WASHINGTON — Hollywood execs offered mea culpas on Capitol Hill Wednesday, admitting they marketed violent films to children and vowing to adhere to new policies designed to amend the situation.
The eight studio execs were sternly urged to the Senate Commerce Committee by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who expressed outrage two weeks ago when not one studio rep showed up for a hearing on a Federal Trade Commission report charging that Hollywood markets violent movies to younger audiences.
One by one Wednesday, execs from each of the seven majors and DreamWorks apologized to McCain for any indiscretions in the marketing of movies rated R for violence to kids. The most problematic area reported was the screening of R-rated movies to kids under 17, a practice the affected studios have abolished.
Point blank, McCain and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) went down the line, asking the execs if they would stop targeting kids under 17, or at the very least, stop advertising on teen sites.
Studios indicating they wouldn’t market R-rated movies to kids at all included DreamWorks and Walt Disney Co. The rest of the studios couldn’t make such absolute promises, saying that even if they didn’t advertise on teen sites, it’s impossible to market a movie without some kids somewhere seeing the ad.
“Why don’t you simply say you won’t market this kind of material, period? There are things in the report that shock and amaze me. It’s eye-opening,” McCain said.
Both the Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns weighed in on McCain’s hearing, urging moviemakers to take more action.
“To put it as bluntly as I can, they have not done enough,” said Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Lieberman. “They would not say explicitly that they would stop marketing adult-rated products to our children.”
Lynne Cheney, wife of GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, took aim at both the industry and the Democratic ticket, for its fund-raising efforts in Hollywood.
Vice President Al Gore and Lieberman decry the industry’s practices during the day, but “another message is delivered at night with a wink and a nudge,” she claimed. She also suggested that the presidential campaign prompted Gore’s wife, Tipper, to abandon her battle against explicit lyrics in music.
McCain referred throughout the hearing to an article appearing Wednesday morning in the New York Times detailing individual studio documents upon which the FTC report was based. McCain noted that the marketing docs proved that studios had pursued kids.
The marketing memos included a plan by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures to test the R-rated “Judge Dredd” on an audience of more than 100 kids between the ages of 13 to 16. Another document detailed how Columbia Tristar interviewed more than 50 children between the ages of 9 and 11 about ideas for a sequel to the horror film “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
And MGM/United Artists, in marketing the R-rated “Disturbing Behavior,” tested commercials on several hundred teenagers.
An FTC spokesman said the studio documents were confidential, and not to be released, either by FTC officials or McCain’s commerce committee.
Meanwhile, back on the Hill, some studio chiefs were out-and-out humble, such as Sony prexy-chief operating officer Mel Harris, who said it was wrong for the studio to argue with Nickelodeon after the kids channel refused to carry an ad for the “Fifth Element,” rated PG-13, for content reasons. The FTC report stated that the Nickelodeon audience was kids under 12. Sony distributed the movie, it was not the producer.
“It was a judgment lapse,” Harris said.
Harris said the children interviewed for the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” sequel were done so with parental approval.
Universal chair Stacy Snider testified that on the day the FTC report came out, Sept. 11, she instructed the marketing department to cease including kids under 17 in any screening unless with a parent or other adult. “I called and made sure people were carded.”
Hoping to rectify any such problems, the studios Tuesday signed off on an initiative drawn up by Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti that provides more information to parents about ratings, as well as prohibiting the inclusion of unaccompanied kids in test screenings and the attachment of certain trailers to G-rated movies.
But McCain told the witnesses that the MPAA plan wasn’t good enough, and that it is “filled with loopholes.”
McCain and Brownback repeatedly praised the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and Fox Filmed Entertainment for augmenting the MPAA initiative with additional measures, such as a pledge by Warners not to advertise movies rated R for violence in media where 35% or more of the audience is under 17. The studio also will require additional language stating the reason for a rating in ads.
Disney prexy-chief operating officer Robert Iger surprised even his colleagues by asking that the MPAA’s 32-year-old rating system be extended to TV and the music and vidgame industries, so there is one simple guideline.
Valenti, who McCain refused to let testify Wednesday but attended the hearing, said Iger’s plan is no good, even if it is supported by various lawmakers and the FTC report. It would be impossible to apply the rating system to music and TV, and that the net effect would be the eventual dissolution of the MPAA’s rating scheme.
“That’s sophistry. Let’s look at this calmly and objectively,” Valenti said.
In another addition to the MPAA initiative, Warner Bros. will not allow trailers for R-rated movies to be attached to PG movies.
Brownback, borrowing from the Warners blueprint, extracted a promise from all studios except Paramount to not attach R-rated trailers to PG-rated movies. Hollywood execs balked, however, when Brownback asked them to also adopt Warner Bros.’ 35%, saying they wanted to study the proposal.
Likewise, execs said they were not prepared to accept another Brownback proposal, this one allowing no advertising of R-rated movies during TV’s “family hour,” or from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Late Wednesday, the Parents Television Council released a survey stating that 83 percent of the movie ads aired on the networks from Sept. 1 to Sept. 20 were for R-rated fare. Disney and its subsidiaries accounted for 29 percent of the ads, according to survey.
At McCain’s hearing, most execs also cringed when asked if they would impose sanctions on any studio violating the MPAA initiative. Iger said Disney would terminate, or likely terminate, any executive deliberately going around the company’s new policies or the MPAA initiative.
Even Iger, though, eventually invoked the First Amendment, reminding the committee that government has no right to dictate programming.
Throughout the hearing, studio execs stressed to lawmakers that commercial speech has First Amendment protection — hence, it would be inconceivable to ban altogether the marketing of R-rated films to audiences that may include kids under 17. Also, some R movies are perfectly appropriate for kids.
“Films are not widgets or cans of beer or cigarettes — they are the collective voices and visions of the talented individuals who create them. They are meant to entertain us, to move us, amuse us, amaze us and thrill us … and at their finest … enrich our culture and our lives. While there are films that I may not like, or you may not like, they are all protected by our Constitution,” Warner prexy-COO Alan Horn testified.
Or, as Walter Parkes of DreamWorks put it, “not all R-rated films are created equal.”
Hollywood toppers also testified to their concern that the debate over marketing was really a thinly disguised attack on content.
“In the debate surrounding this subject, however, the … distinction has often been forgotten or obscured,” Paramount Vice Chairman of Motion Picture Group Rob Friedman said.
McCain shot right back, saying there was no such hidden attack.
No legislation planned
While announcing he will pursue no legislation involving Hollywood, the lawmaker warned the studio execs that he will keep close tabs on their progress. The senator also said he will track an internal FTC study determining whether it has the legal authority to bring a deceptive advertising case against Hollywood, such as has been made against the tobacco industry.
An FTC spokesman said the review will be completed within the next two months.
“We must see action,” McCain said. “I think we’ve made some progress today, but we have a long way to go. You’re part of the problem, and you’re part of the solution, too.”
Valenti said he will not revise the MPAA initiative despite particular objections made by McCain. “It’s done.”
Whether the larger battle binding Washington and Hollywood together is over is another matter.
“I think this dog is going to hunt for the next two or three years,” said one industry leader.
This article was corrected on Sept. 28, 2000.