Top executives for Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures yesterday refused to promise a Senate panel that they won't market R-rated films to children younger than 17.
However, they and six other Hollywood movie moguls said they would follow 12 new marketing guidelines crafted by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
Skeptical senators said this simply wasn't enough.
If the industry doesn't take additional steps to keep violent films away from young children, "you're going to see some kind of legislation," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.
"I'm sending a signal across the bow," she added.
The MPAA guidelines - which say the industry will not "inappropriately specifically" target children - are too easy to circumvent, said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which held the hearing.
"Friends, we're in a town where you can engage in discussions about what the definition of `is' is," said Mr. McCain, referring to infamous word parsing by President Clinton. "I don't understand this [MPAA] language. I think it's filled with loopholes."
Yesterday's hearing was held specifically for studio executives who skipped a Sept. 13 hearing on a report issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The lengthy report, commissioned by Mr. Clinton after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., found "pervasive" and "aggressive" marketing of violent and R-rated movies, music and video games to elementary-age children.
Children younger than 17 are not supposed to see R-rated films without their parents or guardians.
Mr. McCain told the Sept. 13 hearing that the motion-picture executives showed "stunning" hubris by not attending, especially since the FTC report revealed "patently offensive" and "despicable" marketing abuses in the movie industry.
Several movie executives appeared conciliatory at yesterday's hearing.
"Paramount wholeheartedly endorses" the MPAA guidelines "and believes that they address the core concerns raised by FTC report," said Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures' Motion Picture Group.
"Clearly, there were times . . . when we allowed competitive zeal to overwhelm sound judgment and appropriate standards," said Robert Iger, president and chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Co.
Mel Harris, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment, said "a judgment lapse" occurred when his studio, Columbia Pictures, tried to market the movie "The Fifth Element," which is rated PG-13, to children younger than 13.
All the movie executives pledged to follow the MPAA guidelines, but Mr. McCain was not appeased.
Why do the MPAA guidelines only have studios promising to not "knowingly" include children younger than 17 in their research screenings, he asked. "If you're responsible for screenings, then you should know about this."
He also objected to the MPAA promise to "review marketing techniques" to "further the goal" of targeting films only to appropriate groups.
"My friends, that language is …