Sacrilege? --'Pope' ads leave bad taste in media mouths


Los Angeles-- THE POPE Must Die" was expiring at the box office, so its distributor decided to take extraordinary life-saving measures.

Now it's "The Pope Must Diet."

At least, that's the film's name for the purposes of an ad campaign that has become more of a story -- and certainly far more entertaining -- than the film itself. Rarely have so many gifted comic talents (Robbie Coltrane, Alex Rocco and Herbert Lom, for starters) been cast to so little avail in one dumb movie.

You may have heard about the problems poor little Miramax Films, the distributor, was experiencing in placing ads for the film. If you haven't, it hasn't been for lack of effort on Miramax's part.

First there were the print ads, turned down by almost all major newspapers for reasons of taste.

Miramax quickly issued a news release listing the newspapers and their reasons for rejecting the ad. The news release talked about First Amendment free-speech guarantees and concluded with a ringing pronouncement that the film would open Aug. 30, with or without ads.

The result? Coverage on "Entertainment Tonight" and in many of the newspapers that had rejected the ads.

Another flurry of media reports followed when it was subsequently disclosed that all three networks had turned down TV spots for the film.

But a funny thing happened when "The Pope Must Die" finally did open nationally, to mostly negative reviews: There was plenty of advertising. Amended print ads ran in virtually all the newspapers that had objected to the original version, and TV spots popped up on cable and one local Los Angeles station, KABC.

("The Pope Must Diet" will open Friday at certain Loews theaters inthe Baltimore metropolitan area. The theaters' marquees will reflect the new name, although the original name will remain on the movie prints, according to Miramax spokeswoman Debbie Wuliger.

The Baltimore Sun and WMAR and WJZ TV stations have not yet received orders to run ads promoting the film.)

In what looks like a deliberate attempt to stir up a made-for-media controversy, Miramax got a bunch of free publicity and ran ads anyway -- the promotional equivalent of having one's cake and eating it, too.

Here's what actually happened. The print ads originally submitted to the newspapers featured a guy who, according to one ad agency staffer (the original was not submitted with the news release), looked "like a '60s hippie" with papal headgear and a white ecclesiastical-looking robe flung over denims and a T-shirt.

Arms stretched wide, he was leaning against a cross. Embracing him was a woman in a nun's habit slit to reveal a shapely thigh.

The copy accompanying the title included a line about a "kosher seal of approval."

And Miramax didn't realize the ad might be deemed in poor taste? Executive vice president Russell Schwartz countered that the ad had been approved by the Motion Picture Association of America, and "the MPAA is usually much more stringent than the newspapers."

But the MPAA, which reviews all ads for R-rated movies, is only concerned that they not contain R-rated material; it has no mandate to pass judgment on questions of taste.

The way Miramax dealt with at least one of the newspaper rejections suggests that it was looking for trouble. Roy Schaefer, national advertising manager for the Seattle Times and Post Intelligencer, said that usually, when an ad is turned down, the agency that placed it proposes changes and "99 percent of the time we are able to come up with an ad that is acceptable."

In this case, however, "the agency said it would tell the studio. There was no opportunity for discussion. The next thing I heard was a call from 'Entertainment Tonight.' "

Subsequently, the agency did offer a new ad that among other things eliminated the cross and the "kosher seal of approval." There were other copy changes, and the man in the artwork looked a lot less scruffy. Because the newspaper found the title objectionable, the ad substituted ellipses for the word "Die." The revised ad ran, Schaefer said.

As for the TV ads, an NBC spokesman declined to go into detail as to how Miramax approached them, and CBS was not available for comment. But ABC spokeswoman Janice Gretemeyer said Miramax submitted a 30-second spot without first buying time, which she said was customary procedure.

She added that ABC had two problems with the ad. A voiceover that said, "Here's a pope who believes in safe sex" was objectionable because network policy prohibits ads raising issues of public controversy. A sequence depicting Time magazine violated a ban on brand name products appearing in ads for other products.

What was particularly unusual about Miramax's submission, however, was that it came in final form so close to the movie's opening. Usually, advertisers submit storyboards well in advance that potential problems can be worked out before money is spent on production.

When completed ads are submitted so late, it's generally because the advertiser is either very inexperienced or fishing for a rejection that can then be publicized.

Nonsense, said Miramax's Schwartz. "I've got to have a TV campaign if I'm going to break a broad comedy."

But independents don't usually buy costly network ad time, and Schwartz did have a TV campaign, at least on cable and KABC-TV.

PD KABC ran an ad for the film twice, but it wasn't the ad rejected

by the network. (KABC and other stations owned by Capital Cities-ABC have their own broadcast standards departments, which is not the case for NBC and CBS owned-and-operated stations.)

Georgia Seid-Enseki, KABC's director of broadcast standards and practices, said Miramax submitted a 15-second spot that "was so short that the content was innocuous."

Even so, in accepting the spot, "we told the client that if we got any complaints, we wouldn't air it the second time." There was no viewer response to the initial broadcast, Seid-Enseki said, but one woman who did not leave her name called to complain after the second spot.

Now Miramax, which on its better days releases such notable films as "sex, lies & videotape," "My Left Foot" and "Paris Is Burning," has in a relatively short time established a track record for getting media coverage by being controversial.

Sometimes the controversy is legitimate, as when the releases of Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" and Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" without MPAA ratings contributed to a media blitz that culminated in the MPAA's exchange of its X rating for the NC-17 rating.

But in other cases, Miramax has created or capitalized on opportunities to attract news coverage. For example, 1989's "Scandal" was submitted to the MPAA with scenes almost certain to earn an X rating; once the rating had been publicized, the film was edited and released with an R.

At least when Miramax refused to remove offending scenes from "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" it stuck to its guns and released the film unedited and unrated.

With "The Pope Must Die," Miramax seems to have gone out of its way to be provocative.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad