Did the Disney boycott do anything?

Once upon a time, there was a magic kingdom of family entertainment that was loved by values consumers from sea to shining sea.

But an evil leader entered the castle and things went amiss. Mighty were his deeds, though he was small in stature. Then a throng of angry Southern Baptists appeared at the gates waving Bibles. Some even began to have second thoughts about paying the mini-mogul to help them raise their children.

In time the evil one fell, although people inside the gates insisted that all was well. And so it came to pass that the kingdom remained profitable, although its image was tarnished.

That's the Rev. Richard Land's story, more or less, and he's sticking to it.

The Hollywood establishment says the Southern Baptist Convention's eight-year boycott of the Walt Disney Co. did little or no financial damage to the media superpower. Thus, the recent vote to end the boycott was of little consequence.

Disney never repented. Investors yawned. The end.

But the president of the convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has responded to this stark verdict with a question: Does Disney enjoy the same public trust it did eight years ago? He believes the answer is "no."

"There are lots of entertainment companies and I think they're all pretty much the same," said Land, who has both a soft Southern drawl and a doctorate from Oxford University. "But for most of our people, Disney used to be different. Disney was supposed to be a cut above the others. We expected better from Disney.

"Today, Disney is the same as everybody else. I think that most of our families now treat Disney no differently than they do other companies out in Hollywood. The boycott helped knock Disney down a notch."

The June 22 resolution claimed that the boycott "communicated effectively our displeasure concerning products and policies that violate moral righteousness and traditional family values." In the future, it said, Southern Baptists must "practice continued discernment regarding all entertainment products from all sources."

Boycott organizers concede that Disney continues to extend employee benefits to homosexual couples and holds "gay day" festivities in its theme parks. However, they say Disney has made subtle efforts to be more gracious to religious believers, such as cutting its ties to Miramax. It also helps that, in December, Disney is teaming with Walden Media to offer a movie version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis, one of the most beloved works of Christian fiction ever written.

"We still have concerns about Disney," stressed Land. "But Disney has done its share of listening. ... Still, I don't think there was any way that the boycott would have ended without the departure of the princeling of darkness."

That is Land's nickname for Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Eisner's dramatic exit -- after a no-confidence vote by disgruntled shareholders -- was a crucial moment. According to Land, the infighting that haunted the final Eisner years even inspired after-hours calls to Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville. At Disney, executives have offered no public reaction on the end of the boycott.

"I have had enough off-the-record talks with some important people at Disney to know that they thought the boycott was biting them in some places that hurt," said Land. "But these people inside Disney also convinced me that the cancer in the body was Eisner and that, once he was gone, we would see more signs of improvement."

But for Southern Baptist leaders, said Land, the critical question is not whether the boycott affected Disney, but whether it affected life inside Christian homes. There is evidence -- he cited sobering prime-time ratings and box-office statistics -- that millions of Americans are having second thoughts about the media they consume.

The bottom line is that American families have more media options, from TiVo to Podcasting, from home theaters to interactive video games. The question, said Land, is whether they will make wise choices.

Satellites and fiber-optic cables can carry filth as well as faith.

"If Jesus is the Lord of our lives then he is supposed to be the Lord of our entertainment lives, as well. It's easy to forget that," said Land. "But that's what I hope Southern Baptists took away from the boycott. That's what this was about."

Beyond the Baptist boycott

It was a cheesy ad slogan sure to raise eyebrows during the summer battle for the teen-movie bucks -- "Got Passion? Get Saved!"

An acidic take on a Christian high school, "Saved!" was crafted to make evangelicals punch their boycott buttons. It featured clean queen Mandy Moore as a Bible-throwing harpy from Hades. Macaulay "Home Alone" Culkin played a hip cynic in a wheelchair who shared cigarettes and sex with the school's lone Jewess. Its all-tolerant God offered a flexible moral code.

MGM promoted the film directly to believers who were sure to hate it.

"It seemed like they did everything they could to get a boycott," said Walt Mueller, head of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pa. "They wanted a boycott. They needed a boycott. I am sure they were stunned when they didn't get one."

The film cost $5 million to produce and grossed only $8.8 million, after a quiet sojourn in selected theaters. The bottom line: "Saved!" was an intriguing test case for those pondering the impact of media boycotts. Looking ahead, will Southern Baptist executives balk at saying the words "Disney," "boycott" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in the same sentence?

The crucial word-of-mouth buzz never arrived for "Saved!", perhaps because the conservatives the film set out to bash often turned the other cheek and declined to provide millions of dollars in free publicity.

It helped that the film took so many pot shots that it even offended some secular scribes.

Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post said the best adjective for "Saved!" was "condescending" and that it was as "preachy as its finger-wagging victims." Glenn Whipp of the Los Angles Daily News said the movie's creators wanted audiences to "know that it's important to practice tolerance of others -- unless, of course, those others are Christians."

Still, The Los Angeles Times did its part to help the studio by seeking condemnation from the usual snarky suspects -- Catholic League President William Donahue, op-ed columnist Cal Thomas, Christian Film and Television Commission czar Ted Baehr and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Apparently Pat Robertson was busy that day.

But no one uttered the b-word -- boycott. "Saved!" didn't even create a buzz at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"I vaguely remember hearing of that movie, but that's about it," said Dwayne Hastings of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission media office. "I didn't get a single call about it, or a single email. It simply did not make a blip on the Southern Baptist radar."

This is interesting, since Hollywood remains a hot issue for Southern Baptists and other moral conservatives. Years after the national headlines, the 1997 Southern Baptist vote to boycott the Walt Disney Co. remains in effect. The convention cited a wave of "anti-Christian" media products, Disney policies granting benefits to partners of gay employees and "Gay Day" events at theme parks that angered many families and church groups.

There is no sign that the Southern Baptist leadership is re-thinking this stance. This summer, the Rev. Wiley Drake of First Baptist in Buena Vista, Calif., a strong Disney critic, floated a convention resolution commending the studio for producing the patriotic movie "America's Heart and Soul." His motion was ruled out of order.

"I want a specific action commending them for what they are doing," said Drake.

Hastings said it's hard to image the convention retreating and ending the boycott. It's just as hard to imagine Disney apologizing to Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, an upcoming series of films based on the fantasy fiction of the best known Christian writer of the 20th Century would certainly raise questions. What if Mel Gibson provided the voice of Aslan, the Christ-figure lion?

"It's possible that there could be a resolution praising Disney for doing Narnia. Of course, this assumes that they offer some kind of accurate rendering of the Christian vision and beliefs of C.S. Lewis," said Hastings.

"But the whole point of the boycott is for people to stop and think about their choices. I'm sure that millions of Baptists went to see 'Finding Nemo' and they watch ESPN like everybody else. But they are thinking twice about giving Disney their money and support. People are learning to be more selective."