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Hollywood Admits Marketing Violent Movies to Young Kids

By Faye Fiore

Admitting to “competitive zeal” in marketing violent movies to children, eight film executives offered varying acts of contrition to a Senate committee Wednesday but were divided over whether to end the practice.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointedly asked each of the film leaders lined up at a witness table before him: “Will you or will you not market movies rated R to children under 17?”

Only four -- the Walt Disney Co., Dreamworks SKG, Fox and Warner Bros. -- answered unequivocally “no,” underscoring the complexity of reining in an industry that no longer speaks with one voice.

The equivocation by Universal, Paramount, Sony and MGM troubled McCain and other members of the Senate Commerce Committee. They put the studios on notice that the result could be more scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, which reported earlier this month that the entertainment industry deliberately targets children and teenagers with advertising for R-rated films, as well as using them in focus groups to test such movies.

“Some segments of the industry have made more progress than others,” McCain said. “The FTC will continue monitoring what goes on and we will be working with the FTC. ... The future of your business lies in your hands.”

The roughly two-hour hearing was largely devoid of theatrics, with McCain eliminating the opening statements often used by senators to scold recalcitrant corporate chiefs or government bureaucrats. An obscure Senate rule limited the length of all hearings Wednesday, so McCain devoted the available two hours to hear from the film executives.

Reading from prepared statements, they pledged to curtail at least and to stop at best advertising adult-rated movies to schools, 4-H Clubs and other youth groups, as well as on television shows, websites and in magazines with primary audiences under age 17.

They also agreed to expand their rating systems to help parents better evaluate films, with Warner Bros. planning to add the designations L for profane language, S for sex and V for violence. And all the executives said that their studios had stopped using children in focus groups for R-rated films, unless accompanied by adults.

The involvement of children in such market research was one of the most notable findings in the recent FTC study and new details emerged from a news story based on confidential studio documents turned over to the agency as part of its inquiry. According to a New York Times story cited by McCain during the hearing, the documents showed that MGM/United Artists had tested commercials for the horror film “Disturbing Behavior” on children as young as 12, while using children 9 to 11 to research ideas for another horror movie.