Hollywood's Decency Epidemic

An onslaught of wholesome entertainment


On May 3, at the Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills, there won't be a single shamelessly naked trophy in the house. The 2008 CAMIE Awards will be celebrating "Character And Morality In Entertainment," and in contrast to the disturbingly androgynous and probably bisexual Oscar, the CAMIE statuette is clad in a wholesome dress that leaves everything to the imagination except a beguiling flash of patinated bronze ankle. But don't be getting any ideas, fresh guy! According to CAMIE's creators, she is "a lovely and modest young woman."

While Hollywood is the Thomas Edison of self-congratulation, always inventing new ways to honor itself, Tinseltown is apparently too busy churning out simulated sex and lovingly choreographed gore to devise an awards show that emphasizes family-friendly entertainment. Thus, the task was left to outsiders, and in 2001 Dr. Glen Griffin, a retired pediatrician and abstinence advocate from Salt Lake City, organized the first CAMIEs. The event was held at lunchtime, in a local park, and it seems safe to say that whatever its attractions were, Gwyneth Paltrow in a see-thru Alexander McQueen mesh tank-top was not one of them.

In 2005 the CAMIE Awards migrated to Los Angeles, and the production has been growing quickly ever since. Each year, it honors five theatrical and five made-for-TV movies that feature "positive role models who build character, overcome adversity, correct unwise choices, strengthen families, live moral lives and solve life's problems with integrity and perseverance." And each year, more and more industry types show up to pay tribute to technicolor virtue and inoffensiveness. "The reception from Hollywood has been great," exclaims CAMIE Awards Productions president Joseph Lake.

Wait, Hollywood? The same Hollywood that presidential candidate Barack Obama recently chastised for allegedly marketing "violent, slasher, horror films" to six-year-olds? The same Hollywood that the Senate's own Siskel and Ebert, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, have been panning for years now, via testy congressional hearings and proposals like the "Media Marketing Accountability Act"? (That would have made it potentially illegal to market R-rated movies in any medium with children under 17 in the audience.) The same Hollywood that packs TV's "family hour" with 4.19 violent incidents, 3.76 sexual references or situations, 0.01 bleeped "cocksuckers," and 1.08 unbleeped "hells" per hour in a wicked attempt to poison the minds of innocent and impressionable Parents Television Council employees?

Look around. America is in the throes of a raging decency epidemic. On American Idol, TV's perennial ratings champ, even the edgiest contestants are a temporary-tattoo-removal away from blending in at an Osmond Family reunion. Reigning Disney Channel poppet Miley Cyrus oozes 100-proof adorableness so relentlessly that one suspects she actually has tiny little paws instead of hands and feet. The casts of tween favorites like Zoey 101 and High School Musical are so wholesome they make those hoodlums from Saved by the Bell look like extras in a Scorsese film.

Of the 20 movies that got the widest circulation in 2007, only two were rated R. From 2005 to 2007, during the traditional summer movie season—the first weekend of May through Labor Day—only 40 R-rated movies and zero NC-17 movies opened up in 500 or more theaters. According to the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, this represents just 29 percent of movies in wide release.

In September 2006, Fox established a stand-alone division called Fox Faith to distribute movies with strong Christian themes. It also partnered with Walden Media—the production company created by billionaire Phillip Anschutz that has developed such hits as Charlotte's Web, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—with the aim of producing a half-dozen family-friendly movies a year.

Even Hollywood's bad boys are going soft. During their tenure at Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein released movies like Priest, Kids, and Dogma, and were only slightly less reviled than gay marriage amongst the family values brigade. At their new gig, the Weinstein Company, they've signed a multi-year first-look deal with Impact Entertainment, a Christian production company.

"Studios who in the past weren't even interested in talking to us about this kind of stuff are submitting products to us on a regular basis," says the CAMIEs' Joseph Lake. "This year, we could have picked 20 movies to honor. Or even more—there were that many really good ones." The Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that encourages the "production, distribution and consumption of wholesome family entertainment," issued its blue-and-white "Family-Approved Seal" to 58 feature films released in 2007.

For connoisseurs of tasteful A-list nudity and deftly emoted expletives, things are getting a little dire. If you want to seamlessly exterminate the coarse language, blood-soaked imagery, and sexual themes from R-rated titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Lethal Weapon 4 so you can more comfortably consume their more positive, character-building messages with your family in a safe viewing environment, there is a device, the ClearPlay DVD player, that promises to do just this. But where is the machine that can make the excruciatingly dainty Miss Potter more engaging by magically deleting Renee Zellweger's Victorian bodice on occasion, or inserting a charming explosion or two?

Alas, even as the floodtides of rectitude threaten to give us all a cleansing soak, the Culture War's most dogged mercenaries grow increasingly desperate to sound notes of alarm. The Parents Television Council is so eager to characterize your flat-screen as the portal to Satan's eternal multiplex that it actually characterizes the plastic surgeries on the MTV show I Want a New Face as "violent incidents." It also employs eagle-eyed lip-readers to decipher and categorize the bleeped-out utterances of reality TV contestants. In 180 hours of family-hour programming the group recently assessed, there were 30 bleeped "fuck"s, one bleeped "bitch," one bleeped "asshole," and an especially troubling 54 "unknown" bleeps.

In a column touting the October 2007 release of the animated movie The Ten Commandments, the conservative pundit Janice Shaw Crouse noted that only two of the top 20 grossing movies of 2005 had an R rating. "This shift in public tastes has yet to be recognized by the Hollywood elites, who continue to promote movies that are less financially successful at the box office," she concluded, without bothering to reveal the mysterious entity that created, distributed, and marketed the other 18. Has Lincoln, Nebraska, suddenly turned into a hotbed of major studio film production?

At this point, there is pretty much too much content for everyone—you can waste your entire life watching warm, gentle tales of perseverance and uplift just as easily as you can waste it watching hardcore porn. While the Internet has shown us that Hollywood will never out-sleaze a Wichita housewife with a members-only website, or out-mayhem the grassroots auteurs behind Ghetto Fights #3, the Industry does its best to keep pace. It regularly convinces dewy ingenues like Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway that they will not be taken seriously as artists until they prove their nipples can act too. It gives Sylvester Stallone $50 million to see how many decapitations he can simulate in 91 minutes. And that's exactly why so many of us will always love Hollywood.

But the choice is no longer between frontal nudity and disembodied heads. When the aforementioned Ten Commandments opened on 830 screens yet ended up grossing less than $1 million in its four-week run, it was actually great news for decency advocates. Apparently there is so much wholesome programming out there that the audience for such stuff can afford to be a little choosy.

Nor did The Ten Commandments make the CAMIE Awards cut, either. Which, if you think about it, is a fairly stunning development. A bunch of family-friendly outsiders from Salt Lake City have deemed the work of traditional Hollywood elites like 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. more uplifting than a film based on the Bible itself.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.