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'Matrix' Teen Scene Sets Stage for New Fight Over Marketing

Young audience racing to see R-rated sequel is a mixed blessing for an industry that pledged to curb promotion of violence to youth.

May 20, 2003|Michael Cieply and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

Through much of the weekend, a message board on AOL Time Warner's Web site was topped by a posting that carried mixed tidings for the movie industry. A user named "Hottie4ever0307" wrote: "I am goin to see the Matrix Reloaded. I am goin to see it beuz [sic] I think Keanu Reeves is hot."

In fact, millions of teens were in the audience stampede that gave Warner Bros.' science fiction sequel the biggest opening for an R-rated film in history, with $134.3 million at the box office in its first four-plus days. Now Hollywood must figure out how to keep those eager young viewers from becoming a political headache.

Nearly three years after pledging -- under intense pressure from lawmakers -- to curtail the marketing of violence to youth, movie studios are beginning to release a cycle of relatively hard-edged pictures that will test the adequacy of self-imposed standards and the patience of watchdogs.

The clearest lesson so far may be the futility of trying to cut teens from the herd while whipping the pop culture at large into a frenzy. "We are out there, and out there big with no apology," Warner President Alan Horn said of the marketing blitz for "Matrix."

He added: "While we are not targeting teens under 17, we are targeting the biggest audience we can get, with an advisory to parents that this is an R-rated movie."

Warner officials said 50% of the picture's audience was under 25 years old, an unusually high share for an R-rated film. But executives said they didn't yet have figures detailing the number of viewers under 17, who must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The AOL Time Warner-owned studio's latest blockbuster will be followed next fall by "The Matrix Revolution," which hasn't yet been rated but is widely expected to carry a similar R, for sci-fi violence and some sexuality. In between, the studio will release "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," also expected to carry an R, while Sony Pictures Entertainment will release its R-rated "Bad Boys II" and New Line Cinema goes with "Freddy vs. Jason," due in August. A remake of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is set for release early next year.

The resurgence of the "R" already is raising eyebrows among those who monitor the film business.

"It occurred to me over the weekend, it's almost like, here we go again," said David Walsh, president of the Minnesota-based National Institute on Media and the Family. He predicted the new crop of movies eventually would bring another collision with the political establishment.

The Federal Trade Commission, which sharply criticized Hollywood in a 2001 report, expects to release one of several follow-up studies later this year. "We're looking at what's being currently marketed," said Mary Engle, the commission's associate director for advertising practices.

On the heels of the earlier report, and facing heat from senators as powerful as Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the studios promised to stop using teens in test screenings of R-rated fare and to refrain from promoting violent films in magazines or on TV shows and Web sites targeting those under 17. At the same time, the industry went to work on a wave of PG-13-rated films, such as "Spider-Man," while pushing away from rougher fare, such as the "Scream" series or "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and its sequel.

In selling "The Matrix Reloaded," Warner executives said they adhered to their studio's standards, which are generally more stringent than those outlined by the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the FTC. The studio pushed outdoor advertising companies to keep billboards and posters at a distance from schools, for instance. According to domestic marketing chief Dawn Taubin, Warner also worked with MTV to make sure "Matrix"-oriented programming ran only after 4 p.m.

Warner executives attributed the film's strong turnout, young and old, to wide familiarity with its R-rated predecessor, which sold about 30 million copies on video and DVD after its 1999 theatrical release. "It developed a life of its own," said Warner distribution chief Dan Fellman, who noted that exit polls this weekend showed that 95% of "The Matrix Reloaded" viewers had seen the original.

The studio may have been helped by a perception that the current picture's R-rating was somehow softer, reflecting a cartoon-like violence, than similar ratings for bloodier films such as "Hannibal" in 2001. And the big response may tell more about the first picture's cultural impact than any shift in sensibilities. "I don't think it makes ratings irrelevant," said Oren Aviv, marketing chief for rival Disney Studios.

Indeed, Warner executives said they didn't set out to blaze trails by releasing what may become the highest-grossing R-rated film in history, surpassing Paramount's "Beverly Hills Cop," which had $235 million in U.S. ticket sales in 1984.

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