Theater chain's pass card lets younger teens into R-rated films

Monday, June 7, 2004

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. -- Still weeks shy of her 16th birthday, Sydni Norris caught the R-rated war epic "Troy" on the big screen last month while her parents stayed home.

The Bloomington teenager's ticket around the rating system's age limit was a parent-approved pass card that has started a debate over convenience versus parental responsibility and raised fears that the government might jump in to settle the dispute.

Supporters say parents can sign off on movies for their kids without the time and expense of chaperoning them with the new R-card, which Springfield-based GKC Theatres began rolling out last fall in parts of its 22-city chain in Illinois and three other Midwest states. The card only works for the R-rating, which requires children under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.

"I like it because now we don't have to wait until they come out on video," said Norris, a high school junior whose parents had to accompany her and sign for the $2 photo ID.

Critics argue that the cards amount to parents handing the delicate decision about what movies are appropriate to their kids, a shift they say violates the intent of the motion picture industry's voluntary rating system.

"All R-rated films are not alike. It is the parents' responsibility to make specific judgments about R films -- and wrong to give a blanket endorsement to all," said Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, which issues movie ratings.

GKC, the nation's 15th largest theater chain with 255 screens, is the only theater network in the nation offering the card, said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners.

A tainted systemSome opponents fear that leaving movie choices to kids could taint the ratings system, voluntarily enforced by theaters since 1968. They say that could open the door to government regulation that would stifle creativity and experimentation in film making.

"If parents lose faith in the system, the first thing they'll ask is 'What are our recourses?' Then, we could start hearing from every politician that wants to make a name for himself in the name of family values," said Dann Gire, president of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

GKC has issued about 700 R-cards -- most in central Illinois -- and plans to offer them throughout the chain by the end of the year, said James Whitman, the company's director of operations and marketing. Just a handful of the cards have been sold by a GKC theater in Saginaw, Mich., and the company hasn't started selling the cards yet at theaters in Indiana and Wisconsin.

Whitman said he came up with the idea after parents complained that they wanted to let their kids see R-rated movies but didn't want to sit through the films themselves. He said GKC encourages parents to give the cards to kids only after approving a movie.

"From what I can tell, the people who have them like them and the parents are trying to use them responsibly. We're not being inundated with kids whose parents are giving them access to everything that comes on the screen," Whitman said.

Fithian, whose 500-member theater owners association includes GKC, thinks the cards invite abuse. Requiring parents to accompany children ensures that they screen and approve each movie, he said.

"The R-card is a way for parents to abdicate all responsibility in the entertainment choices of their children," Fithian said.

Joyce Needham of Peoria disagrees, saying she discusses every movie "before and after" when the 16-year-old grandson she's raising uses his R-card. With or without a card, she said, kids will find a way to get what they want, such as renting videos or sneaking into R-rated movies.

"I just think communication is the answer and trusting the child," Needham said. "If you can discuss what's going on in this world, you're better off than letting them find a way to do it on their own."

Amy Aidman, a University of Illinois communications professor who previously coordinated a statewide clearinghouse for parenting information, suspects most parents would cave to pressure and give their kids free reign with the cards rather than screening every R-rated movie.

"Parents have less time to be with kids these days and may indulge them in ways that aren't necessarily healthy," she said.

The motion picture and theater owners associations are pressing GKC to abandon the program. The Chicago Film Critics Association is considering a proposal to formally oppose R-cards, Gire said.

"They call it a public service. What a scam. What it is is an easier way for them to sell tickets to kids," said Gire, film critic for the (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald and a father of two daughters, ages 16 and 20.

Whitman thinks GKC could be losing money. He said the $2 charge for R-cards only covers the cost of photographs and processing, and that letting kids go to movies alone eliminates tickets that their parents to used to buy as chaperones.

He also said the company has no plans to back away.

"You can't ever say never," Whitman said. "But at this point we're firmly in support of it."

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