Guns on film: a loaded issue; Their longtime on-screen alliance has always been troubled. But for Hollywood and the gun industry, it's still paying off.; Armed and Profitable

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the 1971 movie "Dirty Harry," Clint Eastwood pointed a huge revolver at a scruffy hoodlum and uttered 12 words that would leave an indelible mark on the gun industry.

"This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world."

Until the release of "Dirty Harry," the Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver was relatively unknown outside the gun world. Smith & Wesson had begun manufacturing the firearm in 1955 to be able to make the very claim Eastwood did. But people weren't buying. In fact, Smith & Wesson was thinking of discontinuing the model.

Then Eastwood's Detective Harry Callahan growled that memorable line. Suddenly the Smith & Wesson Model 29 was so popular that retailers had trouble keeping the gun in stock. Twelve years later, when Harry carried a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum pistol called the Auto Mag in "Sudden Impact," there was a similar run at stores, even though the company had long since discontinued production of the gun.

Gun brands had gotten plugs from Hollywood before "Dirty Harry" -- in movies like "Dr. No" and TV series like "Gunsmoke" -- but Eastwood brought home a lesson that the makers of any product, from Reese's Pieces to Coca-Cola, know: Get your product in a movie and receive millions of dollars' worth of free advertising.

Guns, of course, pervade American popular culture, from prime-time television to cartoons to popular songs that extol the virtues of Glocks, Uzis and Desert Eagles. But nowhere is the gun so revered as in Hollywood.

On the surface, the movie business and the gun business would seem to have a symbiotic relationship. From the 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery" to "Lethal Weapon 4," guns have provided Hollywood easy visceral thrills and box-office sales. In return, Hollywood has provided the $20 billion-a-year gun industry with extraordinary amounts of free advertising and brand recognition. The National Rifle Association is even headed by an actor, Charlton Heston.

But the relationship between Hollywood and the gun industry is complicated. Some gun manufacturers decry the connection. Under increasing attack from the gun-control lobby and recent lawsuits, they insist that movies draw as much criticism as attention to guns and their users. And some industry leaders object to the tide of screen violence and even refuse to provide their products to filmmakers.

Still, this mix of art and politics must be weighed against a huge audience eager for yet more gunplay and bloodshed. The fact remains that when guns are stars, it's good for the gun business.

Product placement

A gun may appear for only a few moments in a movie, but it's usually a name brand (or a reproduction) recognizable to hunters, target shooters and collectors who can spot brands of firearms as easily as kids can identify sneakers.

But while sneaker companies often hire a product-placement firm to get their brands into high-profile movies, gun manufacturers don't pay to have their guns put in films. (Smith & Wesson, no doubt trying to repeat the "Dirty Harry" experience, tried a product-placement company briefly but terminated the relationship last year.)

The way guns are "placed" in films is most often by prop houses. Some of these companies specialize in weapons, and serve as on-set advisers on their use. Others are general prop houses with armory sections. All prefer to acquire their stock for free, so that more of the money they charge movie studios for services ends up in their pockets.

Some gun companies actively court Hollywood with free merchandise, hoping that their products will be "cast" in the coveted role of "hero props." Not surprisingly, the more guns a company provides, the more likely it is that those guns will wind up in the hands of a film's leading protagonist -- or villain.

If there is a current success story on a par with the "Dirty Harry" Model 29, it's the Desert Eagle. Since it was introduced by the Minnesota-based Magnum Research Inc. in 1984, this enormously powerful handgun -- made for specialty hunting and target practice -- has appeared in more than 40 movies, co-starring with action heroes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude Van Damme in such movies as "Eraser," "Red Heat," "Last Action Hero," "Rambo III," "Cliffhanger," "Demolition Man," "Assassins," "The Last Boy Scout" and "Double Impact." Elizabeth Hurley even carried one in the PG-rated comedy "Austin Powers."

With a retail price between $800 and $3,000, the Desert Eagle pistol, available in five calibers and with a 6- or 10-inch barrel, is designed for high-end users whose financial status and shooting abilities can match the gun's price, size and powerful kick. But with the Desert Eagle's charismatic screen presence, the demand for the gun has grown beyond connoisseurs.

In 1996, the last year for which figures are available, Magnum produced 1,960 pistols, compared with 969 the year before. Magnum Research is a private company and doesn't disclose sales figures, but in March reported annual sales of $8 million, which included sales of Desert Eagle pistols, rifles, revolvers and accessories.

"What's happened is that a gun that was designed as a [target] and/or hunting gun has been embraced by the movie industry and turned into a bad-guy star gun," says Rick Washburn, whose New York City company, Weapons Specialists Limited, is one of the country's largest prop houses specializing in weapons.

"Here's a gun that has very little practical usage," says Washburn. "It's too big and heavy. There's not much of a market for handgun hunting. So I would say the success of that particular weapon owes almost everything to the movies."

In a 1994 story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Magnum Research chairman and CEO John Risdall was portrayed as aggressively courting prop suppliers at the annual SHOT (Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade) Show, the gun industry's biggest annual convention. But during a recent telephone interview, Risdall downplayed his pursuit of Hollywood.

Asked whether the Desert Eagle owes its success to the movies, Risdall responded: "Yes and no. The gun all by itself works. It does what it's supposed to do. It's supposed to shoot bullets when you want them." Risdall identified the three top uses of the Desert Eagle as "hunting, self- protection and just going to the range and having lots of fun."

As far as courting the prop houses, "Obviously we don't tell them to get lost," Risdall said. "At a certain level, your product is at a point in the social consciousness where people recognize what it is. And the movies give us an opportunity, as do the TV shows, to get to that point."

No doubt, guns provided free to prop houses have a better chance of scoring screen time than a gun that the prop house had to buy.

Take the stainless steel Colt Gold Cup .45 semi-automatic pistol, which Van Damme will use in the coming movie "Inferno." Los Angeles-based Ellis Props & Graphics, a general prop house with an armory of more than 4,000 weapons, acquired the pistol when the company's new owners, Dan Pearlman and Bob Wolf, started attending firearm trade shows.

"We looked selectively, and where it was appropriate, with the more marketing-savvy companies that understood the value of what we were proposing, we managed to acquire certain showcase-type weapons" free of charge, Pearlman says. "Basically we were trying to acquire some selective pieces we could help promote for them, and at the same time give them some luster and something to promote to their dealers and distributors."

Good economic sense

Rick Washburn has provided guns to hundreds of movies -- including "Belly," "Ransom," "Men in Black," "Eraser" and "Die Hard 3." He is currently the weapons coordinator for "Universal Soldier, the Sequel," a futuristic action thriller starring Van Damme and being filmed in Texas.

For prop houses like his Weapons Specialists Limited, Washburn says, placing a gun that was acquired for free is just a matter of good economic sense.

"I remember at one point I couldn't get a single thing [free] from Colt," he recalls. "I must have gone 10 years without placing a Colt unless I absolutely had to. If someone specifically asked for it, I'd provide it. But I had a responsibility to people like Smith & Wesson and Glock, who had actively participated in good faith with us, to use their product."

Whether companies are co- operative with prop houses "really depends on the CEO or the vice president of advertising and marketing, and how they view advertising," Washburn explains. For instance, he says that "with changes in the CEO the doors were opened" at Colt.

"Sturm, Ruger, Glock and Magnum Research are always very cooperative," he says. "Smith & Wesson took a long time, but they finally came around; Colt and Sig-Sauer are still wishy-washy, they can't quite make up their minds. Remington is of the mind that, 'If you want it, buy it, it's a Remington.' Beretta and Heckler & Koch are completely like that."

Syd Stembridge, president of Los Angeles-based Stembridge Gun Rentals Inc., the country's largest and oldest weapons house, says that "some companies are more aggressive than others" when it comes to making their guns available.

"Some guys in the hierarchy don't care much about it, some of them do," he says. "And it depends on the star. If Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to use a new Smith & Wesson in his next movie, they'd probably let us use it without paying for it. In most cases, they wouldn't do that with a lesser-known."

Beretta USA Corp., in Accokeek, in Prince George's County, does not, as a rule, provide free guns to prop houses, although the company's general counsel, Jeff Reh, says, "I can't say we've never given a free gun to a prop house." But movies often feature Berettas in an attempt to be authentic, because many law enforcement agencies use its pistols.

One of the highest-profile uses of a Beretta was in "Lethal Weapon," where a semi-automatic 92 pistol was police detective Mel Gibson's sidearm of choice.

"His choice of that gun was particularly appropriate," says Reh. "They were trying to contrast Mel, with his more modern techniques, and Danny Glover, who was a more traditional-type officer."

In the movie, Reh explains, Glover carried a snub-nosed revolver, standard issue in most police departments until the 1970s. In the 1980s, Beretta was awarded a contract by the U.S. armed forces, and its semi-automatic pistols were seen as a reliable alternative to revolvers. Over the next 10 years, Reh says, virtually every U.S. police department switched to automatics.

Beretta even benefited when James Bond made a famous switch away from its guns. In the 1962 movie "Dr. No," Bond is informed that he will no longer be carrying his precious Beretta .25-caliber pistol. Instead, he is issued a special .32-caliber Walther PPK.

"Actually it turned out to be an interesting endorsement of Beretta," Reh says. "If you recall from the movie, and it's probably in the book also, Bond tries to sneak his Beretta pistol out with him when he leaves because he liked it. ... So James Bond liked it, and that's good enough for us."

Glock pistols have also become popular with Hollywood filmmakers, because they are even more commonly used in law enforcement than Berettas.

"The first movie I ever heard [Glock mentioned] was 'Die Hard' in 1988," says Paul Jannuzzo, vice president and gen-eral counsel at Glock Inc.'s U.S. headquarters in Smyrna, Ga. "Bruce Willis said something about a German Glock with a porcelain barrel. Which was 100 percent wrong, but if you believe the adage that any ink is good ink, it helps."

(Glock is an Austrian company, and none of its guns has a porcelain barrel.)

Most recently, Tommy Lee Jones was heard in "U.S. Marshals" advising a colleague to "get rid of that sissy gun and get yourself a Glock."

Jannuzzo says Glock -- which rarely provides free guns to prop houses or production companies -- has no way to track how or if such a mention increases sales of its products.

"You hear people talking about it, so it's kind of in the atmosphere, but I don't know of any way we can track it. I guess we could put it on our warranty cards, but no one has ever written that they've seen it in a movie."

The downside

Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers, America's largest association of firearms retailers, estimates that the gun industry gets 90 percent of its advertising through television and movies, all of it free. But for Molchan, media exposure is a mixed bag.

"We get publicity on one hand," he says. "But we get a world of aggravation and anti-business and anti-gun legislation on the other hand. As far as I'm concerned, it's a very bad trade-off."

Molchan points to movies like the recent "Lethal Weapon 4," in which anti-NRA stickers and posters were slyly placed in the background of several scenes, as a perfect example of how Hollywood's use of guns glamorizes firearms but also demonizes their law-abiding users.

"They pretend they're goody two-shoes because they malign the NRA," Molchan says. "And then these two guys [played by Gibson and Glover] who are supposed to be cops go through the whole movie breaking the law."

Molchan admits that having so many guns in movies -- a common estimate is that 60 percent of Hollywood films feature at least one gun -- may heighten the profile of certain brands, but that overall, their image has been severely tarnished.

Whereas most of the 200 million guns currently in legal possession in the U.S. are used responsibly for hunting, self-protection and target shooting, guns in movies are almost always seen in the commission of crimes, killings and, at the very least, carelessness.

"I really don't like the massive and ever-increasing use of guns and violence in the movies," Molchan says. "I'm one of those people who think that although there might be several different factors, the tremendous volume and degree of violence we've had [in movies] in the last 20 years has got to take some of the blame.

"And of course our industry has no control over that. That's the movies and the New York studios. It's my opinion that firearms are definitely the stars."

In 1992 Molchan lobbied studios to donate a portion of the gross profits of films featuring illegal violence to violence-prevention programs and youth education. "I wasn't expecting them to be very receptive," he says, "and they were not."

In fact, several gun company spokesmen go out of their way to decry Hollywood's depiction of guns. William Ruger, chairman and chief executive officer of Sturm, Ruger & Co., in Southport, Conn, has been especially outspoken about the stereotyping of guns in movies.

Sturm, Ruger, founded in 1949, is now the largest-selling producer of American-made firearms. In the past it provided guns for movies and television shows; its guns were used in the series "The A-Team," for example. But Ruger stopped providing free guns to prop houses "about 10 years ago," according to Stephen Sanetti, the company's vice president and general counsel.

"Even if you see a 'good' use of a gun, it's in an anti-personnel context," says Sanetti. "Whereas most people outside cities have shot thousands of rounds and never come near a person.

"It really frosts me when you see in these movies the irresponsible way guns are shown. You never see the way 99 percent of guns are used."

Bill Powers, director of public affairs for the NRA, echoes Sanetti's dissatisfaction with the way guns and gun owners are depicted on the screen.

"It's at the point where, when you see it done the right way, it almost shocks you it stands out so much," he says.

"What makes it even worse is that, by and large, those big blockbusters where you see the most recklessness and carelessness are generally produced by corporations or individuals who don't care much about normal citizens' right to own a firearm. But they're glorifying violence and reaping the benefits of that stereotypical and irresponsible handling of firearms. And they should be ashamed of themselves."

Supply and demand

Tom Diaz says complaints like these from the gun industry and the NRA are disingenuous. Diaz, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, traces the marketing strategies of the gun industry in his book "Making a Killing," out this month from New Press.

"If getting products placed on the silver screen is good for business, Hollywood has been at least as good to the firearms industry as it has to the makers of cigarettes, soap, sneakers, automobiles and other consumer products," writes Diaz.

His book recounts the Hollywood success stories of the Smith & Wesson Model 29, the Desert Eagle and the Mossberg Bullpup shotgun, which enjoyed a commercial heyday when it appeared on the television series "Miami Vice."

"If it works to have tobacco or Reese's Pieces in a movie, then why shouldn't it work for guns?" Diaz says, referring to a famous scene in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" where the title character follows a trail of the candy. "The difference, of course, is that Reese's Pieces don't kill 30,000 people a year, and guns do."

(According to the Center for Health Statistics, firearms caused 31,630 deaths in 1997. Of those, 18,774 were homicides.)

Diaz admits that the movies are a relatively small part of gun manufacturers' marketing strategies.

"I don't think that's how gun companies sell their products," he says. "But I do think [the movies] play an extremely important role in setting a number of cultural contexts that clearly help the gun industry.

"And they also have an unquestionable impact on how our society not only views violence but violence specifically with firearms. We see things so routinely on the screen that when they happen in real life they seem kind of normal."

For their part, gun manufacturers and the prop houses that put their products in the limelight say they're only giving the audience what it wants.

"Our guns are props," says Larry Merrill, a buyer for Stembridge. "They're not instruments of violence. A hammer can build a house or crack a head. A knife can be used to slice a sandwich or stab somebody. Ninety-nine percent of guns in this country are used for positive purposes, but people like to see gun violence.

"It's supply and demand."

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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