Movie studios under spotlight in wake of Newtown elementary school shooting

A national effort to get at the root of gun violence following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. last week is putting a spotlight on motion picture studios.

While the majority of the attention has been focused on gun control laws and violence in video games, lawmakers and industry groups have also targeted the movie and television industry for producing shoot 'em up thrillers and other bloody content. 

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Movie studios have been conscious of the sensitive climate in the wake of the tragic shooting that claimed the lives of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 young children. 

Paramount Pictures delayed the Pittsburgh premiere for the action film "Jack Reacher" after it was originally scheduled to take place the day after the shooting, and offered its condolences to the families in Newtown in a company statement. 

The Weinstein Company cancelled the premiere for Quentin Tarantino's new film "Django Unchained," opting to to hold a private screening instead, The New York Times reported. Even 20th Century Fox chose not to hold the premiere for its upcoming comedy film "Parental Guidance," according to the Times. 

The lobbying organization that represents the movie studios in Washington, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), publicly stated this week that it stands ready to take part in the national conversation following the tragedy. 

Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) issued a statement saying the industry wants "to do our part to help America heal" after the shooting. 

Dodd represented Connecticut for more than 30 years before taking the helm of MPAA. Last Friday, he participated in a nighttime vigil on the National Mall that honored victims of the shooting. 

Dodd butted heads with gun rights advocates, including with the National Rifle Association (NRA), when he was on Capitol Hill.

Dodd voted for the assault weapons ban in the 1990s when he was a senator and co-sponsored legislation to reauthorize it when it expired in 2004. In 2006, the NRA listed Dodd among “extreme opponents of the Second Amendment” for voting against a bill that banned the federal government from confiscating legally-owned firearms during an emergency or major disaster.

He also hasn’t been afraid to question access to guns in the past as MPAA head. In July, after the Aurora, Colo. shooting, Dodd said to reporters “explain to me why it is you’re selling assault weapons to the general public. There’s not a decent hunter I know who would hunt anything with an assault weapon,” according to the Hartford Courant’s Capitol Watch blog. 

Since last week's attack at the Newtown elementary school, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) have pointed fingers at entertainment companies that produce violent media content. 

Rockefeller even went a step further this week by introducing a bill that would require the National Academy of Sciences to study the effect of violent video games and video programming have on children. 

"Major corporations, including the video game industry, make billions on marketing and selling violent content to children. They have a responsibility to protect our children," Rockefeller said in a statement. "If they do not, you can count on the Congress to take a more aggressive role.”

The head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, also blamed the entertainment industry, among others, for contributing to violence in the U.S. He cited "blood-soaked slasher films like 'American Psycho' and 'Natural Born Killers.'"

"Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?" LaPierre said. "In a race to the bottom, media conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever-more-toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes — every minute of every day of every month of every year."

So far it's unclear what caused 20-year-old Adam Lanza to shoot 26 people to death at Sandy Hook, before killing himself. There's no evidence that shows Lanza was influenced by violent TV and movies, though the AP has said he reportedly enjoyed playing the popular game "Call of Duty." 

Defenders of the film and television industry noted that Hollywood has been proactive in responding to concerns about movies.

“I haven't seen the gun industry have a rating system on their weapons,” said former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas), a former head of the MPAA.

Glickman, now executive director of the Aspen Institute's congressional program, said the entertainment industry has discussed internally how to create better safeguards but stressed movies couldn’t be blamed for increased gun violence.

“They have got to be part of the discussion, part of the debate and Chris Dodd is absolutely right about that,” Glickman said. “By and large, the ratings system gives the parents appropriate warning whether the movie is appropriate for their kids or not … You can't just paint movies — there's so many of them — with such a broad brush as being responsible for increased gun violence.”

The MPAA oversees the ratings system for films played in the U.S., which is used to inform parents about the content featured in films. It was the brainchild of former MPAA head Jack Valenti, who created the system so the film industry could regulate itself rather than being subject to government rules about content. 

The MPAA's member studios voluntarily adopted initiatives that helped ensure they did not target children in its advertising of R-rated violent films. The move came in response to recommendations included in a Federal Trade Commission report requested by President Bill Clinton, which examined the marketing of violent entertainment to children, following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

So far the film industry is keeping a low profile amid the finger pointing coming from the NRA and Congress. 

"I think we're waiting to see where this conversation is going," an entertainment industry official said. "Certainly we want to express our willingness to step forward as Congress and the White House are discussing these issues."

President Obama has vowed that he will push for Congress to pass gun control legislation early next year. It's unlikely that Congress will target violence in films in legislation due to concerns over First Amendment rights. 

"I don't think anyone wants to get into a situation whether the government is telling filmmakers how they can or can't make their movies," the official said.