The movie industry expects to soon receive a round of applause from the ever-watchful Federal Trade Commission on its revised marketing practices.
But the anticipated approbation will come at a time when Hollywood is asking itself some hard questions about marketing as well as content. Though D.C. may feel the studios have been immensely responsive on ad policies, the terrorist acts of Sept. 11 have stirred some revisionist thinking about what kinds of movies should be made and how they should be sold.
Sept. 11 marked the first anniversary of the FTC report, which demanded that Hollywood take more responsibility for its marketing — specifically in the area of selling R-rated films to those who are under the age of 17.
Follow-up on tap
This month, the FTC is expected to give its follow-up findings. Hollywood is said to come off very well in the report — and showbiz’s discretion and helpfulness after the terrorist attacks could mean that D.C. will tone down its watchdog eagerness even more.
“Hollywood has really bent over backwards not to offend, or capitalize on events to make money. It has shown remarkable restraint,” says Dan Gerstein, top aide to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). “The public’s appetite and tolerance for violence has changed.”
How long that appetite stays quieted is, of course, the $64,000 question. And even before the terrorist attacks, the FTC report was putting pressure on violent, R-rated pics.
Since the 2000 FTC report, films emphasizing violence or lewdness have rarely succeeded at the box office. Total grosses for all R-rated new releases are down 42% for the period from September 2000 to September 2001. For every “Hannibal” or “American Pie 2,” there is a “Rock Star” or “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” — R-rated films whose most obvious target market (older teens and twentysomethings) is ever more elusive.
Many film mavens insist the steep drop in the number of R-rated releases is partly due to a more elastic PG-13 that has been attacked for weighing language, violence and sex on different scales. One way around controversy has been to cut just enough so that a pic can qualify for a PG-13.
Causing a stir
Paramount’s “Hardball,” for example, raised hackles in Chicago as the filmmakers intended to use plenty of four-letter words in telling the tale of a real-life local baseball coach. Star Keanu Reeves shrugged that the pic was intrinsically R. That was in summer 2000. By Sept. 14, 2001, well into the FTC era, the pic opened with a PG-13 — and, like so many other PG-13s, it finished No. 1 at the weekend box office.
Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy-CEO Jack Valenti vehemently denies that studios are shying away from the R rating, or that the new marketing rules have resulted in lowered box office receipts.
“If you have a movie that a lot of people want to see, no rating will matter,” Valenti says.
Valenti, whose org administers the ratings system, says he expects the FTC to commend studios in its follow-up report, slated for release in the latter part of this month. He chairs a special marketing committee made up of compliance officers from each of the majors, appointed in the wake of the initial FTC findings.
“It’s the first time we’ve done something on this scale,” Valenti says. “I think there have been great changes in how we address the public about movies.”
Abiding by the terms of a 12-point plan drawn up by Valenti, studios have kept a close eye on ad campaigns to make sure that R-rated movies aren’t purposely marketed to kids under 17.
Movie trailers now contain more info about why a pic received its rating. Homevideo boxes have been redesigned to include the new ratings legend. There’s also increased effort to let parents know there are Web sites where ratings info is available.
Some studios, such as Warner Bros., have gone further, promising they won’t target R-rated movies’ ads to venues where 35% or more of the audience is under 17.
Exhibitors also are under FTC scrutiny, with theaters everywhere trying to make sure kids don’t go into R-rated movies unattended.
In short, studios are trying to do the right thing publicly while internally meeting bottom-line goals. Marketing practices are suddenly in question for the film studios (as well as a raft of TV shows, Broadway plays, etc.).
Hollywood acquiesced to D.C. concerns, but the Sept. 11 events have put a new spin on things. “All of our stomachs now turn at the thought of violence,” attests one top studio marketer. “But we’re still dealing with an insidious form of silent censorship. These guys in Washington have such a shallow understanding of what we do. Yet they’re so eager to pontificate about our irresponsibility.”
Ultimately, the post-Sept. 11 climate could see politicos seize upon the industry’s vulnerability to push further restrictions.
But many doubt whether that will happen. In the past few weeks, there has been a detente: Even the harshest D.C. critics toned down their attacks as studios execs shelved millions of dollars in product that could be of dubious taste. Also, the entertainment industry has held a number of benefits raising millions in relief funds.
In normal times, Congress would have held hearings once the FTC releases its follow-up report. Now, it’s not even clear whether lawmakers will remain in session past mid-October. Rumors are circulating that President Bush wants Congress to adjourn early.
In a climate of war, sensibilities may shift unpredictably when it comes to entertainment.
As Gerstein says, “There’s no script for this. There’s no predictable sequence of events.”
Hollywood also could prove an important ally for the Bush Administration in times of military action, since films can be powerful propaganda in portraying the fight between good and evil.
While studios and theaters may be largely spared in the FTC follow-up, the music biz and the vidgame industry are likely to take some hits. This spring, the FTC issued an interim report harshly criticizing labels for still plugging violent lyrics to kids.
Recording Industry Assn. of America prexy-CEO Hilary Rosen says the music biz, like the film biz, has responded to the FTC by adopting a series of marketing reforms.
And like its brethren, the music biz moved quickly after the terrorist attacks to yank content that might offend. Radio playlists are under review, labels and artists are rethinking album covers, songs and upcoming projects.
“I do think that people in the industry — both in movies and music — are all looking at what they are doing and releasing in the next couple of months and seeing whether there is something that exceeds what they are comfortable with,” Rosen says.
And with a multitude of movie screens, cable channels and radio formats, some auds will still hunger for what they had grown accustomed to before Sept. 11.
That helps explain why, days after the attacks, “The Producers” reclaimed the Broadway boards, rapper Jay-Z had the No. 1 album, and antagonistic metal band Megadeth played a sold-out gig in Los Angeles. More so than in previous eras, people need their targeted culture fix.