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FTC says fewer teens get into R-rated films

Enforcement of movie ratings may be affecting B.O.

A Federal Trade Commission report released Tuesday found that U.S. exhibs have succeeded in tightening enforcement of their industry’s theater-admissions practices.

The FTC report found that a reduced number of teens under 17 were able to buy tickets to restricted movies, compared to the findings of a similar survey conducted in 2001. In the latest survey, 36% of such youths succeeded in improper ticket purchases, down from 48% in the previous sampling.

Meanwhile, there’s some evidence the stricter enforcement of movie ratings may be affecting box office. A Daily Variety survey of grosses for R-rated pics distribbed in 2002 and 2003 shows the average domestic title has produced 4% less B.O., compared with the average domestic gross for a movie playing during 2000-2001.

Industryites cautioned over any easy assumption that the downtick was due to kids being turned away from restricted pics. The huge success of this year’s “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Bad Boys II” and “Terminator 3” would suggest studios have found a way to adjust to the shifting landscape they said.

“Ratings have nothing to do with it, if the marketing campaign does its job,” one top distribution exec observed. “If you’re marketing to the right audience, there are no expectations that the movie will play younger.”

In other words: Would “Matrix Reloaded” have grossed 4% more than its boffo $281 million domestic haul if ratings enforcement was less lax? Maybe not.

On the other hand, it can be argued the admissions crackdown surely has had some impact on B.O. After all, B.O. for the average pic would tend to increase over time by sheer dint of ticket-price inflation, and that simply hasn’t been the case for R-rated pics recently, despite a steady increase in overall industry B.O. in each of the past several years.

Federal regulators have boosted their oversight of the industry’s voluntary pic ratings and movie admission practices following widespread discussion on Capitol Hill of perceived laxness on the issue. Industry execs were pleased to see the regulators take note of their attempts to respond to the criticism in a positive way.

“We are pleased that our ratings enforcement record has improved,” said John Fithian, prexy of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. “Our movie theater members have taken aggressive steps to comply with the ratings and to refuse the sale of tickets for R-rated movies to children under the age of 17.”

Exhibs will continue to press for ratings-enforcement progress, Fithian added.

“Though we are proud of the best enforcement record of any industries surveyed, we are not satisfied,” the NATO prexy said. “We will continue to enhance our efforts and improve our record in the years to come.”

The FTC hired a contractor to recruit youths aged 13-16 to try to buy adult-rated movie tickets, music, electronic games and DVD movies at 899 locations in 39 states.

The survey found that 83% of the youth were able to purchase adult-rated music. That repped a decrease of 7% from the music-purchase results in the FTC’s ’01 survey.

Recording Industry Assn. of America spokeswoman Amy Weiss said execs were “pleased that the parental advisory program has been strengthened over the past couple of years, and parents and consumers are more aware than ever about the parental advisory system.'”

Some 69% of the youths could buy violent video games, down 9% from the previous survery. And 81% of the youths were able to buy adult DVD movies, included in the survey for the first time.

(Anthony D’Alessandro and Reuters contributed to this report.)

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