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LIGHTS, CAMERA . . . SOCIAL CONSCIENCE?

Times Staff Writer

Film directors Sydney Pollack, Ted Kotcheff and Alan Myerson took on the subject of “creative freedom versus social responsibility” with an audience of media psychologists at the Regency Hotel on Wednesday. They might as well have taken on the weather.

As Mark Twain might say: Everybody talks about irresponsibility in the entertainment media, but nobody does anything about it.

“I don’t think there is an awful lot you can do to influence (the media’s social conscience) other than to be careful about who becomes a film maker,” Pollack told the psychologists. “You hope that the responsibility of making movies will fall into the hands of essentially moral people.”

Members of this audience (professional psychologists who work with entertainment people or in the industry themselves) sounded like members of any other audience concerned with the effects of the media on society.

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One psychologist, saying it’s not hard to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible work, suggested the formation of an internal censorship system--a judgmental body composed of conscientious entertainment people empowered to toss the amoral rascals out.

Another wondered aloud if film makers like Pollack and Kotcheff shouldn’t solicit space in youth magazines where they could editorially steer kids in the right direction.

“Where are the heroes in the film, television and record industries?,” asked moderator Stuart Fischoff, speaking as a parent rather than a psychologist. “I lie awake at night thinking, ‘Will my daughter have my values, or Prince’s? Will she have my values, or Rambo’s?’ ”

Fischoff said that by either legitimizing violence or providing a scenario for acting out previous hostility, fantasy violence in films and TV shows has led to real violence in society--rapes, suicides, vigilantism. Fictionalized art, he said, is frequently imitated in life.

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Within days after the airing of a made-for-TV movie about an abused wife who incinerated her sleeping husband, Fischoff said, three women viewers had torched their husbands.

The film makers acknowledged that the media has an impact on society, but constantly examining social issues isn’t conducive to the creative process.

“I do have a responsibility,” said Pollack, who has been nominated for Oscars for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “Tootsie,” “but I would make the most boring films in the world if I woke up every morning worrying about my social responsibility.”

Kotcheff, who directed “First Blood,” the original Rambo movie, said he learned early in his career of the potentially lethal impact of his work. When he was 24, he directed a play in London that opened with the scene of a man leaping to his death from a subway platform.

He said he was warned not to realistically duplicate the subway platform, but he did it anyway. The next day he was told that five people had killed themselves in identical leaps.

Whether his play influenced them or not, Kotcheff said the news left him shaken for years, and he still feels a responsibility for them.

“You are personally accountable for what you do,” he said.

Myerson, known mostly as a TV producer, painted a bleakly accurate picture of Hollywood as an amorphous giant that, like the government, has no morality of its own. Whatever conscience it has comes from the artists and craftsmen within, so there is really no collective target for social outrage.

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“There is nothing you can do that will have an immediate and dramatic effect on the industry,” he said, “just as nothing you do can have an immediate and dramatic effect on foreign policy.”

Myerson suggested that the psychologists begin seeding a protest movement that in the long run may have the force of numbers with which to leverage networks and studios. They’re only vulnerable at the profit line, he said, and diffused outrage--the untargeted grumbling of parents, critics and educators--won’t trigger a conscience.

There are rare exceptions.

Pollack recalled that Tri-Star Pictures, co-owned by CBS Inc., Columbia Pictures and the Coca-Cola Co., did remove “Silent Night, Deadly Night” from theaters because of public reaction. The movie, which opened last fall to good business, was a horror film about an ax killer who dressed up as Santa.

“CBS and Coca-Cola are in family businesses,” said Pollack, who produced the country comedy “Songwriter” for Tri-Star. “They will take a movie off the market if the reaction is immediate and dramatic enough.”

(Actually, we’ve only been given a reprieve from the slasher Santa. “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was returned to its makers, who announced plans to release it this fall.)

The overall message of Wednesday’s conference, if there was one to be taken away by the psychologists, is that Hollywood won’t respond to therapy.

Said Pollack: “You’re fighting a losing battle if you expect the people who own the studios to make moral choices.”

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FRESH PAINT: The appointment of NBC’s Steve Sohmer as president and chief operating officer of Columbia Pictures fills one key executive vacancy at the studio, but raises questions about another.

Sources at the studio said that John Balson, a New York City ad executive, was set to assume Ashley Boone’s old job as president of marketing and distribution. But Sohmer’s background is also in marketing, and the introductory perks of a studio presidency usually include selection of division heads.

“We thought it (Balson’s appointment) was a fait accompli ,” said one studio insider Thursday. “Now, it’s a fait a maybe.

Both Sohmer and Balson, incidentally, were found by David Powell, a San Francisco headhunter hired by Columbia nearly four months ago to look for a replacement for Boone. Powell said Thursday he first contacted Sohmer about the marketing job but suggested him to Columbia chairman Guy McElwaine as someone qualified to run the business and production ends of the studio as well.

Powell acknowledged that he also found Balson and that someone has been offered the marketing job. But he wouldn’t say who.

“Obviously, Steve Sohmer would want to interface with the person before the decision is made,” Powell said.

Anyway, the person who paints names on executive curbs at the Burbank studio had better keep his brushes and stencils handy. There figures to be a lot of new people interfacing around there in the next few weeks.

MOVIE GOLD: Bart Conner, who was seen at the end of last summer’s Olympics wearing an infectious smile and two gold medals, will make his feature film debut in “Rad,” a Hal Needham film under way in Calgary, Canada.

“Rad,” described as a love story set against a backdrop of motorcycle racing, is the first project of Taliafilm II Ltd., the production company set up by producer Jack Schwartzman and New York clothing mogul Sidney Kimmel.

The 27-year-old Conner, who has one TV movie to his credit, is the first of the gymnast heroes to land a film role. World champion gymnast Kurt Thomas, who missed a chance at a gold medal when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Russia, made his film debut earlier this year in the ill-fated “Gymkata.”


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