Interesting timing. The misguided work of Movieguide has been brought to my attention a lot lately.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I received yet another in a series of testimonials for former employees of Movieguide. Ex-Movieguide staff keep lining up to talk about Movieguide’s unethical practices, and the distorted information that is “reported to the industry” by Ted Baehr:
Here’s the latest letter from a former Movieguide reviewer who wants to remain anonymous.
Hi, Jeffrey. I came across your website tonight while checking my suspicion that the “Dr.” in Dr. Ted Baehr comes from an honorary degree (thanks for the confirmation!). I enjoyed reading your pieces, both because you’re a funny, observant writer and because I’m grateful that you have the energy to engage the insanity that emanates from Ted.
Long story short, I worked at Movieguide for a while. Much of the job was novel—tallying F-words, proofreading those angry press releases, having my proofreading undone by Tom Snyder, watching news outlets take us seriously on occasion. The novelty wore off though. I had to write monthly fundraising letters and see them drafted to include soul-sucking hatefulness. Political screed was added into my reviews, as your other Movieguide “survivors” reported.
Worst was my gradual understanding that I was part of something that—hopefully this doesn’t sound too dramatic—I think is evil. If the biggest problems were lies and distortions, as in the WSJ debacle and the farcical annual reports, then that could be forgiven and forgotten. Movieguide does more damage than merely lying about dumb movie statistics, though; with its ugly tone and harsh judgment, it presents a false gospel that stamps out any love or grace or compassion that Jesus offers. It’s an anti-ministry.
It gladdens my heart to see you pained by the stuff that Ted produces but engaging him lovingly and faithfully. I think it’s a good model of Christian discourse; we should be vigilant about the truth, we should be constant even when it’s so damn wearying. I know I get wearied just thinking about it.
Anyway… for whatever reason, I felt compelled to share that with you. You seem to be an ex-Movieguiders’ way station.
This isn’t the first time I’ve received a letter like this.
A couple of years ago, this testimony came from former Movieguide writer Sean Gaffney:
Wow, Jeff, where to begin.
I had the interesting experience of writing freelance reviews for Movie Guide years ago (way too far down the food chain to even meet the founder). On one hand, I feel for you, brother. On the other – congratulations! If Mr. Baehr thinks you deserve attack, it probably means you are doing quality work.
And my heart goes out to all the reviewers working under Mr. Baehr – it is very hard to love movies and work within the guidelines of the Guide. When I wrote for them, there were a few people there (my immediate editor, for one) that did indeed love movies, thought quality was important, and wanted to shift the conversation to a deeper look at movies and the language of art.
Instead, the pressure is to focus on content, and skew the review towards the number of swear words. I remember being forced to justify how I could say a movie was excellent in quality when my review clearly listed foul language and immoral content. In other words, how could the cinematography be any good if an actor says the f-word?
Jeff, please do not take it to heart when someone with that mentality criticizes the reviews written by real critics such as yourself. Ted Baehr long ago let go of any actual care about cinema, or about art criticism (and admits it every time he claims that his “reviews” are about advocacy, and not “movie reviews in a journalistic sense”). You will note in Mr. Baehr’s “review” of Sophie Scholl, he was only able to come up with two sentences that addressed something other than the subject matter of the film: “The reason that the movie has gotten so many awards and great reviews is that it is so well produced. Every element rings true.” That is the sum total of Mr. Baehr’s ability and desire to look at quality.
So when he criticizes CT’s list of best movies, he doesn’t have “best” in mind; that word means something completely different to him than it does to Webster.
Same with the label “liberal.” Folks get upset when megaphone crazy people like Mr. Baehr spit that word at them – especially if, like CT, they are not liberal. But don’t bother looking the word up to understand what Mr. Baehr means; it is a wasteful exercise. What Mr. Baehr means by “liberal” is “not my personal brand of conservative.”
By his definition, anyone who is moderate qualifies (including moderate Republicans). Or anyone that has an open mind on issues, who doesn’t rush in throwing stones, but rather waits to hear what the Rabbi writing on the ground has to say. Thinking, rather than being told what to think; asking questions; considering the text of the Bible directly rather than the text of Mr. Baehr; thinking that Jesus taught about caring for the poor, sharing with one another and finding what can be loved in our enemies; — all acts of “not my personal brand of conservative.”
The prophets have never been the favorites of the established church – especially of those that are comfortable with their established power and prestige, those that “love to sit at the head of the table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues.” And can you blame them?
If you were Ted Baehr, would you want someone running around telling people that “any who have ears to hear should listen and understand!”
I know I wouldn’t.
In 2008, I received this letter from Lindsay Marshall, another former Movieguide writer:
Here is my Movieguide story in all its gory detail. Feel free to use it on your blog if you’d like. And feel free to use my name – I’d like it redeemed.
My brief stint as a movie reviewer and why it’s Movieguide’s fault I probably can’t go back to it again.
(Or something to that effect.)
There’s not a lot I can add to Sean’s account of his own experience working for Movieguide. I, too, was in on the earlier days of the magazine (back before anyone had learned html, from the looks of the website). I was just a starstruck kid from the heart of Texas who was shocked that anyone would hand her pen and paper and send her in to meet famous people. My mom worked for Movieguide casually the first year or so they lived in southern California, and I tagged along with her a couple times until her boss agreed to give me an assignment.
I was given their list of ridiculous acronyms and their template for their reviews, but I wasn’t given any guidance beyond that. Foolishly, I assumed that I should simply catalog the items Movieguide subscribers might find offensive, then write a standard review of the artistry of the film from its technical aspects to its literary traits. I was a dutiful film student at the time, so I really did my homework and worked hard to fulfill their required content reporting as well as avoid sounding like a complete rube when it came to my comments on the actual film.
My mom and I joked a lot about the futility (and wicked nature) of counting every single f-word or trying to make sure we saw every single exposed anatomical feature to report accurately, but we were also having a lot of fun getting to see movies first and on rare occasions interview the filmmakers. That is, until I started reading my own reviews on Movieguide’s website.
Like Sean, I was far too small potatoes to have contact with the might Baehr. However, my editor was not, like his, interested in pushing past the ‘tee hee hee’ factor of finding all the naughty things in films. He was a frequent imbiber of the Ted Baehr kool-aid, and he was rewriting my reviews, and then selling them … without telling me, or changing the name on the review.
I wouldn’t have minded too much if what Tom was writing in my name wasn’t both completely incorrect in relation to the film and, from what I can tell (and I consider myself a pretty serious scholar of the Bible), non-biblical. It all came to a head with my review of Seabiscuit. Where I saw the film as a story about the redemptive power of hope, personified by that funny little horse, Tom (and Ted) saw it as a tract for communism. Tom rewrote the entire review, leaving maybe a few scattered sentences of mine intact, and then distributed it so that in various websites I railed against the evil FDR (one my personal heroes!) and stated that it was anti-Christian to suggest that the state offer material aid to the poor.
I couldn’t let that one go.
After a heated round of emails (which I saved, just in case), I convinced Tom to remove my name and, sadly, resigned from one of the more fun jobs I’ve had. I just couldn’t continue to work for people who were destroying what my fellow Christians were trying to build in Hollywood. I thought for awhile that I could fight the bad tendencies from within, but as they continued to nitpick over naughtiness (thus making the entire focus of their publication sin, not virtue, irony of ironies), I realized change wouldn’t come to that organization as long as Ted Baehr was at the helm.
Beyond that, I came to realize that writing reviews their way was bad for my soul. Instead of seeking Truth and Beauty in a film, I was training myself to look for evil in it. That’s a very bad habit to develop, and I’m glad God allowed me to have that huge argument with my editor before it became too deeply engrained in my practice.
So thanks for letting me tell the story. I still pray for the group, and pray for those it hurts or trains up in the wrong way. But I have confidence in Christ’s mission in Hollywood, and if the gates of Hell shall not prevail against Him, neither will a couple crystal teddy bear statues.
In another message, “puckspice” said:
Thank you so so so much for your continued criticism of Movieguide’s abiblical view of art.
I made the mistake of working for Movieguide when I first moved to LA and reviewed a couple movies. My reviews were rewritten without my permission, with my name still attached, and when I confronted the editors not only on the practice, but also on the abiblical nature of the rewrites, I was chastised until I decided we wouldn’t be able to find common ground and resigned.
I’ve since spent my time tracking down every site to whom they (without notifying me) sold my butchered reviews with my name still attached, trying to convince the owners to change the name. …
So thanks for asking important questions of those tactics. One the surface, Ted Baehr’s ideas seem very nice. In reality, I know more people who’ve rejected the Gospel because of them than have embraced it.
If you want to see some of the other ugly distortions and misrepresentations from Movieguide, there are plenty in the archives…
And then this.
What kind of Christian witness does “Dr.” Ted Baehr have when he is given a platform? Consider his response to the death of Jack Valenti. While Valenti’s family and friends were grieving, Baehr published this:
In his swan song in the commentary section of the Aug. 2 Los Angeles Times, Valenti said that his greatest accomplishment was the movie ratings system. He’s right. He helped to destroy an industry, taking it from 44 million weekly attendance to 17 million weekly almost overnight, and he helped to corrupt an entire society and the world. Furthermore, he created an intense antipathy for the United States of America around the world.
If that’s what you set out to do, Jack, you did it, but I hate to see what happens when you face the Judgment of God.
Ah, yes, the role of the Christian in society: To stand up in public and tell the world which of our fellow human beings are going to be most harshly judged by God. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Baehr published a Movieguide review of the film Monster’s Ball, which carried out a character-assassination of film critic Roger Ebert. While Ebert wrote a thoughtful review of Monster’s Ball, Movieguide announced that Ebert was “obviously attracted to the steamy sex scenes…. He also apparently didnt mind ogling the naked breasts of Halle Berry, who plays Leticia (he got to see similar sightings of a voluptuous nude black woman in Beloved, it should be noted).” Such presumption is horrifying as it is, but the fact that Roger Ebert is married to an African American woman makes it that much more distressing. And this is the same Ted Baehr who often represents the “Christian perspective” in mainstream media forums?
Keep in mind that Movieguide’s tagline for its reviews is this: The Standard By Which Other Reviews Are Measured.
Then, of course, there was also Movieguide’s hysterical response to the reasonable report about the company’s unethical practices, which prompted Tim Willson to write this editorial called “In the Blue Corner.”
And a final note: Movieguide has been clear about their objective:
We support a return to the Moral Code of Decency and the vetting of all scripts for movies going to public theater and DVD retail within 20 years, if not in 3-5 years. That would probably include the elimination of all R-rated and NC-17 content as well as most PG-13 content. We also look forward to Christian/biblical hegemony within the industry. If this ministry had much more support, our progress would be that much quicker.
Meanwhile, Movieguide’s Ted Baehr continues to appear as a prominent “Christian perspective” in the mainstream media, where he makes it more difficult for Christians working in criticism or the filmmaking industry to be taken seriously.
Only God can save us now.