After attacks, will Hollywood change its ways?

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The first round of responses to what many are calling a Hollywood scriptwriters' nightmare brought to life is still unfolding throughout the entertainment industry. Network season premières have been delayed at least a week, individual shows are still being evaluated for insensitive plot lines, film openings are being canceled or rescheduled, tasteless CD covers are being pulled, and video games are being examined for their appropriateness. (See story at right for details.)

But as this Act I plays itself out, Act II promises to be less predictable.

"This could be a coming of age for our nation," says Ed Gernon, executive vice-president of movies and miniseries for Alliance Atlantis, a television, film, and miniseries producer. "It depends on which way we go."

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Mr. Gernon, the producer of such TV films as "Nuremberg" and "Joan of Arc," says that, although it is important to deal with the enormity of the hijackings, there is a risk of being stuck in the sensationalism of the emotional response. "I'd like to see us start looking at the process of recovery," he says, "and if entertainment has any job, it's to put this suffering in a kind of context and prepare people for what's next."

After being unable to fly home from Washington last week, Gernon says a cross-country drive with family and colleagues gave him a new perspective on what is taking place across the nation.

"I was amazed to see this extraordinary sense of community. There's something interesting going on in our world," says the Louisiana native. "We are entering into a time of family and community."

The question he asks himself, and which he has put to many fellow producers and writers during the past week, is what the role of entertainment must be during a time of great upheaval. "Does the entertainment community lead or follow the charge? We will probably come to the conclusion that we do both," Gernon says.

"You don't foist a series of images like [the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and a damaged Pentagon] on a nation without them being integrated on some reasonably profound level," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "Yes, there will be some changes."

Professor Thompson calls some of the shifts possibly "counter-intuitive." He points to the new espionage-themed TV shows, such as "Alias," "The Agency," and "24" which have come under intense scrutiny as being insensitive or inappropriate.

"But there will be a reversal," says Thompson. "At first, we don't want to deal with these things. But soon it will be like World War II movies." The networks made the right decision to delay these shows, he says, "but in a few weeks, the interest will be greater, and all of a sudden 'The Agency' is a war series. If this is a war, then just as the 'Sands of Iwo Jima' was a World War II movie, this is a war movie."

Other changes may be more profound and long lasting. Thompson echoes producer Gernon's comments when he says the tone of entertainment will probably have to shift, specifically from what he calls "irony and cynical ultra-hipdom," a trend that emerged in the late 1970s.

"That style, which has so completely permeated America popular culture, is a function of one of the most extraordinary secure times in history," Thompson says. The Gulf War was taken care of quickly, the stock market boomed, and irony abounded in popular culture, from "Saturday Night Live" to David Letterman to Ben Stiller. "It was a mode that good times allowed to flourish."

The events of the past week "bring a big bucket of cold water on irony," Thompson says. He adds that he has seen an abrupt change in the behavior of his undergraduates at the University of Syracuse, who are noticeably less cynical. "This is a sudden hitting of the wall for what many would argue is the luckiest generation ever."

Independent TV producer Beth Polson, who began her career in the 1970s, agrees.

"I've seen all the cycles," she says, noting that for the past few years networks have only wanted male-oriented, action films.

"I just hold on to the side of the boat and wait for it to go away, but this is not the way we wanted it to go away," she says. Stranded in the South, where she went to celebrate her mother's 97th birthday Sept. 11, Ms. Polson says she, too, has noted a change. "This has galvanized the nation in a way that nothing else could have."

Polson, however, is not confident that these events will bring about a serious change in the entertainment industry. "I think they will be very responsible for the next few months," she says - but all bets are off after that. Polson says she might feel differently "if I had any faith that the media was governed by something other than money, but ultimately, it isn't."

Gernon says the shift may be subtle, such as a desire for heroes and moral clarity in popular entertainment. A project he has developed about a Vietnam War veteran in search of his own redemption has been picked up with what he calls great enthusiasm in the past week.

"[Cable channel] HBO has told us this story is more important than ever. It is about war, but it has heroes," Gernon says. Not only does it fit the bill for a heroic lead, but it explores an issue Gernon says Americans now face: coming of age.

"Right now, we'll be years sorting through this [terrorism] story," he says, "putting a human face on it," and understanding what it is to be a citizen "in a nation you love and whose values are worth preserving,"

But Americans are learning "that the world is a cruel place that [isn't] 'happily ever after' all the time. That is part of the growing-up process."

Rewrites, delays, insensitive songs

* Warner Brothers has delayed the Arnold Schwarzenegger revenge film "Collateral Damage," in which a Los Angeles skyscraper is bombed.

* Touchstone Pictures pushed back the release of "Big Trouble," a comedy starring Tim Allen, in part because it involves a bomb on a plane.

* Sony Pictures Entertainment withdrew a "Spider Man" trailer from theaters because a helicopter becomes entangled in a web woven between the twin World Trade Towers.

* In the coming movie "Nosebleed," actor Jackie Chan was to star as a World Trade Center window washer who battles terrorists bent on blowing up the Statue of Liberty. The script will be rewritten.

* Texas-based Clear Channel Communications, which owns more than 1,000 radio stations across the United States, has compiled a list of songs inappropriate to air, including the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" and Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World."

* A new album cover by hip-hop band The Coup had, until recently, depicted the World Trade Center exploding. "We changed the artwork as soon as we saw what had happened," said Daria Kelly, director of sales for 75 Ark, the band's label.

* Electronic Arts (EA), the largest video-game developer in North America, suspended for six days the online game "Majestic," which involves real-time phone messages to players giving unsettling fictional information. EA felt phone messages of this sort were inappropriate. When play resumed Monday, players received e-mail notifications which allowed them to begin again at their own pace. "That obviates one of the problems that network television and sports franchises have had, which is, when is the appropriate time to resume, says EA spokesman Jeff Brown.

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