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April 23, 2004
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LEISURE & ARTS

The Mystery of the Missing Moviegoers
Jack Valenti presided over the film industry's decline--financial as well as moral.

BY MICHAEL MEDVED
Tuesday, April 6, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

With all the gratitude and acclaim surrounding Jack Valenti's recently announced retirement, no one dares confront the long-time president of the Motion Picture Association of America over the chief mystery of his 38-year reign: What happened, Jack, to all those missing moviegoers?

Despite his unquestioned eloquence, elegance and charm, Mr. Valenti presided over history's most disastrous decline in the audience for feature films. In 1965, the year before he left the Johnson administration to assume his plush position as chief mouthpiece for the entertainment industry, 44 million Americans went out to the movies every week. A mere four years later, that number had collapsed to 17.5 million.

In other words, some potent, puzzling force drove more than half of the nation's film fans to break the habit of movie going. That same mystical power served to suppress attendance for the next 20 years, with figures on ticket sales remaining flat until they began to rise moderately in the 1990s, reflecting the construction of thousands of new movie screens at multiplex theaters. Most recent figures (from 2003) show weekly attendance today at just over 30 million. As a percentage of the nation's population, however, the numbers on movie attendance remain only slightly improved from the devastating trough of 1970 (10.3% vs. 8.6%) and still vastly lower than the robust box-office years of 1965 (44%) or 1960 (45%).

It's amazing how many movie professionals remain altogether unaware of this long-term decline in film going--or, when informed about the depressing but undeniable figures, wrongly attribute them to the advent of television. TV sets began appearing in living rooms in the late 1940s, of course, and by the time the audience for feature films started its sharpest slump in 1966, the tube had already arrived in nearly all American homes.

Hollywood originally panicked that television would destroy its business by offering for free the sort of entertainment that cost money at the local Bijou, but during the fateful 10 years of the primary TV invasion (1950-60) the audience actually declined 34%, compared with a 60% decline in those nightmarish four years of the late '60s. In later decades, the arrival of the VCR, cable TV and DVD actually corresponded to modest increases in the motion-picture audience, so no theory centered on technological alternatives can solve the mystery of the missing moviegoers.

So what happened 38 years ago to drive millions of Americans away from movie theaters? In 1966, Mr. Valenti's Motion Picture Association of America quietly dropped its enforcement of the restrictive old Production Code that Hollywood studios had imposed on themselves since 1930. Then, on Nov. 1, 1968, Mr. Valenti introduced the "voluntary rating system" that continues in force to this day. As he proudly declared in his farewell address to the industry on March 23 of this year: "The rating system freed the screen, allowing movie-makers to tell their stories as they choose to tell them." That new freedom allowed the profligate use of obscene language strictly banned under the Production Code, the inclusion of graphic sex scenes along with near total nudity and, more vivid, sadistic violence than previously permitted in Hollywood movies.

The resulting changes in the industry showed up with startling clarity at the Academy Awards. In 1965, with the Production Code still in force, "The Sound of Music" won Best Picture of the Year; in 1969, under the new rating system, an X-rated offering about a homeless male hustler, "Midnight Cowboy," earned the Oscar as the year's finest film. Most critics, then as now, welcomed the aesthetic shift and hailed the fresh latitude in cinematic expression, but the audience voted with its feet.

Jack Valenti, a devoted family man and a true war hero (he flew 51 combat missions as a dashing World War II pilot), hardly qualifies as a cultural revolutionary. He played no role in producing the darker, edgier fare that alienated most of the movie audience, but he did launch the ratings system that made such alienation possible. He's also continued to defend that system and to resist important changes to make it more functional (like renaming the deceptive "PG-13" designation as "R-13" and restricting pre-teen audiences from attending such films). Mr. Valenti and other industry leaders also hide Hollywood's deepest problems with a relentless focus on "box-office gross"--the misleading numbers that always indicate record-breaking success, but reflect rising ticket prices (largely fueled by inflation) and mask decreased patronage.

At a time of intense debate over FCC attempts to rein in radio raunch, it's important to remember that in the movie industry content restrictions helped business, while their removal clearly hurt the bottom line. Over the past 30 years, "G" and "PG" material has consistently drawn larger audiences than releases rated "R." A serious examination of the decline in the movie audience indicates that the long-term emphasis on "adult" content represents an even more serious problem than bad morals: The numbers show that it also counts as bad business.

Mr. Medved, author of "Hollywood vs. America," hosts a daily nationally syndicated radio talk show.

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