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FTC Playing Parent or Big Brother?

September 29, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

The Federal Trade Commission's report on marketing violent entertainment didn't stop at condemning Hollywood for peddling R-rated movies to kids. The government also chastised the industry for selling youngsters relatively benign PG-13 fare.

In its zeal to hold Hollywood accountable for corrupting the nation's youth, Washington appears ready to establish new rules for what is appropriate for kids.

It has always been assumed that there is a difference between selling graphically violent R-rated films such as "Seven" and "Fight Club" to 10-year-olds as opposed to targeting preteens for PG-13 movies with cartoon violence such as "Men in Black," "X-Men," "The Mummy" or "Independence Day."

By lumping them together, Washington is sending Hollywood an ominous Big Brother message, some in the entertainment industry believe.

"The government has come up with a broad interpretation," says former Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth, who now runs his own entertainment company. "PG-13 and the notion of what's gritty, realistic violence and fantastical or sci-fiction violence are totally different, and children 9 and 10 years old can tell the difference."

The marketing head of one Hollywood studio, who requested not to be named, says, "R-rated movies can be definitively inappropriate for kids. PG-13 movies are rarely inappropriate for anyone."

Washington appears to be living a generation behind the moviegoing public, according to several Hollywood executives.

"The formula for a hit movie today is the aggressive PG-13 action movie because it appeals to 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds," Roth says.

"The family components have changed. Kids want to see big action comedies and big digital effects, which has forced animated movies to play much younger than they did 10 years ago," he notes.

Many of Hollywood's highest grossing movies have been those "aggressive" PG-13 blockbusters such as "X-Men," "The Mummy," "Men in Black," "Independence Day" and "Armageddon."

Steven Spielberg's popular 1993 family movie "Jurassic Park" grossed $920 million worldwide and its 1997 sequel, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," sold $615 million worldwide, and that's before additional hundreds of millions of dollars is accounted for from home video, television and merchandise.

The movie has become such a part of American pop culture that it's hard to remember that when it was released seven years ago, "Jurassic Park" created controversy.

Based on Michael Crichton's bestseller about a fictional amusement park where scientifically recreated dinosaurs run amok, the movie was considered by some too violent and intense for young children. Its fright factor included scenes of dinosaurs terrorizing children and devouring adults and animals.

Some psychologists argued then that very young moviegoers would have difficulty grasping the difference between reality and fantasy. The counter-argument was that kids are smart enough to know that dinosaurs no longer exist.

Interestingly, it was Spielberg's 1984 classic "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," the sequel to the director's phenomenally successful "Raiders of the Lost Ark," that launched the PG-13 rating 16 years ago.

Many critics said the film was too violent and brutal to warrant only a PG (parental guidance suggested) rating. The scene many considered most shocking and disturbing showed a heart being ripped from the chest of a living man.

Paramount Pictures, which distributed the movie, inserted a warning in its newspaper ads that read: "This film may be too intense for young children."

The film's PG rating prompted renewed calls for a new intermediate rating that would fall between PG and R. Spielberg, who along with the film's co-creator and executive producer George Lucas, said in a joint statement at the time that their movie was "less violent than 'Raiders,' but it's more intense. A story with children in jeopardy is going to get a more emotional reaction than a story with Indiana Jones battling Nazis."

Spielberg said he would favor a new classification that he dubbed PG-2 under which no child under age 13 would be admitted without a parent. The Motion Picture Assn. of America, which issues ratings, gave the first PG-13 rating that same year to Garry Marshall's "The Flamingo Kid" because it contained some vulgar language and very discreet sex scenes.

These films are the standard-bearers for what now is considered family fare.

Producer Sid Ganis, who was a senior executive at LucasFilm in the mid-1980s, recalls how the ratings controversy about "Indiana Jones" at the time "caused the industry to contemplate our own self-governing ratings system, which is under the auspices of the MPAA."

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