The Oscars are here, Hollywood could learn a thing or two from Ronald Reagan

As Americans gird themselves to watch the moral preening and lectures from many in Hollywood during the Academy Awards on Sunday night, it’s becoming increasingly clear that more and more of us are tuning out.

Last summer’s box office performance was the worst in more than a decade. The 2016 Oscar broadcast put up its weakest showing in nine years. And overall movie ticket sales last year were the lowest in a quarter century. The art-house values of many in Tinseltown have invaded and taken over the multiplex, and Americans aren’t having it.

I know why the motion picture industry has gotten this way, because I had a great teacher: a former film star who just happened to serve for eight years as president of the United States. Why are so many of today’s movies so bad? Ask Ronald Reagan.

One of the great privileges I had during the eight years I worked for president and Mrs. Reagan was that they invited me to Camp David nearly every weekend to watch movies with them.

Some of today’s producers and directors appear to have forgotten that uplifting movies, rather than those that underscore our differences, are capable of inspiring positive social change.

We watched some of the most popular movies of the day – “Return of the Jedi,” “Top Gun,” “Rocky,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Back to the Future,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and more.

With his insider’s knowledge from his many years as an actor, President Reagan would give us his review of each film, along with a discussion of what he called “the motion picture business.” I learned so much from these weekends that I wrote a book about it.

Though the president enjoyed many of these films, he said he preferred what he called “the golden oldies.” Those were the movies of his era – the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He felt they emphasized patriotism, celebrated heroes and were wholesome. In other words, entertaining.

Especially in our era of great cynicism, Americans could certainly benefit from seeing movies that Reagan starred in like “Knute Rockne, All American” (1940), about a football player who left everything on the field, or “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), about a heroic commander who risked it all to save his crew.

Some of today’s producers and directors appear to have forgotten that uplifting movies, rather than those that underscore our differences, are capable of inspiring positive social change.

By the 1980s, something seemed amiss, and President Reagan noticed it. He was offended, for example, by the 1981 film “9 to 5,” which had an extended scene showing stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton all smoking pot.

The president also thought that films showed far too much sex and violence. One of the movies that bothered him most was a weird 1985 film called “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” While he knew that times changed, he still felt movies should leave more to the audience’s imagination.

What the president was most unwilling to tolerate, however, was the seemingly anti-American sentiment that had begun to creep into the motion picture industry.

Yes, there were films in those years like “Rocky,” “Top Gun” and “Rambo” – all of which President Reagan loved for their support of the nation and the military. But everyone knows these films would find a much harder time getting made today. And they certainly wouldn’t win fans among many of Hollywood’s elites.

Although some pro-American military films still make it to the big screen, they’re regularly denounced by influential critics. “Lone Survivor” (2013) was described by Richard Corliss of Time as “convenient propaganda,” by Amy Nicholson of the LA Weekly as “a jingoistic snuff film,” and by Keith Uhlich of Time Out as being filled with “childish machismo.”

Nevertheless, “Lone Survivor” clearly struck a chord with Middle America, earning $125 million in box office revenue in North America alone. Yet the film received only two minor Academy Awards nominations: Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.

Similarly Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” (2015) was beloved by audiences. It garnered an 84 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and with $350 million, was the highest-grossing film of 2014 in the U.S. Lo and behold, it was slammed by many critics, one even characterizing it as “an often lazy and somewhat hazy propaganda film.”

Instead, in 2017 Hollywood pushed movies like George Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” which some viewers interpreted as a commentary on the supposed implicit racism in America’s suburbs. The widely-acclaimed “The Post” has been sharply criticized for its liberal mythmaking. And, of course, there was Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth sequel, which most Americans simply ignored.

If Hollywood wishes to survive, it must reconnect with the American people by rediscovering themes that define the nation’s spirit: courage, imagination, good behavior and justice – and by refraining from the shaming, moral judgments and condescension that turns off Americans who don’t live in a handful of pockets on the coasts.

Perhaps Hollywood could learn a thing or two by examining the life of Ronald Reagan, one of the movie industry’s most recognizable faces – who made over 50 movies, was twice elected president of the Screen Actors Guild and was the most unabashed champion of “the motion picture business” that continues to be neglected by its sanctimonious modern-day guardians.

One story President Reagan was fond of telling us at Camp David was about Harry Warner, one of the four founding brothers of the Warner Brothers film studio. During the silent film era, Warner was approached about the idea of using new technology to have actors talk in pictures. He responded by saying: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

With an obvious nod toward what he achieved after he left Hollywood, Reagan would always laugh when he told that story. But given what we’re likey to hear Sunday night, maybe Harry Warner had a point.

Mark Weinberg, former assistant press secretary to President Ronald Reagan, is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans.”