The title and subject of a new movie coming out Friday are too offensive for the Big Three TV networks and at least three of the nation's top newspapers.
They have rejected print and TV ads for the R-rated satire, "The Pope Must Die," about a bumbling, rock 'n' roll-loving priest who accidentally is elected to head the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, newspapers in 12 other cities, including the Los Angeles Times, accepted advertising only after alterations were made to the title or in the advertising copy.
On Wednesday, CBS, NBC and ABC said they will not air the ads. CBS spokeswoman Terri Sorreco said, "The decision was made because the title and content would be offensive to a significant portion of our audience."
That's the same reason NBC cited in refusing to air the ads. "We feel (our viewers) would be seriously offended due to the ads' sacrilegious nature," NBC corporate communications manager Richard Cutting explained.
Three newspapers rejecting all advertising are the Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer, the Times Picayune in New Orleans and Dallas Morning News.
"The Pope Must Die" has drawn a sharp rebuke from the U.S. Catholic Conference's Office for Film & Broadcasting, which has rated it "adults only, with reservations." The film is described as a "flaccid British farce . . . a witless spoof with incongruities so outrageous that they cannot be taken seriously, yet done in such bad taste as to offend many."
In England, where the movie already is in theaters, co-executive producer Michael White, who previously produced such films as "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Oh! Calcutta!" among others, ran into problems involving the title when he went to place ads with London's subway and bus system. So for ad purposes, the name on the poster was changed to reflect the name of the popular British actor who plays the role of the Pope: "Robbie Coltrane in The Pope."
The controversy is merely the latest to beset New York-based Miramax, which has previously had run-ins with the media over advertising for "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover," two movies that had been given X ratings by the Motion Picture Assn. of America before the X (adults-only category) was renamed NC-17. Last spring, Miramax released the sexually controversial documentary "Madonna: Truth or Dare."
"There is a separation of church and state in this country. My question is, on what grounds have they banned these ads? It seems curious that all three (networks) are taking the same tack," said Russell Schwartz, Miramax executive vice president. "Obviously they can do what they want, they are private institutions. It just raises some interesting issues as to why, when it comes to religion, the response is so unilateral."
Schwartz said Miramax will raise these questions at a press conference in New York today, with attorney Alan Dershowitz and producer White speaking on behalf of the movie.
Schwartz said he could understand the objections "if the ad had a more serious content. But we have tried to let everyone know this is not a serious movie." Some of the elements in the ads show the newly elected Pope wearing sandals and carrying a guitar over his shoulder.
He said the MPAA had approved the film's print and TV ads.
In the TV ads, Schwartz said, there are clips from the movie showing the Pope advocating safe sex and giving all the Vatican riches to the poor. Schwartz said those commercials will now air on some cable-TV systems. The print ads were altered, he said, "because we simply can't lose the newspapers."
In what is generally regarded as unusual for network television, Miramax submitted the "Pope" TV spots to the network in their completed form. Usually, ads are submitted in preliminary forms, so if there are any problems the network might have, the advertiser can go back and make corrections without having to begin anew.
Schwartz said Miramax could not make changes because "the rejections seemed like a categorical denial to us. We were never told there was anything to change, no matter what we would have done." Schwartz said his company has never submitted storyboards to the networks. "We submit rough cuts to the MPAA for their rating. We normally go through the MPAA first to get their approval, which we got in this case."
Three "Pope" ads have also been submitted to Fox Broadcasting Co. and are currently under review for approval. But because of all the attention "Pope" has received, Fox has requested a copy of the film from Miramax.
"We want to base our decision on all the available information, rather than just three 30-second commercials," publicity vice president Andi Sporkin said.
The Tribune and Sun-Times, both in Chicago, and the New York Times were among papers accepting the ad with the full title. But among those rejecting the use of the title or certain copy lines are the Cincinnati Enquirer, the San Diego Tribune, the Dallas Times Herald, the Boston Globe and Sacramento Bee.
The Washington Post accepted an ad that reads "The Pope Must. . . ." The Los Angeles Times requested changes in certain captions under photos in the ad. "We found some of the graphics and copy objectionable, and so we suggested some changes and they agreed and resubmitted the ad, and we ran it," said Laura Morgan, public information supervisor for The Times. "When we do this sort of thing, we keep in mind that their creative purposes are not defeated."
Times staff writer Daniel Cerone contributed to this report.