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'Larry Flynt' Ad Campaign Gets Flagged

By Clifford Rothman
Special to The Washington Post
December 13, 1996

Relish the irony: A movie decrying censorship had its poster and print artwork banned in America.

The targeted ad campaign for "The People vs. Larry Flynt" featured actor Woody Harrelson as Hustler publisher Flynt posing as if he were being crucified on the gigantic pelvis of a scantily clad woman. Harrelson is wearing only an American flag around his midsection. The image will appear virtually across the globe, but not in the United States, where the film's poster features a head shot of Harrelson with a flag taped over his mouth.

"There is no single image you can look at and say, `That's obscene,' " Harrelson said from Hollywood, where he has been promoting the film. "And now we use this other poster, which I don't think is nearly as colorful or interesting or really says it as well."

The Motion Picture Association of America, an industry self-regulatory body that rates and approves films and supporting artwork, rejected the image early this fall.

"I don't feel at all that the original artwork was obscene. I thought it was tasty and funny," said director Milos Forman. "There are very conservative forces in the Senate and Congress, and they are trying to somehow establish censorship.

"What MPAA President Jack Valenti basically said to me is, `I will have to protect more important freedoms for us through self-censorship so that we don't provoke very conservative forces.' I respect it, but I don't like it."

"I just thought it was just another twist of irony," said Janet Yang, one of the producers of the Columbia Pictures film, which opens in Washington on Dec. 27. "And I'm not entirely surprised. We're all used to varying degrees of censorship."

Civil rights attorney Alan Isaacman, who successfully represented Flynt in his landmark First Amendment case before the Supreme Court in 1978 and was a consultant on the film, questioned the motivation behind banning the artwork. "The question is why? Why are they objecting to it? Is it the religious right? It's hard to imagine what they are concerned about if it's not political," he said.

Repeated attempts to obtain a response from Valenti's Washington office and the MPAA's ratings board office in North Hollywood were unsuccessful.

Officially, the studio maintains that the current artwork was its first choice. "There is no story. The rejected ad was only one of many in development," said Columbia spokesperson Dennis Higgins. The senior marketing executives declined to comment.

But according to the film's director, star, producer and others, the provocative ad was the first choice of the senior creative team, as well as the studio's marketing department. It was also the solitary submission to the MPAA early last fall, according to Yang.

"We all loved the original art. It was our first choice, and we were so intrigued by this far-out campaign," said Sid Ganis, Columbia Pictures-TriStar's former president of worldwide marketing, and now an independent producer on the Sony lot in Culver City, Calif. "Milos loved it and wanted greatly to use it. It was clever, unique and different."

"The artwork we have now," Forman said from Los Angeles, "is classy and tasteful, but it doesn't reflect everything the film is about -- the comedy, the eroticism. That's why I'm disappointed. The other one was a parody."

While the replacement artwork was seen as an artistic and political compromise, its merits have grown on many of those involved, as the film itself has taken shape in post-production.

"There was a certain shock value of the original. It was outrageous, arresting, shocking, very irreverent," Yang said. "But I'm not sure it was a bad thing that it was rejected. While the new ad campaign is blander, in some ways it's a more appropriate campaign."

Explained Ganis, a veteran executive who has also headed the marketing units of Paramount Pictures and Lucasfilm Ltd. over two decades: "Though this [U.S.] campaign wasn't our first choice, it really does work. It talks to the movie. . . . We have to make sure not to create in the minds of the audience that this is a sex film. It's better than the risque one, a female torso strategically covered by an image of Larry Flynt. The choice was sane."

"The People vs. Larry Flynt" will go into international release in the first half of 1997, supported by the more provocative art. "Only the few countries where censorship is rampant will reject the original art," Forman said.

Said Isaacman: "It does seem strange that a film whose message is anti-censorship has its poster censored."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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