1991, this number had increased by a factor of thirty-five to 67.5 million. Finally, it costs maybe three dollars to rent a videotape that the entire family can watch; nonmatinee theater admission is perhaps six dollars per person plus parking, gas, and effort. It doesn't seem farfetched to suppose that all of these factors would significantly affect admissions totals.

Medved's response to this is feeble. Since renting a video is like "watching television," he argues, it really doesn't count when you're trying to figure out how "in touch" Hollywood is with its potential audience. In fact, the subject of home video does not even appear in the index to Medved's book, although he does provide a snippy footnote about the "seeming contradiction" between Hollywood's sagging box-office returns and the home-video boom.

Next we come to Medved's analysis of MPAA ratings and box-office revenue. Conventional Hollywood wisdom holds that G- and X-ratings (and the recently conceived NC-17) are the kiss of death at the box office-that audiences prefer a little R-rated (or PG-13) spicing. Medved asserts that the MPAA statistics actually show the opposite: that R-rated films arerit the sure-fire moneymakers Hollywood executives think they are. Since R-rated films make up roughly 60 percent of Hollywood product, Medved's argument continues, one would expect them to make up 60 percent of the to 20 biggest box-office hits of the 1980s. But they don't; in fact, G- and PG-rated films make up what Medved calls a "disproportionate share" of these top 20 earners.

First of all, Medved is talking about 20 films out of a 10-year output of up to 6,500 films. Why does he base his assertions on such a small sample size, chosen specificafly from the upper end of the curve? It's like polling the richest 0.3 percent of the country about cutting the capital-gains tax.

And Medved is not very clear about just how many R-, PG-, or G-rated films are actually in the top 20. This is what he writes:

* Looking over Variety's list of the Top 10 box office films of the decade of the 1980s only one - Beverly Hills Cop - happened to be rated R, even though R films accounted for more than 60 percent of all titles released in this period.

* At the same time, PG fflms represented less than 25 percent of all titles - but occupied six of the top 10 places on the list of the decade's leading money makers.

* If you expand the calculations to consider the 20 leading titles in terms of domestic box-office returns between 1981 and 1990, 55 percent were rated G or PG; only 25 percent were R films.

This sounds like one of Martin Gardner's whimsical math puzzles from the old Scientific American. From these figures I derived a worksheet (Table 2). Taking the information Medved provides and applying a little basic algebra to it, the reader simply cannot tell exactly how many G-rated or PG-rated films are in the top 20. (Figuring out how many R-rated films are in the top 20 is no problem.) Yet these are the very films Medved champions.
 Table 2
 Number of Top 20 Films by Rating
 G PG R Other
 (PG-13, NC-17, X)
 TOP 6 1
 10 5 4 4
 TOTALS ? ? 5 4

Worse, Medved does not even provide the titles of these films. By withholding such basic information, he makes it impossible to understand why these particular films got their ratings, let alone why they did so well. After all, a Spike Lee film and a Steven Seagal shoot-em-up will get R-ratings for very different reasons. Similarly, an Indiana Jones picture is more likely to make money than, say, Goldie Hawn in Deceived, and a classic Disney re-issue will probably outperform a lot of other films, good or bad. Without any other information regarding the content of these films, the only conclusion Medved permits the reader to make is that the MPAA rating alone is a determinant of financial success - which even Medved says isn't true.

Medved's main argument, remember, is that films jam-packed with "traditional family values" - as represented by G- and PG-rated pictures - actually outperform all those R-rated films brimming over with sex and violence; and that it is only through sheer ideological perversity that Hollywood refuses to acknowledge this and behave accordingly. Thus, Medved writes that, of 1991's releases: "R films comprised 61 percent of all titles, but only 30 percent of the top 20 hits; G and PG fdms, with 16.5 percent of total releases, represented 40 percent of the commercial leaders." Once again, he claims this is a "disproportionate share." What this more likely telis us is that there were six R-rated films in the top 20 and Iess than six G-rated or PG-rated films, which, when both categories were combined, totaled eight - another instance of Medved cooking his numbers to manufacture his proof.

The full MPAA ratings breakdown for all films released in 1991 is presented in Table 3. It's hard to see from these figures just how Medved arrives at his ratio when he writes: a given G or PG rated film is nearly five times more likely to place among the year's box-office leaders than an R film' Even more damaging, Medved's assertion that R-rated films are "less likely" to place in the top 20 rests on three false assumptions. The first is that the top 20 is a representative sample of all films released; as I've already indicated, it isn't.
 Table 3
1991 MPAA Film Rafings Breakdown
G 14 2.46
PG 87 15.26
PG-13 118 20.70
R 375 65.79
NC-17/X 20 3.51
TOTAL 614 100.00

Medved's second false assumption is that all films are distributed evenly, with every film competing on an equal basis. But "art" films and independent features of specialized interest (My Own Private Idahao, Paris Is Burning) have smaller promotional budgets, are more likely to get an R rating, and are less likely to be booked into 2,000 General Cinema Corporation Multiplex-8 shopping-mall theaters with the next Steven Spielberg fantasy or James Cameron action thriller. These are all factors that affect a film's revenues, and Medved, a "respected film critic" and former honors student at Yale, certainly knows this.

Medved's third false assumption requires a small thought experiment to reveal its flaws. Hypothetically, let us say that the year 1991 went completely against Medved's assertions: the top 20 box-office hits consisted of 19 sleazy, R-rated movies directed by David Lynch and only one pink-and-fluffy, G-rated Disney cartoon. Even in this worst-of-all-possible years, that one G-rated film would constitute 5 percent of the top 20 - and would remain, for Medved's purposes, a "disproportionate share," since G-rated product accounted for only 2.46 percent of the total number of films made that year.

This is why Medved so insistently focuses on the top 20; each film counts as 5 percent, thus guaranteeing that G-rated films will always be a "disproportionate share" of the sample base. (The same can be said about erotic NC-17 films, for that matter.) This is why legitimate statisticians require large, representative sample bases for their conclusions.

To support his charge that the film industry is intentionally "misleading the public," Medved also cites a study by Robert Cain Associates which, according to his description, was based on 221 films "representing virtually all of the domestically produced theatrical films for which 1991 box office figures are currently available" But Medved does not provide important details about the study, which he himself commissioned. Did the study take into account the number of theaters the films were booked into, and for how long? What about seasonal variances (summer blockbusters versus fall releases)? Or the amount of money spent on promotion? Medved doesn't say. At the very least, it would have been nice of him to have included the study as an appendix to his own book.

As I said earlier, Medved's ideological agenda is so uncompromising and extreme that I simply cannot believe that the shoddiness of his statistics is an accident. So the question we are compened to ask is: just what does Michael Medved want?

After warning against the "temptation of censorship," Medved discusses resurrecting voluntarily some variant of the infamous Hays Code. It is not that Medved objects to such censorship in principle; he just feels that it would be impossible to enforce the code today, darn it. Medved writes:

The problem is that changes in the fundamental structure

of the movie business now make it altogether

impossible for a handful of executives to impose a self-policing

scheme on the entire industry. The concentration

of power in the eight major studios allowed

their omnipotent bosses to compel colleagues in every

corner of the entertainment community to go along

with the Hays office restrictions. If a film violated

those standards . . . it wouldn't be shown, period.

Ah, the good old days.

Medved follows this not-very-reassuring discussion of the Hays Code with a call for organized boycotts - that is, decentralized censorship-even though he has just spent 300 pages arguing that most decent Americans do not go to movies already. And after hammering away for so long at Hollywood's "loony left," he concludes by suggesting that concerned readers contact such "watch, dog" organizations as the Reverend Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, Ted Baehr's Christian Film and Television Commission, Christian Leaders for Responsible Television (CLeaR-TV, another Wildmon project), the Parents' Music Resource Center, and Bob de Moss' Focus on the Family. In other words, the loony right.

Medved characterizes the efforts of Wildmon, Baehr, and the rest as "nothing more than an impassioned and appropriate participation in the give-and-take of the free marketplace of ideas." Well, Wildmon was condemned as an anti-Semite for publishing a list of Jews working in Hollywood. Ted Baehr has circulated materials depicting anti-apartheid activists in South Africa as bloodthirsty maniacs. The PMRC (Tipper Gore's group) is notorious for its hyperventilating info-packets on satanism in rock music. And Bob de Moss' Focus on the Family endorses creationism and the corporal punishment of children.

Not surprisingly, there is nary a word of warning about any of these groups in Medved's book. In fact, Bob de Moss, who calls for a "civil war of values" in this country, is something of a Medved resource; the dust jacket of Hollywood vs. America includes a laudatory blurb from this "youth culture specialist," perhaps best known for his "heroic" (Medved's adjective) efforts to count the number of obscenities on 2 Live Crew's album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. And Wildmon's Journal of the American Family Association is devoted to cataloguing incidences of sex acts, rehgious jokes, and tolerant statements about gays and lesbians in the media, and encouraging the efforts of censors, bigots, and right-wing cranks across the country. Medved cites this magazine several times as a reliable source.

A recent issue of Los Angeles magazine reported that, at a lecture in an Orange County synagogue, Medved complained that Hollywood was soon to make a film about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo - whom Medved described as "a lesbian with a mustache" - while ignoring more worthy subjects like Desert Storm hero "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf. And throughout Hollywood vs. America, Medved cites right-wingers like Richard Grenier of the National Interest, who complains that Dances with Wolves didrit portray the Sioux as being sufficiently subhuman, or Irving Kristol of Commentary, who insists that "American popular culture is less an ornament of democracy than a threat to this democracy." This makes it difficult to take Medved at his word when he says that he fears "being placed in the right-wing, pro-censorship, religious fanatic box. I don't want to be viewed as a Dan Quayle echo or a Jewish Jesse Helms." Right - and Frida Kahlo was a lesbian with a mustache.

It should be mentioned in closing that no less a professed humanist than Steve Allen has endorsed Medved's cultural crusade, stating: "Practically everyone opposes censorship, but I fear we'll get it imposed on us if we don't clean up our act." But since Medved's "traditional values" apparently include know-nothing bigotry, uncritical myth acceptance, and suspicion of artistic expression - as well as poor math skills - I think it's a crusade we'd better fight against.

Brian Siano is a freelance writer and researcher in Philadelphia. His column "The Skeptical Eye" appears regularly in The Humanist. He can be contacted via E-mail at
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Title Annotation:author of "Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values
Author:Siano, Brian
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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