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No kidding, it's just business

The recent ShoWest convention of movie exhibitors closely resembled the past year at their theaters.

Attendance was down, while admission prices increased. Plus, a programming oversight proved that planning to shield children from R-rated material isn't the same as getting it done.

ShoWest's second day began with remarks from Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America since 1966 and chief defender of its film rating system. Valenti offered his usual optimism in the face of lower ticket sales and increased competition for entertainment dollars.

Valenti also commended exhibitors for better enforcing age restrictions for R-rated films. Political heat from Congress and the Federal Trade Commission prompted the National Association of Theater Owners last year to issue a 12-point plan to avoid exposing children to R-rated material.

One guideline stated that preview trailers for R-rated films shouldn't be shown before movies geared to younger audiences.

A few hours later, that's exactly what happened at ShoWest. Twice.

Miramax Films arranged two showings of Spy Kids, a PG-rated adventure clearly aimed at young viewers. The first audience included more than 100 children sitting in two designated sections, so organizers must have known they were coming.

Lights dimmed and the first image on screen was a note that the ensuing preview was suitable for general audiences.

The advertised movie, With a Friend Like Harry, is rated R.

I looked around to see if anyone else's face looked as numb as mine felt. Nothing obvious. A preview for the French thriller about a serial killer concluded without any noticeable protest.

Next on screen, another green-colored introduction to another R-rated movie's preview. This time, it was Bridget Jones's Diary, starring Renee Zellweger as a British wallflower encountering sex in the city. Frank speech and frisky groping also didn't seem to bother anyone else under the circumstances, especially those children glued to the screen.

The same previews were shown at a later screening, although no children were observed entering the theater.

Neither Valenti nor National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian attended the Spy Kids screenings. The next morning, I informed Fithian of the preview trailer placements.

"This is not a story," he said first, then twice more during a brief conversation.

"I don't think this is related at all to our implementation of the ratings system," said Fithian, a Washington, D.C., attorney. "This is a private industry convention with people in the industry, overwhelmingly adults. We have 100,000 movie screens around the world and 36,000 in the United States, and that's where the rating system enforcement matters."

Fithian suggested a better story angle:

"What you should be doing is seeing how theaters have been enforcing the ratings system, asking about what happened with Hannibal and asking: Are the same kind of issues we had six months to a year ago, are they improved or not?"

Fair enough. Theaters generally have responded well to last September's pressure from Capitol Hill, although it's still too early to toss bouquets. Hannibal was the first high-profile challenge for stricter admission policies, an R-rated movie with mass appeal.

Exhibitors passed that test without any noticeable flap. Warning signs posted at box offices and watchdogs stationed at doorways apparently kept underage viewers away. At least, complaints weren't heard from parents.

Fithian also has a point about ShoWest being a private convention driven by commercial concerns. Everybody here has something for sale to exhibitors, from studios pushing new releases to vendors selling the latest in concession items.

Miramax paid a lot of money to sponsor those Spy Kids screenings, not only to promote that film but also two others in the studio's summer lineup. A successful promotion would mean more bookings during the most competitive season of the year.

However, part of ShoWest's commitment to exhibitors is educating them on better ways to run their theaters. Disregarding the National Association of Theater Owners' own rule about R-rated previews, even by mistake, sent a mixed message at best.

There were other ways Miramax could have sold With a Friend Like Harry and Bridget Jones's Diary to ShoWest delegates. Some kind of display at the Spy Kids cocktail reception away from the youngsters who attended would have worked. Videotapes of the trailers could have been distributed. Attaching the previews to a showcase like Spy Kids was simply easier, less expensive.

Nothing devious. Just good business.

Nobody explained that to the children.