Harvard tells Hollywood to ban cigarettes.

Inside the big picture show.
April 6 2007 1:05 PM

Puff Piece

Harvard tells Hollywood to ban cigarettes from kids' movies.

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Cold turkey: The Motion Picture Association of America has gotten caught up in a web of its own devising when it comes to the issue of smoking in movies.

The MPAA has a relatively new boss—Dan Glickman—and as we reported earlier this week, he's making some moves. The organization has come down on revolting ads for the horror film Captivity, perhaps hoping to impress the government with its responsiveness on the issue of Hollywood selling violence in a manner that reaches children. With the Federal Trade Commission about to release a report on that issue, Glickman's actions may be too little, too late. And the MPAA could have similar problems when it comes to smoking.

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Powerful anti-smoking groups have been pushing the MPAA to slap any movie that shows smoking with an automatic R rating, unless that movie deals with a historical figure who actually smoked (think Good Night and Good Luck) or shows people suffering hideous consequences as a result of their folly. According to the research of a group called Smoke Free Movies, most PG-13 movies depict smoking, and that contributes to hundreds of thousands of kids taking up cigarettes.

Last October, Glickman sent a letter to 40 attorneys general addressing the MPAA's concerns about smoking in movies. He said that the MPAA was turning to the Harvard School of Public Health for guidance. "My objective is to gain consensus among the member companies of MPAA on Harvard's pending recommendations, and then begin implementation," he said.

Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at U.C. San Francisco and creator of the Smoke Free Movies campaign, says Glickman probably expected Harvard to come up with a limp education campaign and leave it at that. But Harvard got tough. In recommendations presented to the industry last month and made public this week, Harvard said the studios should eliminate smoking altogether from films "accessible to children and youth."

Harvard didn't mention specific ratings, but the dean of the school offers this statement to us: "We're suggesting that they take smoking out of youth accessible films: G, PG and PG-13, which make up 85% of all movies." (From where we sit, Harvard could just as well throw in the R movies because so many parents bring their kids to them as if they were Sunday-school picnics.)

According to Glantz, Glickman's letter to the attorneys general now looms large: "We think the MPAA is in some state of disarray because this commitment has been made." The MPAA has not acted, but apparently it is pressing the studios to take a position. Warner is said to be among the most sympathetic, but it's doubtful even that studio will go with an automatic R for smoking.

As things stand now, studios have individual policies on smoking in their films. But one top executive acknowledges that at her studio that policy is "very, very vague" and generally has been applied to family movies (presumably G and PG) only.

The studios are an unwieldy group. Some think the industry needs at least to appear responsible on this issue. Others are concerned that Glickman's handling of the situation may suggest that he's not attuned to the needs of the town. If the MPAA imposes a policy on smoking, they reason, can pressure to ban depictions of unhealthy eating be far behind? (Glantz says if science proves that trans fat is as lethal as tobacco, that argument could be made.)

But executives have their questions. What if there's a Marlboro billboard in the background during a scene on the street? If a film is shooting in Europe, does that mean that no one in a cafe can be seen with a Gaulois? What if the movie is a period piece? What if a big-deal director wants a character to smoke and gets pissy if he doesn't get his way?

Still, as one executive put it, "We either have to come up with a policy or a policy is going to be shoved down our throats."

Glantz doesn't care how it happens as long as it happens. "There's nothing you could do that would have so big an effect on public health so fast," he says. "All we're asking them to do is to treat smoking in the movies the same way they treat fuck." A single utterance of that word in a sexual context in a movie is enough to get an R.

On another matter, we thought we'd follow up on the story of Peaceful Warrior, the film that Universal released experimentally last week by offering to give away millions of dollars' worth of free tickets through Best Buy. The idea was to see whether a movie that was hard to sell through conventional methods would catch on through word of mouth.

Universal is calling the experiment a success, but those free tickets weren't redeemed quite at the level the studio had hoped. More than 300,000 people went to see the movie for free, but that's less than a quarter of the number that could have taken advantage of the offer. So the movie has died once again—down to only 143 screens this weekend. Still, Universal felt that the exercise proved that the giveaway worked logistically and that it might be worth trying again with a quirky film that presents a marketing challenge. Warrior, rest in peace. (link)

Monday, April 2, 2007

Elisha Cuthbert in Captivity
Elisha Cuthbert in Captivity 

Handcuffed: The Motion Picture Association of America got up on its hind legs last week and punished the distributors of Roland Joffe's upcoming film Captivity. How impressive it would be if it weren't so little and so late.

The MPAA had decreed that certain ads for Captivity, which appeared to show a woman being tortured and killed, were inappropriate for public viewing. (Advertising materials are submitted routinely as part of the ratings process.) The distributor of Captivity, After Dark Films, nonetheless displayed the ads in Los Angeles and New York. When complaints from the public drew media attention, the company's CEO said the whole thing was an error and that the ads were not supposed to be released.

The MPAA was mad enough that it suspended the ratings process for the film for four weeks, which could create issues as its creators attempt to get it rated in time for its May 18 release date. (Unrated films have a tough time getting booked into theaters.) And the MPAA came up with another novel punishment: After Dark will have to submit not just all advertising materials for approval, but also the locations in which they are supposed to be displayed. So, parents may not have to explain to preschoolers what is going on in those nasty billboards—in the case of this film, anyway.

Mark Damon, who produced Captivity, says nervously that he hopes the MPAA will keep in mind that the ones who will suffer for After Dark's transgressions (which he believes to be inadvertent) are the innocents involved in making the film. "We had nothing to do with what happened," he says. He adds that Captivity is a deeper work than Saw or Hostel. "Does it have exploitation elements? Yes, it does, but it's a different kind of movie," he says. "Saw and Hostel are all about new forms of torture. Here the torture is as much mental as anything else."

Good to know.

Given the vileness of the ads in question, we didn't expect many to pick up the freedom-of-expression cudgel for the film. Even Moriarty on Ain't It Cool News has expressed support for the MPAA in this instance, and he's a horror guy. We also checked with a top executive at a company that's involved with some especially gruesome horror films, and he, too, had little sympathy for After Dark. "Those of us who skirt the rules—we may obscure the line but we try not to obliterate it," he says.

But interestingly, he says After Dark would have been better off using an ad that hadn't been submitted for MPAA approval instead of one that had been rejected. That's an example of how the studios play cat-and-mouse here. When they do it in such a fashion that children are exposed to outrageous and inappropriate materials, that's when people might start to think that government regulation of entertainment companies isn't such a bad idea.

Lest you think that the MPAA has turned a corner of some kind by cracking down on Captivity, this executive makes a convincing argument that there's a double standard at work. He points to the fact that the MPAA has approved plenty of material that seemed offensive even to him. As one recent example, he cites a campaign for Black Snake Moan (scantily clad woman, chains). But that film had the might of Paramount behind it. The MPAA is showing some muscle in the case of Captivity "because they can," he says. "[After Dark] is an independent and a small one at that."

The MPAA is no doubt mindful that the Federal Trade Commission is about to issue a report on the entertainment industry's selling of horror and violence to kids. So it may think the crackdown on Captivity will provide a scrap of cover. But the MPAA would be a lot more credible if its ratings system was a little less opaque and irrational. It's hard to convince anyone that a system is serving parents when the ratings board sees a naked man tied to a chair and having his testicles beaten, and says, "PG-13." (That was the latest Bond movie, if you missed it.)

With all the executives in town attending fund-raisers in recent weeks, you'd think the studios would realize that it's a political season. Even friend-of-Hollywood Bill Clinton turned on those who lined his pockets when it came time to beat up on the industry for selling junk to kids.

Hollywood has provided a great deal of grist for the political mill. And unless the government at least threatens to act, the studios can't be expected to stop. On the other hand, our horror-friendly executive is starting to wonder how the industry can satisfy the public's lust for blood. "What's next, short of making actual snuff films?" he asks. (link)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

TheLos Angeles Times has not only dumped the special Sunday section that was to be guest-edited by producer Brian Grazer but is now examining past opinion sections to see whether other assignments smelled of conflict.

For those who don't follow media controversies, editorial page editor Andres Martinez resigned in a huff—on his blog, no less—last week after the Times killed the Currents opinion section that was assembled under Grazer's auspices. The reason was not that it's profoundly embarrassing for a major daily to turn over a section to a prominent figure in an industry that this paper is supposed to be covering in its own backyard. No, the reason is that Martinez has been playing slap-and-tickle with a publicist who works for Grazer.

Certainly Martinez was painfully clueless about the conflict issue in this case. But the relationship-with-a-publicist tree obscures the forest—that is, the embarrassing idea on which the whole exercise was based. The Times has reported that Publisher David Hiller canceled plans to invite future guest editors that included Hiller's friend and associate, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as ex-Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Rumsfeld was a former director of the Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times.)

As if all this weren't embarrassing enough, now we have an NBC press release announcing another prestigious association for the Times. We'll pass along the first couple of paragraphs verbatim:

Candidates for NBC's "The Apprentice: Los Angeles" try their hand at advertising this week by creating a newspaper supplement for The Los Angeles Times promoting a new brand of mouthwash on Sunday, April 1 (10-11 p.m. ET).

This week's task is delivered at The Los Angeles Times' printing facility, where Trump is joined by his daughter, Ivanka, and two executives from Smartmouth, a new brand of mouthwash. The candidates are asked to design, photograph and create a supplement for The Los Angeles Times advertising a new product that keeps breath fresh. While one team adopts a sexier approach for the supplement, the other trusts science. The losers face Trump in the boardroom, and the winners get a gourmet dinner they'll never forget prepared by some very special surprise guests. 

It's tempting to wonder if the gourmet dinner is goose cooked by the executives who thought this was a good idea.

The episode was shot over the summer (and approved by Hiller's predecessor), so clearly it long predated the current brouhaha at the Times. But what possible benefit the Times could have hoped to reap lending its facilities and name to a faltering NBC-Universal show is not clear. A spokeswoman for the paper says she doesn't see any issue because no money exchanged hands. "Given the fact that the show's based in L.A., if they were going to think about reaching the L.A. audience, they had to come to the Times," she says. "I actually think it's kind of cool that it's running this weekend. Life goes on."

Maybe the paper will get to avail itself of Trump's services. After all, somebody needs to say that signature line.

(Full disclosure: I have written for and discussed employment with the Los Angeles Times in the past.) (link)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stick the landing: If you want to go out to the movies this weekend, but you're feeling a little tapped out, you could be in luck. In an unusual deal, Universal is giving away $15 million worth of free tickets  for Peaceful Warrior, a film about a gymnast who finds salvation through a New Age-style coach named Socrates (in the form of Nick Nolte).

Peaceful Warrior is based on an autobiographical novel by Dan Millman—a hit with such seers as Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, and Sting. If reading about this movie gives you a sense of déjà vu, that might be because the film was released by Lionsgate last spring, though not on many screens. Peaceful Warrior has now become part of an experiment to see if a movie that presents a marketing challenge, to put it mildly, can benefit from a very cheap strategy that relies on word-of-mouth.

Peaceful Warrior was produced by a company called Sobini, which financed it at $14 million plus a bunch more in marketing costs—and it got absolutely clobbered last time out. The picture grossed barely $1 million, which may not be surprising given that it scored a dismal 21 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes critics' meter, with the New York Times calling it "blatantly ludicrous."

The mere fact that the picture went from its death spiral at Lionsgate to re-release at Universal is almost enough to make even hardened doubters believe in New Age healing. It happened because Sobini CEO Mark Amin and the company's president, Cami Winikoff, worked with Universal's marketing chief, Adam Fogelson, some years back. When Amin and Winikoff couldn't figure out how to sell their movie, they turned to their old friend.

Fogelson says he's long been interested in developing ways to release movies that might have potential (and we emphasize might) but don't do well using traditional marketing techniques. Some movies can't be summed up in 30-second spots or pitched on posters, and apparently Peaceful Warrior is one of them. So Fogelson came up with the idea of selling Peaceful Warrior by giving away lots of tickets. The hope is that people will see the movie this weekend and then talk it up. If the movie doesn't catch on at the box office, the chance remains to make money on DVDs.

Sobini agreed to pick up the cost of those free tickets and to pay Universal a distribution fee, so Universal gets to try the experiment for free and maybe even make a buck. Universal recruited Best Buy to offer the free tickets through its Web site.

Since Sobini is picking up the tab once again, it would seem that this may be a case of throwing good money after bad. "We're not lunatics," Winikoff says. "You can either go home or risk a very little bit more [money] … When in Hollywood do movies get a second chance like this?"

There's one more twist that may be worth mentioning: Peaceful Warrior was directed by convicted child molester Victor Salva, who had sex with a 12-year-old boy who performed in one of his earlier films. After confessing in 1988, Salva served 15 months in prison. Some years later, in 1995, the victim picketed theaters when he learned that Salva had directed the Disney movie (yes, Disney movie) Powder.

Winikoff says she and her partner knew nothing of Salva's past when they approached him about directing Peaceful Warrior, but they did learn that Salva had discovered the book while in prison and credited it with changing his life. "I'm not going to lie to you and say it was an easy decision" to hire him, she says. But she adds that the book "is about redemption." (Universal is aware of Salva's past, and according to Winikoff, the same is true of Best Buy.)

Interesting to note that Peaceful Warrior is about a troubled young (male) gymnast and Powder was about another troubled (male) teenager. Of course, unlike certain other directors named Roman Polanski, who drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old before going on the lam, at least Salva did his time. (link)

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