Miércoles 18 de Abril de 2007, Ip nº 187

Government to Take a Hard Look at Horror
Por Michael Cieply

To drive almost anywhere here this week is to run a gantlet of advertising for movies about killing.

Posters for Warner Brothers’ film “The Reaping,” about deadly plagues, and the torture-filled “Captivity,” from After Dark Films and Lionsgate, appear on bus shelters on Pico Boulevard between two elementary schools. A fright puppet from Universal’s “Dead Silence” peers menacingly from a construction-site wall by a children’s center in Santa Monica. A few blocks away, a large billboard promoting Sony Pictures’ “Perfect Stranger” overlooks the campus of the Crossroads School, the daytime home for the offspring of many in the film industry.

All rated R for violence, among other traits, the films belong to what has become an annual winter-spring crop of horror and suspense. But the harvest is trickier than usual this year, as Hollywood braces for a new government review of the marketing of violent entertainment to the young.

The Federal Trade Commission is putting the final touches on a follow-up to its September 2000 report on the marketing to children of violent movies, music and video games. The first such assessment in three years, it will examine the selling practices of a mainstream entertainment industry that in the interim has become increasingly dependent on abductions, maimings, decapitations and other mayhem once kept away from studio slates.

Seven years ago the film industry narrowly avoided federal regulation of its advertising practices, as politicians, in the wake of the Columbine High School killings, called executives before a Congressional committee but eventually agreed to let Hollywood police itself.

The effectiveness of the resulting marketing guidelines is now being tested by rougher movies, competitors not bound by strictures that apply to the trade association’s major studio members, and a flourishing Web culture that has driven big openings in the last three years for harshly violent films like “Saw” or “Hostel” without much concern about the age of viewers.

If the new study were to find that the industry has violated or has outgrown its voluntary standards, it might kick the issue back into the political arena ahead of a presidential election. There it could trigger fresh calls for regulation, or even kill a gory source of relatively easy money.

Earlier this week, After Dark and Lionsgate scrambled to contain the public-relations damage after a Los Angeles Times columnist quoted several young students objecting to an especially gruesome billboard for “Captivity” near their middle school. After Dark, which is expected to release the film on May 18 with Lionsgate, quickly agreed to pull part of its ad campaign. After Dark executives and a lawyer representing the company did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Neither After Dark nor Lionsgate is a member of the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the major studios. Such nonmember companies are not bound by the association’s promise to keep ads away from television shows, magazines and Web sites for which 35 percent or more of the audience is under 17. But they do agree to use approved advertising materials for any film that is submitted to the group for rating. In the case of “Captivity,” the association had disapproved of the material and is now considering disciplinary measures.

“I’m very, very troubled by this particular case,” Dan Glickman, the trade group’s chief executive, said Thursday about the “Captivity” billboards. “I can tell you this issue will not go unnoticed.”

He added that complaint levels to the association about selling violence to youth “by and large have been very low.” Nonetheless, he said, the group has been fine-tuning its own standards, while exploring technology that will help it keep the young from being marketed to on the Internet.

Horror aficionados date the genre’s current flourishing to October 2004. The first of Lionsgate’s “Saw” movies, about a demonically inventive serial killer, opened to a surprisingly strong $18 million on its first weekend, though it lacked an expensive cast or a pedigreed filmmaker. Sequels, imitators and close cousins soon followed. Most of the major studios and some independents, notably Lionsgate, quickly ginned up cheap fright fare for release mainly in the first quarter of the year, then again in the fall, in the spaces between summer blockbusters and classier Oscar aspirants.

While generally careful to observe the letter of their agreement not to directly solicit the young in selling violent movies, some of Hollywood’s big studios have had close shaves with the rules of late. Fox Atomic, a division formed by Fox Searchlight to cultivate the late-teenage and early-adult audience, on March 6 placed an ad for its film “The Hills Have Eyes 2” with an evening showing of “Dodgeball,” rated PG-13, on FX.

The ad identified “Hills,” about National Guard trainees brutally murdered by mutants, as being not yet rated, though film association guidelines call for the disclosure of ratings in ads, and the company had accepted an R rating the day before. John Hegeman, Fox Atomic’s chief operating officer, said the R rating was missing because it takes about two days to alter a television spot.

“We are M.P.A.A. signatories, and we do follow their rules,” said Mr. Hegeman. He pointed out that “Dodgeball” on that evening attracted an audience about 71 percent of which was 18 and over.

Yet things become murkier when studios — which often attempt to block the underage from visiting their official sites for R-rated fare — deal with Bloody-disgusting.com, Arrow in the Head (joblo.com/arrow), Fangoria.com, or any of another dozen such Web sites. (Bloody-disgusting, for example, includes chat forums that address such questions as: “Can anyone suggest a good torture-esk movie?”) Hollywood companies commonly buy advertising on such sites. Perhaps more effectively, they also open the doors for set visits, early viewings, promotional contests and anything that will attract fans.

The operators of several such sites said they had no way of knowing how many of their visitors were under 17, but believed the numbers were substantial.

“The horror site skews a little more toward the younger ones,” said Berge Garabedian, founder of the Joblo.com film site and its associated Arrow in the Head horror section, which this week carried a banner ad for an unrated DVD of “Sublime,” about gruesome murder in a hospital, from Warner Home Video. Mr. Garabedian said he tried to block visitors under 15 from discussion boards in order to eliminate “a lot of MySpace craziness,” but thought a considerable share of his Arrow in the Head visitors to be in the 13-to-18-year-old age range. (A Warner representative said the studio believed fewer than 4 percent of the visitors to Joblo.com were teenagers, based on information provided by the agency that places it ads, but had no figures for the smaller Arrow in the Head site.)

Whether such underage visitors are actually seeing R-rated horror in theaters or on DVDs without a parent’s presence is unclear. Both film association and studio executives said they could not provide the number for young viewers for their films, an exercise that could be complicated by a tendency of underage respondents to misrepresent their ages in exit polls. But a study last fall by Experian Simmons Research found that 12 percent of respondents between the ages of 12 and 17 reported watching “Saw II” in theaters, while 12 percent said they had seen the film on DVD, and 26 percent reported viewing any horror in theaters.

In its 2004 report, the Federal Trade Commission said that in 36 percent of their attempts, its underage “mystery shoppers” were able to buy a movie ticket without an age check in theaters, down somewhat from about half in 2000. Meanwhile 81 percent of the young buyers obtained R-rated DVDs without a check.

Bracing for the next report, the National Association of Theater Owners last fall provided the commission with a detailed description of its efforts to keep the unaccompanied young out of violent fare. But at the same time, the theater owners strongly criticized the studios’ home entertainment divisions for promoting versions of some of the same movies on DVD as being unrated and uncensored.

According to Mr. Glickman, the number of such DVDs is small. “It’s obviously something we’re taking a look at, but in terms of its being a substantial problem, it’s not,” he said.


  24/03/2007. The New York Times.