Proposals to limit marketing to kids may not mollify pols

In the face of intense political pressure, the major studios Tuesday put forth an industry-wide initiative that, while making concessions, doesn’t admit Hollywood’s rating system is broken nor stop entirely the marketing of R-rated movies to kids.

Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti unveiled the 12-point plan at an afternoon press conference, just as top studio execs were arriving in D.C. to prep for a congressional hearing today on charges that the movie industry contributes to the moral decay of American society by willfully marketing violence to younger audiences.

Valenti said the MPAA plan proves that Hollywood is dedicated to rectifying any past digressions. “We are starting an era which didn’t exist before,” he said.

A large part of the MPAA initiative, signed off on by the seven major studios and DreamWorks, reaffirms and expands policies already in place to uphold. The changes are not viewed as a significant threat to studios’ bottom lines, but some studio bosses fear the marketing issue may be a Trojan Horse used to debate movie content rather than marketing.

New measures include a blanket prohibition on the attachment of trailers for movies rated R for violence to G-rated films. Also, each studio will appoint a compliance officer to review internal marketing practices, as well as pledging to not include kids under 17 in screening audiences. Overall, a major theme of the initiative is a pledge to provide more detailed information to parents.

Parents seen as key

Valenti said the initiative protects children as best it can, without drawing dangerous lines in the sands of censorship, and that it’s ultimately and finally up to parents to keep children shielded from images of violence. “No avalanche of laws, no presidential rhetoric will help a child’s morality if there is no parental involvement,” he said.

The MPAA plan is Hollywood’s first official response to a Sept. 11 Federal Trade Commission report alleging that the movie industry does an end-run around the MPAA’s rating system by luring consumers under 17 to movies rated R for violence. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have latched onto the report as a vehicle to make worldwide headlines.

Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), also used the FTC doc to demand that Hollywood clean up its act or else. Gore’s campaign did not have a comment Tuesday on the response laid out by Valenti.

Pols still peeved

It is unlikely that the MPAA initiative will soothe ruffled tempers on Capitol Hill, at least for the immediate future. Movie execs are bracing for a torrent of criticism when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) gavels to order today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

A miffed McCain scheduled the hearing after not one studio representative testified at a Sept. 13 hearing on the FTC report. Perhaps in a tit for tat, McCain refused to let Valenti testify at today’s hearing, posing a predicament for the MPAA and studios as to how to present the new initiative. McCain kept a low profile during Tuesday’s buildup to the Wednesday testimony, offering no official comment.

Valenti had planned to wait until the hearing to unveil the FTC-inspired initiative, but revised his strategy after not being included on the witness list. Studio execs said Valenti has asked several other senators on the commerce committee to enter into the record the initiative and his accompanying comments.

Those scheduled to testify include Paramount motion picture group vice chairman Rob Friedman, Fox prexy Jim Gianopolis, Sony prexy-COO Mel Harris, Warner Bros. prexy-COO Alan Horn, Disney (and Miramax) prexy-COO Robert Iger, MGM vice chair-CEO Chris McGurk, Universal chair Stacey Snider and Walter Parkes of DreamWorks.

Valenti and the studios hammered out the details of the initiative in marathon conference calls and face-to-face meetings over the past two weeks.

“We are going to take a fresh, new look at how we market films,” Valenti said.

Studios are free to develop additional guidelines, with Warner Bros. expected to do so at the commerce committee meeting. And Fox Tuesday issued a statement outlining eight distinct pledges, roughly along the lines of those set by Disney two weeks ago.

Among other things, the company vowed:

  • to avoid running R-movie ads during family TV shows, either on its own network or on other nets

  • not to show trailers for R-rated pics before G-rated or even PG-rated films, either in theaters or on video or DVD

  • to produce and air a one-hour special on the Fox Family Channel aimed at helping parents make decisions about what films, music and video games are OK for their kids.

    While the FTC report suggested that associations like the MPAA impose sanctions on violators, Valenti said he refuses to “exile” people to some sort of “leper colony.”

Rating system unchanged

The MPAA initiative also declines the suggestion of key lawmakers and the FTC that the movie, music and vidgame industries develop some sort of universal rating system. Valenti, a staunch defender of the MPAA’s 32-year-old rating system, said such a suggestion reveals a “bewildering lack of understanding,” since the rating system is widely praised by parents.

Again and again at the press conference, Valenti said there is little room to maneuver — even in marketing divisions — without imposing conditions on artistic freedom. He questioned the fairness of a policy that would dictate to parents what movies their kids can and can’t see — movies such as “Saving Private Ryan,” which carried an R-rating for violence.

“Of the 500 or so movies produced each year in the U.S. not all win unanimous public approval or cause universal comfort among those who watch. But the incontrovertible truth is that no one is so divinely anointed as to instruct artists on how to compose their films,” Valenti said.

There was no mention in the initiative of films rated PG-13, even though the FTC report stated that some of the most egregious examples were of PG-13 movies being marketed to children.

Valenti told reporters that PG-13 movies are not restricted, and that anyone can go, period. Likewise, he reminded lawmakers that kids under 17 can go to R-rated movies, albeit with an adult. Hence, it is impossible to draw a line and say studios can’t market R-rated movie to groups that may include teenagers, such as a TV show audience.

Rather, the MPAA initiative calls upon the studios to make sure it doesn’t “inappropriately” and “specifically” target children in its advertising of R-rated movies.

Also, the MPAA will call on theaters to better enforce rules not allowing kids under 17 into R-rated movies unless accompanied by a parent or another adult.

Studios currently employ “checkers” who ensure that their trailers are played before the agreed-upon features. It is believed that the checkers could also monitor placement of trailers for R-rated films.

Exhibitors, who have the “final cut” in deciding which trailers play when, insist they already seek to avoid playing trailers for R-rated films before family fare and that the reason has nothing to do with morality or rumblings from Washington.

“Theaters get killed by complaints when that happens,” said one exec with exhib experience. “Parents storm the lobby, they complain to the manager. Of course you don’t want a trailer in front of the wrong movie. It’s bad business.”

While exhibitors remain a key link in the chain, it is unclear how much they will able to beef up enforcement at the theater doors or improve oversight of trailers.

Already staggered by debt loads and bankruptcy filings, theater chains argue they would have to add considerable staff in order to thwart underage patrons sneaking into R-rated pics — a fairly easy feat in the age of 20-screen megaplexes.

“These guys are already going out of business,” one studio distrib chief noted. “How are they going to pay for that?”

These are the proposals offered by the Hollywood studios which will be read into the record at the FTC hearings today:

  1. . Each company will request theater owners not to show trailers advertising films rated R for violence in connection with the exhibition of its G-rated films. In addition, each company will not attach trailers for films rated R for violence on G-rated movies on videocassettes or DVDs containing G-rated movies.

  2. No company will knowingly include people under the age of 17 in research screenings for films rated R for violence, or in research screenings for films that the company reasonably believes will be rated R for violence, unless such person is accompanied by a parent or an adult guardian.

  3. Each company will review its marketing and advertising practices in order to further the goal of not inappropriately specifically targeting children in its advertising of films rated R for violence.

  4. Each member company will appoint a senior executive compliance officer or committee to review on a regular basis the company’s marketing practices in order to facilitate the implementation of the initiatives listed above.

  5. The MPAA will review annually how each member company is complying with the initiatives listed above.

  6. The MPAA will strongly encourage theater owners and video retailers to improve compliance with the rating system.

  7. The companies will seek ways to include the reasons for the ratings of films in print advertising and official movie Web sites for such films.

  8. The MPAA has established or participated in the establishment of the following Web sites: mpaa.org, filmratings.com and parentalguide.org. Mpaa.org, among other things, describes the rating system and includes a database listing almost every movie rated since the commencement of the system in 1968. Filmratings.com is a separate site devoted exclusively to providing ratings information on all rated movies, including the reasons for the ratings on recent releases. Parentalguide.org was established by MPAA in conjunction with the electronic game, music, cable and television broadcast industries. The site is intended to provide parents with one central site where they can obtain information about each of the ratings systems that have been developed in those industries. To ensure that this information reaches a wider audience, each company will link its official movie Web site to mpaa.org, filmratings.com and parentalguide.org.

  9. Henceforth, each company will include on all packages of new rated releases for its videocassettes and DVDs the rating of such film and the reasons for the rating.

  10. Henceforth, each company will include in the preface to its new rated releases for videocassettes and DVDs the reasons for the rating of the film, plus information about the filmratings.com Web site.

  11. The MPAA and each company will strongly encourage theater owners to provide reasons for the ratings of films being exhibited in their theaters in their customer call centers.

  12. Each company will furnish newspapers with the reasons for the ratings of each of their films in exhibition and will request that newspapers include those reasons in their movie reviews. The MPAA and each company will seek newspapers’ cooperation in printing a daily column listing films in exhibition, their ratings and the reasons for the rating.
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