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The MPAA clamps down on torture

The Motion Picture Assn. of America came down hard today on the distributor of the torture-infused horror film "Captivity" -- not because the trade group has anything against sadistic popcorn flicks, but because it draws the line at sadistic marketing campaigns. The original promo for "Captivity" was a set of pictures showing the movie's female starlet being menaced by a gloved hand; bloodied; tortured in some weird, emergency-room kind of way; and then left for dead. The tableau was extreme, even by today's standards, and when distributor After Dark Films submitted it for approval, the MPAA rejected it. Nevertheless, according to the Hollywood Reporter, the pictures wound up on 30 billboards in Los Angeles and 1,400 taxis in New York City earlier this month. The head of the studio told the Reporter that it was an accident, but the MPAA was unmoved -- in part because it took days for After Dark to have the offending promos taken down. The penalty: After Dark has to obtain the MPAA's approval not just for the content of any ads for the film, but also for their location (a first). And the ratings board won't consider the film until May 1 at the earliest, putting the film's May 18 release date in jeopardy. Ouch. If the board doesn't like what it sees, After Dark may not have time to make the cuts needed to avoid an NC-17 rating (a mark of box-office death, historically). Nor is releasing an unrated horror film a viable option, given how few theaters will carry such films.

This is a dramatic (pardon the pun) illustration of industry self-regulation. Some free-market purists might complain that it amounts to the major studios, who control the MPAA, trying to hamper an independent competitor. To me, though, it reflects the sensitivity of a Washington-based organization to the hot buttons on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers may wring their hands about how violent and graphic movies have become, but what really puts them in a regulatory mood is when adult-themed content spills into the world of Impressionable Children. The studios and broadcasters are particularly nervous these days about an impending report by the Federal Communications Commission that is expected to prod Congress to regulate violent TV programming, ostensibly because kids can't help but see and be damaged by it. You can argue -- as the Times' editorial board has done -- that the best defense against that kind of programming is for parents to keep their kids away from it, but that's a much harder argument to make when outdoor advertising near malls and thoroughfares is involved. That's why the MPAA requires filmmakers who want their movie to be rated -- which virtually all of them do, mainly because most multiplexes demand it -- to submit their advertising to the trade group and maintain a patina of decency. Outside the darkened theater, that is.

Incidentally, the star of "Captivity" is Elisha Cuthbert, who rose to fame on Fox's "24," the most torture-happy show on television. That's quite a streak -- "24," "House of Wax," "The Quiet," "Captivity".... Good thing she's on board to do a cartoon about animals, it'll help balance her clip reel.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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