Mental Torture:
The story behind those vile ads for the movie Captivity.


By Kim Masters
Monday, April 2, 2007

Handcuffed: The Motion Picture Association of America got up on its hind legs last week and punished the distributors of Roland Joffe's upcoming film Captivity. How impressive it would be if it weren't so little and so late.

The MPAA had decreed that certain ads for Captivity, which appeared to show a woman being tortured and killed, were inappropriate for public viewing. (Advertising materials are submitted routinely as part of the ratings process.) The distributor of Captivity, After Dark Films, nonetheless displayed the ads in Los Angeles and New York. When complaints from the public drew media attention, the company's CEO said the whole thing was an error and that the ads were not supposed to be released.

The MPAA was mad enough that it suspended the ratings process for the film for four weeks, which could create issues as its creators attempt to get it rated in time for its May 18 release date. (Unrated films have a tough time getting booked into theaters.) And the MPAA came up with another novel punishment: After Dark will have to submit not just all advertising materials for approval, but also the locations in which they are supposed to be displayed. So, parents may not have to explain to preschoolers what is going on in those nasty billboardsóin the case of this film, anyway.

Mark Damon, who produced Captivity, says nervously that he hopes the MPAA will keep in mind that the ones who will suffer for After Dark's transgressions (which he believes to be inadvertent) are the innocents involved in making the film. "We had nothing to do with what happened," he says. He adds that Captivity is a deeper work than Saw or Hostel. "Does it have exploitation elements? Yes, it does, but it's a different kind of movie," he says. "Saw and Hostel are all about new forms of torture. Here the torture is as much mental as anything else."

Good to know.

Given the vileness of the ads in question, we didn't expect many to pick up the freedom-of-expression cudgel for the film. Even Moriarty on Ain't It Cool News has expressed support for the MPAA in this instance, and he's a horror guy. We also checked with a top executive at a company that's involved with some especially gruesome horror films, and he, too, had little sympathy for After Dark. "Those of us who skirt the rulesówe may obscure the line but we try not to obliterate it," he says.

But interestingly, he says After Dark would have been better off using an ad that hadn't been submitted for MPAA approval instead of one that had been rejected. That's an example of how the studios play cat-and-mouse here. When they do it in such a fashion that children are exposed to outrageous and inappropriate materials, that's when people might start to think that government regulation of entertainment companies isn't such a bad idea.

Lest you think that the MPAA has turned a corner of some kind by cracking down on Captivity, this executive makes a convincing argument that there's a double standard at work. He points to the fact that the MPAA has approved plenty of material that seemed offensive even to him. As one recent example, he cites a campaign for Black Snake Moan (scantily clad woman, chains). But that film had the might of Paramount behind it. The MPAA is showing some muscle in the case of Captivity "because they can," he says. "[After Dark] is an independent and a small one at that."

The MPAA is no doubt mindful that the Federal Trade Commission is about to issue a report on the entertainment industry's selling of horror and violence to kids. So it may think the crackdown on Captivity will provide a scrap of cover. But the MPAA would be a lot more credible if its ratings system was a little less opaque and irrational. It's hard to convince anyone that a system is serving parents when the ratings board sees a naked man tied to a chair and having his testicles beaten, and says, "PG-13." (That was the latest Bond movie, if you missed it.)

With all the executives in town attending fund-raisers in recent weeks, you'd think the studios would realize that it's a political season. Even friend-of-Hollywood Bill Clinton turned on those who lined his pockets when it came time to beat up on the industry for selling junk to kids.

Hollywood has provided a great deal of grist for the political mill. And unless the government at least threatens to act, the studios can't be expected to stop. On the other hand, our horror-friendly executive is starting to wonder how the industry can satisfy the public's lust for blood. "What's next, short of making actual snuff films?" he asks.