Orgs call for crack down on discs

Will controversy tamp down Hollywood’s ardor for unrated discs?

Studios have had a field day slipping extra racy or violent material onto discs without rebuke by the Motion Picture Assn. of America. But two orgs have railed against the ratings loophole in the past two months, calling on the industry, and the ratings board, to crack down, or at least better police, the sale of unrated discs.

On April 12, the Federal Trade Commission encouraged studios and the MPAA to consider whether these discs undermined its rating system, calling the “prevalence of marketing unrated DVDs containing content that might warrant an NC-17 rating” a particular cause for concern.

This report came one month after National Assn. of Theater Owners topper John Fithian used his ShoWest keynote speech to urge studios to stop releasing unrated versions of their movies on disc; he termed unrated discs a cheap shot at the ratings system.

It’s too early to tell whether these pleas will do much to stem the rising tide of unrated discs. Studio execs weren’t volunteering much in the wake of the stinging FTC report.

Certainly, there’s no shortage of unrated fare on the way. Once limited to raunchy sex pics and horror movies, unrated versions have spread to less likely subjects, like “Donnie Brasco” and a “Spider-Man 2.1″ reissue tied to the third bigscreen installment.

New Line Home Entertainment is releasing “The Number 23″ on disc in an unrated version, and Universal Studios Home Entertainment is reissuing “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” one of its most popular unrated discs, in a two-disc “Double Your Pleasure Edition.”

Why so many unrated discs?

Easy; they sell better. The Entertainment Merchants Assn. reported to the FTC that, since 2002, unrated versions of movies have sold 64% more discs than their R-rated counterparts. They’ve become so acceptable that retailers that once shunned unrated product, such as Wal-Mart and Blockbuster, carry unrated versions, but still refuse to carry NC-17 fare.

However, there are signs that unrated discs may be losing some of their effectiveness as a sales incentive.

“We’re beginning to see diminishing returns as more people do it,” says Matt Lasorsa, New Line Home Video exec VP of marketing. “You used to see a 50% to 60% lift. Now you see a 20% to 25% lift.”

New Line prefers to release discs with both a rated and unrated version, making it harder to quantify how many prefer watching the unrated iteration. However, the studio will release the versions separately if the director requests, as was the case with “Wedding Crashers.”

Universal has created a virtual cottage industry out of raunchy unrated versions of pics such as “American Pie” and “40-Year-Old Virgin.” New Line has had similar success with unrated versions of “Wedding Crashers” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” and Warner scored with an unrated version of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Lionsgate, meanwhile, has poured on more gore to unrated versions of its bloody “Saw” franchise.

The FTC seems particularly appalled by the DVD packaging for unrated versions of horror pics, citing “Hostel” box art proclaiming it to be “Sick and twisted: unrated.”

Entertainment Merchants Assn. prexy Bo Andersen has vowed to work with video retailers to improve its enforcement efforts in line with vidgame efforts (ironically, that sector got good marks from the FTC). The EMA was created under a merger of the homevid and vidgame retail org last year.

Lasorsa points out that parents also have to do their part, noting that just because a disc is unrated doesn’t mean it would be NC17 if submitted to the MPAA.

“It’s up to people to police on their own,” he says. “When you bring a DVD home, that’s where the moderating begins.”

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