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Are Rebels Miramax, New Line Scared Straight on Marketing?

October 10, 2000

When it comes to packaging edgy, violent films as teen entertainment, few movie companies push the limits the way Miramax Films and New Line Cinema do.

Now, amid federal scrutiny into how Hollywood markets violent R-rated films to kids, both companies insist they are embracing stricter marketing guidelines. They even say they welcome internal watchdogs to keep them honest.

But when they make these promises to Washington by proxy through their corporate owners or sister companies--Walt Disney Co. owns Miramax and Time Warner Inc. owns New Line along with Warner Bros.--there's good reason to be skeptical.

Competitors and various Hollywood executives, many of whom have done business with each company, wonder whether they can stick to those vows. It's not just a question of taste. Both companies have fortunes at stake in the gruesome teen horror flick genre.

Both Miramax and New Line were conspicuously absent from Senate Commerce Committee hearings last month into Hollywood's marketing practices. Those hearings came in the wake of a blistering Federal Trade Commission report that concluded Hollywood systematically markets violent films to kids.

Disney President Robert Iger spoke for both Disney and Miramax. New Line wasn't there, although Warner Bros. President Alan Horn pledged reforms that New Line now says it endorses.

But neither Iger nor Horn tells Miramax or New Line what to do. Both Miramax and New Line are autonomous from their parent companies when it comes to selecting, marketing and distributing movies.

Both film companies are led by independent mavericks, with co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein running Miramax and New Line headed by executives Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne. Their successes spring from positioning themselves as the anti-studios and thumbing their noses at traditional Hollywood. Both also have made their corporate parents squirm.

The teen horror film "Scream" and spoof "Scary Movie" from Miramax's Dimension Films pushed the boundaries of R-ratings. Miramax's "Kids" contained such extremely violent and sexual content that Disney had the Weinsteins buy it and release it themselves.

Since releasing "The Crow" in 1994, Miramax's Dimension has become the company's cash cow. Miramax's numbers aren't broken out by Disney in its financial results, but it's a good bet that its horror movies such as "Scream" made much more money than Miramax's art house fare. Bob Weinstein has boasted that Dimension in its first two years produced an enviable 40% return on its investment.

New Line owes its very existence to the success of such low-budget horror films as "Nightmare on Elm Street." Although much of its recent profits came from comedies such as Adam Sandler and "Austin Powers" films, it also has scored with violent, R-rated films teens wanted to see such as the recent Jennifer Lopez film "The Cell" and "Seven" starring Brad Pitt. And it's still making them: New Line has another installment in the gruesome "Friday the 13th" series ready for release next year.

New Line openly exploits its horror roots with its Web site advertising Halloween costumes from its films, and "Horror Headliner Dolls" Freddy Krueger of "Nightmare," Jason of "Friday the 13th" and Leatherface of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

Officials from both the Senate committee and the Motion Picture Assn. of America insist that appearances by Miramax and New Line were unnecessary because all the major entertainment giants were represented.

"There probably are a lot of people who weren't there that it would have been good to hear from," said Cherie S. Harder, policy director for Hollywood critic Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

Still, Harder added, Brownback's main concern was that committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) require representatives of all the major studios to be at the hearing. "We supported the chairman in his decision on who to invite," she said.

MPAA President Jack Valenti, who coordinated the appearance of studio executives, added that the committee was more interested in addressing major policy issues than in scrutinizing individual marketing campaigns.

"I was told by the chief of staff to the committee that they wanted the chairman or president of the groups of the eight companies. And I produced those people," Valenti said. In addition to Disney and Warner Bros., other companies represented at the hearing were DreamWorks SKG, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures and MGM/UA.

Keeping the guest list at eight no doubt was fine by Disney and Time Warner. It's hard to imagine either company would relish dispatching the corporate jets to fetch executives from such controversial units so they could be grilled by politicians.

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