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Hollywood Licking Its Wounds After Mauling in FTC Report

September 12, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER and JAMES BATES

Hollywood felt blindsided by Monday's Federal Trade Commission report slamming the entertainment industry for marketing violence to children and teens. After all, this is the FTC of Bill Clinton, the president the industry has adored.

But more afraid than indignant, most Hollywood executives ran for cover Monday instead of rising to the challenge and defending themselves. Heads of studios were either too busy to discuss it or claimed ignorance until they read the report themselves.

The 105-page FTC report, in part prompted by last year's Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, takes studios, video game makers and the music industry to task for marketing violent entertainment to children under 17.

The findings show teens were the targets of marketing campaigns for violent entertainment. It suggests that the industries adopt codes that prohibit target marketing to children, increase compliance with ratings systems at stores and movie theaters, and raise parental awareness of ratings and labels.

The few executives willing to come to the phone Monday insisted that the report overlooked the fact that they have already moved forward in these areas.

Studio heads insisted that they are making and marketing fewer excessively violent movies than in recent years. Video game makers claimed to have been actively addressing the problem. And music representatives pointed to the parental warnings they put on CDs with violent lyrics.

There is good reason for the duck-and-cover response, however. To a cynical Hollywood, the report adds up to no more than an election-year witch hunt, another political storm that will blow over.

The rallying cry to "clean up" the music industry has become a familiar chorus in election years, says Danny Goldberg, label chief for Artemis Records and president of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.

"It seems to be becoming a quadrennial tradition and its a bipartisan one," Goldberg says. "All it seems the Washington politicians succeed in doing is cutting themselves off from the rest of America."

As to the core issue itself--is adult-themed music being marketed and sold to minors--Goldberg and others acknowledge that the edgy, controversial and graphic music of today, indeed, is enjoyed in large part by adolescents.

That raises the issue of whether any change in the marketing of violent films, games or music could even have an impact. "There is the sense that the marketing of these movies to young people is creating a kind of demand that wouldn't otherwise exist, which in my view is unfair and untrue," said "Beverly Hills Cop" screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr.

Movie and music executives stressed free speech as the ultimate Hollywood defense.

"Every time someone starts discussing 1st Amendment issues, it scares me. I don't want to go back to the McCarthy era," said Debra Hill, who most recently produced "Crazy in Alabama."

Added Mike Medavoy, producer of the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger film "The Sixth Day": "This is a difficult issue because we live in a free society. Do you want to be told what you can write or paint? I don't think so."

Still, some studios hinted that they will scrutinize their marketing more closely.

"While I have not read the report, I will say from a broad conceptional standpoint I would agree we need to monitor our marketing activities to be sure we are not targeting our advertising and marketing materials to what is clearly an inappropriate audience," said Warner Bros. President Alan Horn, who has not been shy about denouncing gratuitous film violence.

John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, noted that the industry has been increasing efforts to screen youths at R-rated movies, but agreed that it hasn't done enough. The FTC found that 46% of kids under 17 easily were admitted into an R-rated movie without being accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Hollywood executives complained that criticisms put too much responsibility on studios and not enough on parents. Buying ads on a popular TV show like "Friends" to sell an R-rated movie to millions of viewers who are 17 and older also means reaching millions of younger teens who watch the show.

"We have done a lot to curb this problem, from heavily promoting our ratings system, to going out and talking to magazine publishers and game developers about what works and what doesn't," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the trade group Interactive Digital Software Assn. "We are doing our part."

Indeed, the report praised the industry's long-standing rating system and called it the most comprehensive of the bunch.

But the report was fairly blunt with its rebuke of the computer game industry, citing that some game companies were flouting the IDSA's rules and that "nearly all the game companies contacted have marketed violent . . . games to children."

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