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Have Aurora, Newtown affected screen violence?
First Published Jul 16 2013 11:41 am • Last Updated Jul 16 2013 03:06 pm

New York » It was a year ago this week that the sickening sound of gunfire rang out at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo. The mass shooting reverberated painfully in Hollywood, and how could it not? It happened at the movies.

Five months later, the horrific massacre of first-graders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., launched yet more reflection — about gun control, certainly, but also about entertainment content, particularly violent video games said to be favored by the killer.

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And yet, in the year since Aurora, seemingly little has overtly changed in the area of violence in entertainment, save the notable musings of actor Jim Carrey, who tweeted misgivings about his latest film, "Kick-Ass 2," after Newtown: "Now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence," he wrote.

And some ask: If nothing changes now, will it ever?

"My fear is that we have such a short attention span," says Chuck Williams, a youth violence expert at Drexel University who’s especially troubled by movies that depict "stylized" violence. "And as a society, we don’t like being on a diet. We want to consume what we want, when we want it."

Certainly, screen violence is a complex issue. Studies have not shown clear links with real-world violence; in video games, which have undergone the most scrutiny lately, many researchers say the evidence just isn’t there.

There’s also the specter of censorship and infringement on artistic freedom, something that raises hackles instantly in the entertainment industry. And, of course, there’s the issue of gun control. Many in Hollywood say that’s where the focus should be, while the gun lobby has suggested violent images in entertainment and games are more to blame than access to guns.

"The issue makes a lot of people uncomfortable in Hollywood — they don’t really want to deal with it," says Janice Min, editor of The Hollywood Reporter trade publication. She notes that after Aurora, producer Harvey Weinstein called for a summit of filmmakers to discuss screen violence — but it never happened.

And one of Weinstein’s favored filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino, director of films like the bloody Western "Django Unchained," is angered by the mere question of a link between entertainment and violent events. "I’ve been asked this question for 20 years," he said in a tense exchange on NPR. "Obviously, I don’t think one has to do with the other." Of Newtown, he said, "Obviously the issue is gun control and mental health."

Others say it’s not so obvious; it’s a whole slew of issues. "We can’t allow this conversation to be ONLY about gun control," says Williams. "Nothing will happen."


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"There are so many competing factors," says Timothy Gray, a senior VP at the industry trade publication Variety who edited a post-Newtown issue on violence. "The more you pull at the thread, it makes people crazy. People in entertainment say, ‘It’s not entirely our fault.’ OK, but there’s a difference between that and saying we’re not going to contribute at all to the discussion."

Gray says he’d like to think the dialogue is changing, but he’s not so sure. And, he adds, "it’s hard, when the public seems to want this stuff."

And yet, tastes may be shifting. An Associated Press-GfK poll in January found that 54 percent of adults would support a policy limiting "the amount and type of gun violence that can be portrayed in video games, in movies or on television." Other polls at the time found similar misgivings about violent content.

And, says Min, while summer offerings are heavy on violent blockbusters, a number have tanked at the box office, perhaps indicating that the public — especially the female segment, she feels — is feeling alienated from the product. (Though four of the five top-grossing films so far this year have PG-13 ratings warning of violence.)

"I don’t think there’s any soul-searching about violence on the part of studio executives," Min says. "But if a different kind of movie does well, you’ll see others coming out like it."

After all: "It’s all driven by economics in Hollywood."

Video games: is there a link? » Video games got extra scrutiny after Newtown, especially the "first-person shooter" type apparently favored by 20-year-old killer Adam Lanza.

Industry executives say the scrutiny is unjustified.

"People who play video games have a very firm grasp on the distinction between the fantasy world of play and what happens in the real world," Andrew House, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, said in a June interview.

Researchers tend to support him. "Everybody’s focusing on video games, but empirically, it just hasn’t been proven," says Patrick Markey, a psychology professor at Villanova University who’s studied behavioral effects of video games.

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