This column has not been approved for all audiences. Unfortunately, most movie ads are.
Every trailer, TV spot, electronic press kit, Internet and print ad is screened by an MPAA committee designed to safeguard consumers from rude language, sex and violence. Marketing materials only receive the MPAA’s seal of approval if they’re in keeping with “what most people would find acceptable for their younger children to see or hear,” says Marilyn Gordon, the org’s director of advertising administration.
It’s an exacting standard, and more than a little inconsistent: Profane language and nudity are off limits, but apparently it’s just fine for a character to be hit in the face with a wrench in the “Dodgeball” trailer, or for a cat to crunch its teeth into Eddie Griffin’s crotch in the trailer for “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.”
The net result is a widening gap between the unruly media landscape most of us experience at home and the sanitized marketing environment of the multiplex — the mark of a broader, deeply embedded cultural hypocrisy. The general public may be downloading porn, watching “The Sopranos” and playing “Grand Theft Auto San Andreas.” But pay $10 for a movie, any movie, and you’ll only be exposed to trailers deemed safe for your whole family.
At a time when kids are bombarded on all sides with sex and violence, it’s easy to sympathize with parents who’d like the multiplex to remain a safe zone. But one has to wonder whether theaters have gone too far in their efforts not to offend.
Exhibitors have clearly been spooked by the indecency flap that’s generated thousands of complaints to the FCC. (Never mind that many of those complaints have been discredited.) One exhibitor told me that a few angry parents have forced his chain to be “overly cautious” about trailer placement. Call it the tyranny of the minority.
As a rule, the exhibitor told me, trailers for R-rated movies are never to be run with PG titles; trailers that generate complaints get yanked; and red-band trailers — those not approved for all audiences — are generally not played at all.
Compounding this problem is the fact that theaters have grown harder to police the bigger they’ve become.
As John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, told me, “In a single screen environment, it was much easier to manage the flow of marketing materials.” A busy megaplex with 20 screens and 15,000 customers a day is far more susceptible than a small theater to the sort of catastrophe that befell a friend of mine who attempted to take her young niece to a Saturday matinee of “Finding Nemo.” Thanks to a snafu in the projection booth, the first trailers were for “Jeepers Creepers 2” and “Freddy vs. Jason.” Within a few minutes, the entire audience had fled.
The disappearance of red-band trailers has ended what was once a perfectly legitimate advertising medium for the studios.
Case in point: “American Pie.” It’s easy to forget that before the gross-out comedy revolution that produced “Road Trip” and “Freddy Got Fingered,” most movies about high-school sex were relatively chaste.
In an effort to separate “American Pie” from the pack, Universal created a red-band trailer featuring the prototypical scene of Jason Biggs having his way with a pie. It received wide play in theaters and was even attached to prints of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” making the rounds of college campuses.
Today, ad execs can’t afford to be quite so forthright in their approach to R-rated material. Paula Franceschi at Hollywood ad firm the Cimarron Group recently cut the trailer for Shane Black’s new thriller, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.” Cimarron had to resort to a huge number of white flashes and cutaways just to meet the approval of the MPAA. “There’s a very funny finger-chopping-off joke,” Franceschi said. “We couldn’t go near it.”
“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” may have an R rating, but compared to “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,” it’s squeaky clean.
Such marketing contortions aren’t uncommon this time of year, as the family-friendly summer blockbuster season gives way to the fourth quarter, with its usual outpouring of movies rated PG-13 and R. This fall, the trailer environment is especially competitive — there are nine wide releases in the last two weekends in September; Christmas Day has seven more. If some of these movies are for mature audiences only, wouldn’t it make sense to play them with trailers that push the envelope, too?