LAS VEGAS — John Colvin, a father of two, believes Hollywood needs to be more aware of an underserved audience. "They don't make enough movies for me to take my wife and kids to," he says.
It's not just the parent in Mr. Colvin talking. He manages a chain of movie theaters in Fort Worth, Texas.
But at ShoWest, the recent annual convention for theater owners here, not everyone is in agreement. A few seats away, Carol Moore says the amount of family-friendly fare is just fine - she's more worried about the balance between those releases and the big, R-rated blockbusters. "They bunch them all up at one time," says Ms. Moore, owner and manager of the Moore Theater chain outside Kalamazoo, Mich. "That makes it much harder to give our audiences choices."
Who's right? The ever-simmering battle over "family friendly" movie content is heating up again after the Dove Foundation, a conservative advocacy group in Michigan, released a study last week stating that G-rated movies are nearly 11 times more profitable than R-rated films. From self-interest alone, the study would suggest, Hollywood should make far more G-rated films than it does.
But other media watchers question the study's math - and its partiality - saying "profit" numbers in Hollywood are about as clear as a barrel of used popcorn oil at the end of a long weekend. The report is the latest salvo in an ongoing war over "family values" in a fast-changing world where social mores and traditions seem more fluid than ever before.
"This whole debate hangs on how you define family," says Nancy Snow, assistant professor of media studies at California State University, Fullerton. "We have this ongoing polarization in the country over so-called family values."
The issue is more complex than ever because family filmgoing itself may be largely antiquated, some say.
"Do families, especially with teens, really go to the movies together anymore?" asks Ms. Snow. Hollywood has increasingly targeted teens and young adults, who are the largest moviegoing audience but who shy away from movies for little kids.
Many in Hollywood, however, say the family film is on a roll, ever since "Shrek" demonstrated that the PG rating could draw huge audiences. Even the Dove Foundation figures highlight the fact that Hollywood has been making more PG and PG-13 films over the past several years.
But that's small comfort to those who question the content of those films, says Dick Rolfe, Dove Foundation chairman, who acknowledges the cultural divide over values. "Most conservatives are very concerned about language and nudity, and most liberals are concerned about violence." For years, cultural conservatives have tried to make their voices heard in Hollywood through boycotts and idealistic appeals.
The group's study is a switch in tactics. "Now they're trying to talk Hollywood's language, namely money," says Kevin Hago-pian, a lecturer in media studies at Pennsylvania State University in Philadelphia.
But the study's claim that G-rated movies are more profitable than PG, PG-13, or R-rated movies may be inaccurate. "The clarity of profits in Hollywood is just as hard to define as the notion of a 'family film,' " he says, noting that studios use all sorts of complicated (some would say creative) accounting to determine profitability.
The effort to shift the debate to one of box-office numbers is a disservice to the public discussion of important issues such as the direction of popular culture, Mr. Hagopian says. "For individuals who are outside the controversy, [the Dove study] gives the imprimatur of objectivity to what is in all respects one of the most subjective debates in all of media," he says. "This is a very clever move to convert an argument over different moral positions into an apparently scientific discussion."
At the heart of the Dove Foundation's concerns is what it calls "ratings creep." Mr. Rolfe points to statements by Jack Valenti, recently retired head of the Motion Picture Association of America, who said that the ratings system has always tried to reflect the changing mores of society.
As a result, many films that once would have earned an R rating, particularly for sex and bad language, are now tucked into the PG-13, says Rolfe.
"The PG-13 is becoming the new gold standard," he says. "While we're not looking for endless sequels to 'Sponge Bob Squarepants' or 'Leave it to Beaver,' we are suggesting proportionality that ought to be more in favor of G ratings."
G-rated movies frequently make it into the Top 20 highest-grossing films of each year.
Year Title Box-office receipts in millions of dollars
2004 The Polar Express $163.0
2003 FInding Nemo 340.0
2002 The Santa Clause 2 135.0
2001 Monsters Inc. 255.0
2001 The Princess Diaries 108.2
1999 Toy Story 2 245.0
1999 Tarzan 171.1
1998 A Bug's Life 162.8
1998 Mulan 120.6
1998 The Rugrats Movie 100.5
1997 Hercules 99.1
Sources: Exhibitor Relations Co., Inc., and boxofficeguru.com.