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The Great Antiwar Film Hoax By: Kevin A. Hassett
AEI.org | Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Robert Redford movie Lions for Lambs has been a box-office disappointment. It grossed $6.7 million during its first weekend earlier this month, placing it fourth behind Bee Movie ($25.6 million), American Gangster ($24 million) and ($18.5 million).

It is not ordinarily big news when a movie does poorly. Indeed, the Redford film has been savaged by critics, which makes its paltry ticket sales even less of a surprise. Still, its weakness at the box office has been the focus of attention. On Nov. 6, USA Today published an article, "Movie Fans Vote 'No' on Politically Charged Films." Three days later, Agence France-Presse released a widely distributed piece, "Hollywood is Casualty of War as Movie-Goers Shun Iraq Films."

The best art reveals hidden truths about ourselves. In this episode, the irony is that the media response to a flop has revealed much about the world we live in, perhaps more effectively than would a cinema masterpiece.

The fact that moviegoers are avoiding Lions for Lambs is interesting to the media because it supports one of the key liberal narratives of our times: Citizens are sick and tired of the Iraq war; they blame an unpopular president and his party for the horrible mess we are in; and they're so repulsed that they can't even bring themselves to watch films about the war or war-related themes.

This contrasts with Americans' attitude toward movies about other U.S. wars. They flocked to see Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, despite the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. If they don't go see movies about Iraq, then this war, in a way, must be worse than Vietnam.

Simple Plots, Please

If the world is going to be a stage, then it needs to have a simple plot. Conservatives have long complained that stories and data are publicized most when they support the accepted story line. Facts inconsistent with liberal orthodoxy have a difficult time working their way into the popular consciousness. This means good news about the progress currently being made in Iraq is buried. And it even affects the way the media covers something as apparently trivial as movie ticket sales.

It might be interesting and noteworthy if movies about Iraq were suffering at the box office. The problem is they aren't. The data suggest that these movies do just about as well, on average, as other films.

I base this conclusion on information gathered from the Numbers, a Web site that offers an assortment of movie data, including ratings, genre, tickets sold and budgets.

Deceptive Numbers

There, I was able to obtain data on 2,138 movies released in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 2004, to Oct. 26, 2007. Of those, 17 dealt directly with the war or issues relating to it, such as torture and the treatment of prisoners, according to the Internet Movie Database. Some of these titles include Fahrenheit 9/11, In the Valley of Elah, and Rendition.

The top-line numbers suggest there is something to the hypothesis about an "Iraq curse" at the cinema. During this period, the average number of tickets sold for each movie was about 2.52 million, generating average inflation-adjusted revenue per film of $16.5 million. For "Iraq" movies, average ticket sales were 2.24 million tickets, generating inflation-adjusted revenue of $14.7 million.

The top-line numbers, however, aren't the whole story. Iraq movies differed from typical films in that they were much more likely to have an "R" rating or to be unrated. Only three of the 17 films had a rating of "PG-13" or lower.

The Trouble With 'R'

Ratings have a huge effect on sales; an R designation essentially disqualifies a large percentage of the potential audience from attending because it requires that children under the age of 17 be accompanied by a parent.

As a result, according to this data, PG-13 movies generate on average more than double the revenue of movies rated R. Controlling for ratings differences with a statistical regression, movies that deal with the war actually generated slightly more revenue per film than those that focused on other subjects.

Thus, to say that Iraq-related movies are wildly unpopular is incorrect. Iraq films don't seem to have much of a different record than the competition.

What does it mean if movies about Iraq are as popular as any other films? Probably that Americans have a complex relationship with the war and are willing to consume entertainment that confronts them with evidence or viewpoints that can inform their thinking.

Turning Around

The war has been, after all, terribly mismanaged. Yet it seems to be turning around. Many good men and women have paid a terrible price for the conflict, but many bad men have met justice. We want it to end, but worry about the consequences of retreat. Any rational human being would have complex emotions about such a circumstance, and talented artists and performers can help viewers navigate those emotions.

Unlike the Vietnam War, the fighting in Iraq isn't over. Voters' attitudes toward the conflict may determine its outcome. That is why hoaxes such as the Iraq war movie curse are in ready supply, and why it's so important to expose them.

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