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Unwelcome Intruders at Many G-Rated Movies: The Trailers

November 17, 1996|Mark Silver | Mark Silver is a writer and father of three who lives in Santa Monica

I recently took my 4-year-old to see the PG-rated "Bogus" and saw a trailer for the R-rated "Michael Collins" at a theater in Santa Monica. The trailer is filled with loud violence and voluminous explosions, the content and spirit of which are completely geared for a mature audience.

The trailer for "The Mirror Has Two Faces" was shown in a theater in Santa Clarita with the film "Fly Away Home." "Mirror" is about a couple, played by Jeff Bridges and Barbra Streisand, who decide to have a sex-free marriage, but the trailer has numerous references to sex and not having sex. My 4-year-old doesn't even know what sex is.

Seen with the G-rated "The Leopard Son" in Santa Monica was a trailer for "High School High." In it, a teenage girl is talking to a teenage boy about how different he is from the others because "most guys just stare at a girl's breasts." All the while he's been staring at her breasts. His reaction is to jerk his stare away from her chest and it gets a big laugh. It's not graphic or particularly offensive, but is this the stereotype that we want to teach children? The "High School High" trailer also ran everywhere with "Fly Away Home."

A trailer for the new "Star Trek" film showed at both "Fly Away Home" and "The Leopard Son." It contains a disturbing array of shooting and explosions not advisable for young viewers.

Who thought running these trailers with these movies was a good idea? Well, the theater owners and theater chains, for starters.

Most belong to the National Assn. of Theater Owners, which in 1989 passed the following resolution: "All trailers shown with a G-rated film should be compatible therewith, and theater owners should be especially sensitive to this situation to the end that the theatergoing public will be entirely comfortable taking young children to view G-rated motion pictures."

This resolution was passed in response to a letter written by Eli Evans, a New Yorker, to the association's president outlining the horrors of taking his 3-year-old son to his first film, the G-rated "Oliver and Company," and being subjected to previews for the R-rated films "Tequila Sunrise" and "Mississippi Burning."

Unfortunately, it is unenforceable. It calls for compatibility, sensitivity and comfort, but there are no definitions of what those are. So feature film trailers shown at screenings of family-oriented films are not necessarily chosen with our children's best interest in mind.

The other problem with the association's resolution is that there are no sanctions or penalties for noncompliance. Theater owners and exhibitors frequently broaden the definition of "compatible therewith" for their own convenience. Maryann Grasso, vice president of the theater owners' association, insists that "sanctions will be brought down on the theaters by disgruntled parents."

The Motion Picture Assn. of America is responsible for rating feature film trailers, just as it is for full-length motion pictures. One might think that this would succeed where the resolution from the owners' association has failed. Not so. Incredibly, film trailers are rated for general audiences even though the film can carry up to an R rating or may as yet be unrated. So even if the trailer does not contain specific scenes that are inappropriate, it teases our children's imaginations in ways that I don't want.

When questioned about the trailer for "The Mirror Has Two Faces," Bethlyn Hand, senior vice president of the MPAA, asked, "Do you think that was inappropriate? I approved that trailer."

She seemed more interested in the fact that some theaters were not showing the four-second ratings bands with trailers at their theaters. When did a ratings band tell you anything about what you were about to see? Especially when most of the trailers are approved for all audiences no matter what the films are rated. I'm much more concerned about the content of the images.

Traditionally, the television networks have refrained from showing trailers for R-rated films between 8 and 9 p.m.

But a trailer for the R-rated "The Long Kiss Goodnight," containing violent scenes, was shown on NBC at 8:30 one Sunday night after "3rd Rock From the Sun." (Phone calls to New Line Cinema, the studio that made "The Long Kiss Goodnight," were not returned.) Rick Gitter, vice president of advertising standards and program compliance for NBC, said: "If you sanitize trailers too much, you don't give the public a clear view of what a film really is. Not showing some questionable scenes would be a problem in and of itself."

Still, is it really necessary to teach me this lesson while I'm watching "3rd Rock" with my children? Do it during "ER." It's the No. 1 show in the country and the kids are asleep by then.

Since the ultimate decision rests with the theater owners and network executives, you see trailers chosen for commercial reasons rather than for their compatibility.

My 4-year-old does not need to learn about sex from a movie trailer. "Dad," he said, "remember that thing at the theater where that girl is talking about how guys are always staring at her breasts? Is that true?" Unfortunately, that day at the movies, it was.

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