July 2004

Smoking in the Movies: DGA Responds to the Controversy


In director David Mirkin's 2001 comedy hit Heartbreakers, actor Gene Hackman portrays compulsive smoker William B. Tensy. When confronted by a woman in a restaurant who says, "I'm sorry, sir, but smoking isn't permitted," he shoots her a look, drops his smoldering cigarette into her wine glass and shouts, "Nazi!"

Gene Hackman and Sigourney Weaver from David Mirkin's Heartbreakers

Throughout the film, Tensy is the proverbial poster boy for reasons not to smoke; actress Sigourney Weaver nearly vomits after kissing him, unattended smoking cigarettes catch items on fire, ashes fly everywhere and on everything. Using humor as a weapon and illuminator, Heartbreakers reflects society's changed attitude toward the habit of smoking.

However, some say that smoking hasn't "come a long way, baby" from its iconic association with the glamour and smoldering sensuality portrayed in the classic films of Bogart, Bacall or John Wayne. Some advocacy groups claim there hasn't been enough action. They claim that films continue to encourage people, particularly teenagers, to take up the habit rather than kick it, and, for the most part do not reflect what is now known about the hazards of smoking.

Twenty-six state Attorneys General, including the Attorney General for California Bill Lockyear, have become involved in this issue, particularly on the impact of smoking in movies on youth. The Attorneys General were the major forces in the lawsuits against the tobacco companies and in reaching the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). Among the elements of the MSA is a prohibition against any action by the tobacco companies to target youth in the advertising or marketing of tobacco products. The Attorneys General's interest in the depiction of smoking in films is a continuation of their concern about reducing teen smoking; a concern expressed in the MSA.

DGA Response

Long before the action of the advocacy groups and the interest of the Attorneys General and Washington, the DGA had begun addressing this issue. In 1997, then DGA President Jack Shea spoke before the California State Senate Committee on the Judiciary and said, "The DGA strongly believes that any legislative measure that infringes upon a director's right to make [choices on the depiction of smoking] is a violation of our freedom of expression protections in the United States Constitution. At the same time, we also strongly believe that more can be done throughout our society to educate impressionable young people about the severe health consequences from smoking."

John Wayne from Michael Curtiz' film The Commancheros

Over the past year, as part of its overall efforts to address "societal" issues that affect filmmaking and our industry, the DGA's Social Responsibility Task Force began to discuss the issues of smoking in the movies, the role of the director, and the overall Guild posture on this issue, taking into consideration the need to protect its members' creative freedom and recognize the real health hazards smoking presents.

The Social Responsibility Task Force was established in 1999 to work internally with members and externally with others in the entertainment industry on issues impacting society. The Task Force was originally established in response to the Columbine tragedy and as a reflection of the desire of Guild leadership to have the DGA take a leader role as the press, elected officials, academicians and others examined the relationship between real violence and the violence depicted on screen. At that time numerous pieces of legislation were being introduced in Congress to address this issue.

Since its creation, the Task Force, whose members are appointed by the Guild President, has remained clear in its resolve on two issues: first and foremost, the creative rights of a director must be protected and second, that as filmmakers, with the great authority that bestows, comes a responsibility to take the impact of films seriously and to be responsive and informed in that regard. (See sidebar for more on the Task Force.)

After a number of months of meetings, deliberations and a discussion with the Western Directors Council, the Task Force presented its recommendations on the issue of smoking in the movies to the DGA National Board in November 2003. After discussion, the following recommendations were approved:

  • The DGA opposes any efforts at governmental interference with the creative process.
  • Having characters smoke is a creative decision to be exercised by each individual director.
  • Smoking, like most personal traits, can be important to defining and understanding a character's behavior and motives and is often necessary in regard to establishing historical accuracy and "life as it is."
  • Gratuitous on-screen smoking in films and television should be discouraged.
  • Directors should recognize the social responsibility they hold in making creative decisions, including how they depict characters who smoke.
  • The DGA should create materials to educate members on the issue and encourage their awareness of their social responsibility in connection with the depiction of smoking in films.

Meeting with the Attorney General

Following the National Board's adoption of their recommendations, on December 17, 2003, the Task Force hosted a meeting with representatives of the Attorneys General at the Guild to discuss the issue and hear a presentation by Dr. Madeline Dalton, Asst. Professor of Pediatrics, of the Dartmouth Medical School on the impact of depictions of smoking in the movies on youth. Attendees included the U.S.

Senator John Ensign (D-NV) and the Attorneys General of Maryland, Connecticut, Utah and Vermont and representatives from the Attorney General offices of California and Maine. Task Force Co-chair LeVar Burton chaired the meeting, with John Badham, Duane Clark, Hal Cooper, Donald Petrie, Rob Reiner, Gary Ross, Steven Soderbergh, Penelope Spheeris and Mark Tinker representing the Task Force. Also attending at the DGA's request was MPAA President and CEO Jack Valenti.

Dr. Dalton began the meeting by presenting her findings from a study titled "Tobacco Use in Movies and Adolescent Smoking." After the presentation, a frank and open discussion ensued between the directors and the Attorneys General on the complexity of the issue. Both the directors and the Attorneys General characterized the meeting as highly productive with more points in common than in conflict.

Anne Bancroft in The Graduate

Task Force member Penelope Spheeris said she was appreciative of the opportunity to hear the data presented at the meeting and shared her belief that as an individual director, she has to make strong personal choices regarding how she depicts images of smoking. "We all know that smoking kills," she said in an interview for this story, "That's how I feel about it. I make great effort in the films that I do to exclude smoking and drinking and drugs."

Feelings of some directors run very strong on the issue. Task Force member, director Rob Reiner said, "Knowing what we know about the impact and influence smoking in movies has on young people, we as directors have a responsibility to eliminate gratuitous smoking in films."

However, in addition to recognizing the seriousness of the issue, the directors present stressed first and foremost to the Attorneys General the importance of the director's freedom to depict "life as it is" and the concern about ensuring that filmmakers' rights not be curtailed. The Attorneys General supported the importance of the creative rights of filmmakers and shared that they had no interest in interfering with the artistic process.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr., who is playing the leadership role on behalf of the Attorneys General on this issue, said, "Our meeting with the DGA clearly demonstrated that members of the Guild had given considerable thought to these issues and that they share our belief that Guild members can take important, constructive actions to protect the lives of our children without compromising their creative integrity."

Attorney General of Connecticut Richard Blumenthal was quoted by the Associated Press after the meeting stating that he found "a very sympathetic ear" from the directors and continued to say that, "They understand the opportunity and the immense potential for good and for ill when it comes to children smoking."

Task Force Co-chair LeVar Burton summed up the need to balance the two concerns. "I am acutely aware of the power and influence the visual media has in our culture and our society," Burton said. "I don't take that responsibility lightly. I think there's a tremendous responsibility that goes along with having that influence. I've made it central to my career choices, to my decision making in terms of the choices that I make, the choices of material I make, across the board. And as a filmmaker, I also definitely believe in the right of a filmmaker to exercise final say on the decisions he or she makes during the course of making a movie."

Marilyn Monroe on the set of Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch

The need for balance was also shared by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff who said in the Deseret News the day after the meeting, "The solution is self-regulation, not government interference." He additionally stated that, "We are working (together) on ways to balance creativity and the First Amendment with the social responsibility that comes with glamorizing smoking in movies."

Task Force on Social Responsibility

The Social Responsibility Task Force was established by the DGA National Board in June 1999 to work internally with members and externally with others in the entertainment industry on issues impacting society. Originally, the Task Force was established in response to the Columbine tragedy and as a reflection of the desire of Guild leadership to have the DGA take a lead role as the press, elected officials, academicians and others examined the relationship between real violence and the violence depicted on screen. At that time numerous pieces of legislation were being introduced in Congress to address this issue.

Task Force members are appointed by the Guild President and are committed to two principles - first and foremost, that the creative rights of a director must be protected and second, that filmmakers have a responsibility to take the impact of films seriously and to be responsive and informed in that regard.

Containing some of the most prestigious film and television directors in the Guild, the Task Force is an active and vital committee. Members meet, not only among themselves, but also with academics, medical associations, the studios and others in order to glean insights and knowledge that will inform the DGA National Board and DGA membership.

From left: Bill D'Elia, Duane Clark, Taylor Hackford, Rob Reiner, DGA President Jack Shea, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, DGA Associate National Executive Director Warren Adler, Michael Apted, Michael Bay and Gary Ross

In addition to its partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation on the issue of smoking, the Task Force and the DGA held meetings with representatives of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) to develop ways to ensure that film ratings would be enforced at theaters, and that no pre-teen unaccompanied by a parent would be able to buy a ticket to an "R" rated film.

The DGA Task Force on Social Responsibility is comprised of Co-Chairs LeVar Burton and Taylor Hackford, and members Michael Apted, Darren Aronofsky, John Badham, Paris Barclay, Michael Bay, John Carpenter, Duane Clark, Hal Cooper, Wes Craven, Bill D'Elia, Bill Duke, David Fincher, Walter Hill, Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes, Mimi Leder, Michael Mann, Donald Petrie, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Gary Ross, Thomas Schlamme, Ed Sherin, Brad Silberling, Steven Soderbergh, Penelope Spheeris, Betty Thomas, Mark Tinker and Lili Zanuck.

Congressional Hearings

Earlier this year, at the request of Senator Ensign, who was interested in a public discussion of the issue, Senate Commerce Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) agreed to have a full Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on the "Impact of Smoking in the Movies." That hearing took place on May 11, 2004. DGA was represented by Task Force Co-chair LeVar Burton. Other witnesses included Jack Valenti, Dr. Madeline Dalton, Attorney General Curran, SmokeFree Movies founder Stan Glantz, and C. Steven Yerrid, an attorney involved in the tobacco suit in Florida. Speaking on behalf of the Guild, LeVar Burton made clear to the Senators present that the dialogue DGA had in December was a "meaningful and frank discussion about [Dr. Dalton's] study and our recommendations [to the National Board].

"While we are independently reviewing the conclusions drawn from the correlations identified in the study," Burton said, "we hold firm in our belief that filmmakers should be aware of the issue of smoking on screen and teen smoking." He also went on to say, "I want to state very strongly that both as individuals

The Director's Choice

"I have never smoked, but, smoking, unfortunately, is an aspect of life," says fellow Task Force Committee Co-chair Taylor Hackford. "What we as directors should do is try to reflect reality. When we see films from the '40s, '50s and '60s, everyone is smoking," he adds. "That reflects society's reality at that time. But for movies made in the new millennium, we should have less smoking because there is less smoking in society.

"But what the Task Force and DGA are concerned with, are attempts to rewrite history, having movies reflect the past with nobody smoking or to insist that a film have no smoking even if the smoking is part of the dramatic narrative the director is trying to create. This is even more evident if the character in question's smoking was a personality trait. For instance, Humphrey Bogart died of lung cancer. To say you're going to go back and do a film about Humphrey Bogart and not have a cigarette in his hand when that was one of the defining elements of his style is wrong."

In fact, Hackford just experienced this dilemma on his latest film Ray which focuses on the life of legendary musician Ray Charles. "Anyone who knew Ray Charles, who was smoker, would understand that if all of a sudden I had a smoke-free historical story of his life from 1935 to 1979, which is what my film covers, I'd be remiss and inaccurate," Hackford says. "I feel it would be unconscionable for me not to present a real image. So we're trying to protect the filmmaker's right to present a vision that is accurate and artful, and at the same time encourage and educate filmmakers that we should be responsible in our approach to presenting smoking on film."

Getting the Word Out

One of the key Task Force Recommendations that was adopted by the National Board underscores the belief that the DGA should play a leading role in the industry "by creating materials to educate members on the issue and encourage their awareness of their social responsibility in connection with the depiction of smoking in films." To make that statement a reality, the Guild has undertaken an educational outreach campaign to its members. As part of that campaign the DGA has formed a partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), one of the leading entertainment industry nonprofit organizations devoted to education. EIF is particularly known for its active involvement in a range of health care issues. The first result of this collaboration has been the production of a very visual and informative educational pamphlet which will be distributed first and foremost to DGA members. By taking this leadership role, the Guild and EIF hope to eventually bring others in the industry into similar activities.

"The Entertainment Industry Foundation is honored to team up with the Directors Guild of America to launch Hollywood Unfiltered, an important initiative to educate its members about simple ways they can play a role in reducing glamorization of smoking in movies and on TV," said EIF President and CEO Lisa Paulsen.

"We all respect the filmmaker's right to artistic freedom and do not want to limit his or her creative expression. Our Hollywood Unfiltered initiative gives filmmakers helpful information to make an informed decision when it comes to smoking on screen and its potential impact on kids."

Burton agreed with the importance of member education that both shares an important message and respects artistic freedom. "We do acknowledge our influence, yet still it is the director's choice. However, it's our responsibility to educate our members; to give them as much information as we can so they can make informed decisions, so that their process of decision making on the set is fully formed. That's the best approach in this situation."

When speaking about the Educational campaign, Taylor Hackford notes, "I think it's important to stress that we are not getting into the censorship business; which can lead down an endless road where you can't have people drive fast in movies, eat junk food, drink, or a myriad of other prohibitions. We remain committed to the vision of the director. We want to educate members about making informed choices and we have to fight to preserve the filmmaker's right to reveal society and their vision as they see it."

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