Altered movies hot topic in Congress, Hollywood


WASHINGTON -- The motion picture industry is up in arms over California Sen. Barbara Boxer's decision to side with directors and writers in a battle over film labeling that has split the movie industry.

Ms. Boxer and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, engaged in a near-shouting match on the phone last month over the issue, which focuses on disclaimers when films are materially altered for other markets after their commercial release.

It pits the creative side of the business -- directors, writers and cinematographers -- against the major studios, which own the films and depend on the secondary markets to make much of their profit.

By signing on as a co-sponsor of legislation that would force movie-makers to tack on detailed disclaimers to altered films, Senator Boxer, a Democrat, has infuriated the big Hollywood studios -- and they've threatened to retaliate.

"The battle lines are drawn," Mr. Valenti wrote in a memo to the chief executives of his member companies last month.

"Today I had a vigorous conversation with Sen. Barbara Boxer. Unhappily, the Senator has now decided to cast her lot with the Directors Guild and their insistence on disparaging labels on every movie aired on TV, home video, airlines, etc."

The proposed legislation would require labels that specify the amount of time edited out of films and the types of technical alterations performed to make the film suitable for other formats.

Also, the names of the director, screenwriter or cinematographer would be listed, if they were upset by the changes, and the reason for their objections.

The studios say such labeling would have the effect of denigrating their films and would discourage viewing.

To make the point abundantly clear, Mr. Valenti urged the studio heads to punish Ms. Boxer by withholding political contributions.

"Senator Boxer is likely to contact many of you in the weeks and months ahead. I request that when she does you might politely bring up the subject of a cause which is important to us and how she stands on that issue."

During the last two election cycles since 1992, Ms. Boxer has received $26,000 from movie industry political action committees. But that figure does not include thousands in contributions from individuals -- presumably many prominent Hollywood producers and studio heads -- that may now be in jeopardy.

She views the bill as a consumer-protection issue that fits logically into her legislative track record.

"Throughout my congressional career, I have always been a strong supporter of consumers' right to know," she said. "Therefore, it should be no surprise that I believe that viewers have a right to know that the movie they are watching has been altered."

While the release of Mr. Valenti's memo brought the long-simmering issue to a sudden boil, bills in both houses of Congress have little chance of seeing action -- let alone passage -- in the remaining months of the hectic 104th Congress.

The House bill now lies dormant in the courts and intellectual property subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead, a California Republican who is opposed to the measure in its present form.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Ms. Boxer's Democratic colleague from California, has not yet taken a final position on the virtually identical Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican.

Mr. Moorhead held a field hearing this summer in Pasadena, Calif., on the House bill, known as the Film Disclosure Act, but no further action is scheduled in Washington. Senator Simpson's bill -- the Film Labeling Act -- has only been introduced and awaits a subcommittee assignment.

The dispute centers on what happens to a commercial film after it is altered or manipulated for other formats -- television, cable, videocassette, airline and others.

The studios -- and their investors -- need the ancillary markets to lead a film to the hoped-for promised land of profitability. To adapt to the other formats, the films may by colorized, edited, shown at an imperceptibly faster or slower rate to fit into a TV programming schedule, or "panned and scanned," (fitting the horizontal theater image into a rectangular TV screen).

After battling with directors, writers and cinematographers over what kind of labeling should be used to alert viewers to such changes, the Motion Picture Association of America, MPAA, announced in October 1993 a voluntary labeling program that explains -- albeit briefly -- what has befallen the original version. (For example: "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV, and edited for content and to run in the time allotted.")

But directors and writers want far more detailed information about the alterations included in the label, as well as the names of filmmakers who object to the changes. The House and Senate bills would require the studios to make such information known to the consumer.

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