Verdict is in, R rating is hard to enforce
CHATSWORTH, CALIF — School's out, surf's up, and America's summer-season cineplexes are beckoning.
Here at Winnetka Stadium 20 in the sprawling San Fernando Valley, 12 of 20 cinema offerings are rated R. Courtesy of fresh policy urged by President Clinton in the wake of the Colorado school shooting - and embraced last week by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) - patrons to such films now must show photo ID or be shown the door.
But in this sprawling patchwork of family communities right in Hollywood-based NATO's backyard, the policy's first screen test - weekend date night - earned it a rating of its own.
"I give it an X for extreme," says 17-year-old Anup Jogani, a high-schooler who got carded while buying his ticket for "Instinct," an R-rated thriller. "I think it's almost discriminatory. I don't like it at all. This is the movies. This is entertainment."
For many parents, though, the new policy touches on a concern as old as moviehouses themselves. "When you drop [your kid] off [at the movies], you shouldn't have to worry about your G-rated kids getting into violent or suggestive R-rated movies," said President Clinton at the joint announcement.
But initial indications are that such a policy is easier stated than enforced.
Some legal experts question whether the policy violates free-speech and privacy rights. Critics say such restrictions may make R-rated movies even more enticing to underage youth and create a new market for fake IDs.
From this state-of-the art multiplex to smaller theaters across Los Angeles and the country, other outcries are already being heard as well. From teenagers: "Don't embarrass us." From parents: "We'll police our own kids, thanks." From theater owners: "We need more staff."
The theaters' complaint stems largely from one promise made by the theater owners' group last week: that its members would not only ask for photo ID at the ticket window, but would also be more vigilant in seeing that patrons were admitted only to the theaters for which they purchased tickets.
"This will get very expensive, which at some point could mean another boost in ticket prices," says Robert Bucksbaum, president of ReelSource, which publishes an industry newsletter. Noting that staff must not only check IDs at point-of-ticket purchase and theater entry, but also watch patrons who leave individual theaters to buy concessions, he says: "It's almost like asking a theater chain to double its staff."
There is also the problem of embarrassment, well-known to sellers of alcohol and tobacco, because ticket sellers must gauge which buyers look too young.
"This is the first time I've ever been carded in my life," says Anthony Franco, a 26-year-old shipping clerk, with his 26-year-old date, Shirley Jenkins, who also got carded. "I can understand checking someone if they look like little kids, but not us. We don't look too young."
"People get aggravated because we have to use our own judgment and occasionally we're way off," says assistant manager Victor Marquez. "We don't like having to check on people who are coming here to have a good time."
Such problems point out the need for more parental involvement, says William Kartozian, president of NATO, which represents about two-thirds of the nation's theater owners and 20,000 screens.
"There is no question that this issue has become more complex to manage than in the single-screen movie world of yesteryear," he says. "Parents have to do their parts. We can't assign someone to police every kid who gets up to go to the concession center. We can only be so vigilant."
But some parents are resistant to the new policy as well, indicated by reports of parents attending the theater with their under-17 children, buying tickets, and then sneaking out once the movie begins.
Others say they want to do their part but are not used to having their teens carded. "This is a good idea in principle, but I feel second-guessed in my role as a parent," says one mother here who asked not to be identified.
She dropped her 13-year-old daughter and friend off to see R-rated "The Matrix" and had to return to the theater to pick them up when they were not allowed in.
Still, the new policy is seen as a way for the entertainment industry to respond to concerns that media violence plays a part in violent behavior. NATO officials say they hope other segments of the entertainment industry will follow suit with other moves to restrict or curtail violence.
"We feel this will go a long way in carrying out our responsibilities to the parents of America," says NATO's Mr. Kartozian.
He denies critics' claims that the policy was a preemptive strike against government crackdowns. But he expresses concern over a bill that would carry a penalty of five years' jail time for selling a ticket to someone under 17. Another would make the action subject to a $5,000 to $10,000 fine.
"These bills concern us because they are so far beyond proportionality to the infraction they punish," he says.
Some constitutional scholars say the current policy, as well as pending bills, may face court challenges. Such laws are called "special legislative protections," in which legislators have deemed it necessary to protect certain segments of the population from undue discrimination.
"It is not unlikely that legislators will have to help carve out what these rules mean and what are allowable exceptions," says Richard Oakes, a dean at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn.
But others remind patrons that the policy is not a law, it is a voluntary action taken only by members of NATO.
"We've already been doing this voluntarily for the [no one under 17 admitted] rating since 1968 when the movie ratings system first came out," says Brenda Nolte, spokeswoman for AMC Theatres in Kansas City, Mo. "We need to reemphasize that parenting is the important plank in making this work. We are not trying to pass the buck but rather trying to be a partner."