Times Staff Writer

The Motion Picture Assn. of America did some fine-tuning on its 18-year-old ratings system this week, instructing its salaried ratings board members to give at least a PG-13 to any film that depicts drug use or includes a single utterance of one of the harsher “sex-derived words.”

If the drug use is graphic, or if one of those nasty words (you know which one they’re really talking about) is uttered twice, the rating goes to R. And if drug use is excessively graphic, the film could earn an X.

The changes won’t mean much to parents scanning the movie ads, since the MPAA chose not to adopt either of the additional letter codes--SA for substance abuse or D for drugs--that had been proposed.

Nor will changes have much effect at the box office. The PG-13 advises parents that the movie contains material they may not want their pre-teens to see. But, by being merely advisory, it means kids who can reach or jump high enough to lay their allowances on the counter can get in. And the R rating, which supposedly restricts audiences to ages 17 and over, is enforced about as often as the “10 Items or Less” sign at your local supermarket checkout.


As for the X, the MPAA’s equivalent of a skull and crossbones, it is irrelevant. Only a person who signs his name that way would be stupid enough to try to market an X-rated movie.

The MPAA, like a man dipping his toe in the surf and hoping that the rest of his body will get used to the water, is not impressing anyone with its boldness. The changes really do nothing more than put the PG rating off limits to the most casual use of drugs. But in making them, MPAA President Jack Valenti is at least acknowledging film’s influence on young people and sending a message to film makers.

“It’s not everything we wanted, but it’s a giant step in the right direction,” says Brian Dyak, president of the Entertainment Industries Council, a young organization formed to fight the glamorization of drug use in entertainment. “I don’t think the changes will mean anything to parents, but it’s a wake-up call to producers, writers and directors who may begin to ask themselves if that drug scene is really necessary.”

Dyak is disappointed that alcohol was not included in the new directive. His group, a coalition of industry executives and performers, had campaigned for a substance-abuse rating, and alcohol is one of the abused substances it had in mind.

“I understand the concerns anyone may have for alcohol or for tobacco,” says Richard Heffner, who has presided over the six-person ratings board for 12 years, occasionally casting a tie-breaking seventh vote. “But this is an effort to respond specifically to a near-disastrous situation in this nation, involving the use of illegal and uncontrolled substances.”

There were other adjustments made to the ratings system designed to relieve the overworked appeals process.

In the past, the ratings board has been obligated to give either a PG-13 or R to a movie using that most famous four-letter word, only to have the rating overturned on appeal. Film makers can appeal any rating to a group made up of studio executives and theater operators, and on those occasions where they have appealed because of the automatic language rule, they have usually won.

Heffner says that in all but a few of those cases, the board agreed with the appeal judgment, but had no choice. Now, by unanimous vote, they can broaden the rating on their own.


“The changes are not designed to loosen (the system),” Heffner says, “but to let reason prevail. Common sense has always got to be the rule of thumb with ratings.”

CANNES WATCH: If fear of terrorist attacks on Americans is causing many industry people to rethink their plans for attending next month’s Cannes Film Festival, they’re forgetting to cancel their hotel reservations.

Calls to several Cannes hotels and travel agents confirmed that the town is not only booked to the beach, as usual, but that the waiting lists continue to grow.

Nevertheless, there are reports from Cannes that security is the prime concern of this year’s festival organizers and participants are being told to prepare for rigorous security checks--perhaps even frisking--at the doors to the bustling Palais.


The beefed-up security forces have their hands full, with or without threats of terrorism, just protecting the stars who show up. Ask any major actor who’s been there, and you’ll get a sense of another form of terror--being surrounded by an international swarm of photographers.

The star likely to cause the greatest stampedes next month is Sylvester Stallone, who is being brought over by Warner Bros. to hype its coming summer Tommy- gun thriller “Cobra.” Stallone will also help launch a new Cannes tradition (the whirring sound you’ll hear is Jean Renoir spinning in his grave) by putting his handprints in a--presumably wet--concrete slab.

No word on whether “Cobra” will be shown in competition.

EXEC EXIT: The rumors started last summer, but the action didn’t come until Wednesday. Guy McElwaine, chairman and chief executive officer of the Coca-Cola Co.'s Hollywood toy, Columbia Pictures, is out.


The official announcement contained the usual public civilities that accompany high-level separations. Columbia Chairman Francis T. Vincent said McElwaine “had expressed a desire to pursue other interests,” and as evidence of amicability, McElwaine has agreed to stay on for 90 days to facilitate an “orderly transition.”

Although Vincent did not name McElwaine’s successor, few people doubt that it will be Steve Sohmer, the former NBC-TV programming exec who was hired--by some accounts, over McElwaine’s objections--as president and chief operating officer of Columbia Pictures last August.

Rumors about McElwaine being on thin ice with Coca-Cola began within a year after the ecstatic $200-million box-office windfall from “Ghostbusters,” a movie set in motion by McElwaine’s predecessor, Frank Price.

Columbia has been on a long slide since then, with only periodic relief from such modest hits as “St. Elmo’s Fires” and the current “Murphy’s Romance.”


Insiders say the dismal box-office performance of “Crossroads,” a film that McElwaine believed could become another “Karate Kid” for the studio, was the event that finally showed McElwaine the door.

Columbia reportedly spent more than $6 million opening the movie. After three weeks, it has grossed only $5.7 million and despite being in 916 theaters last weekend, it did less business than 20 other movies.

So McElwaine is gone, and now that that rumor is history, there are new ones. McElwaine, a former agent and film producer, is rumored to be headed for a high-level job at either United Artists or the William Morris Agency, or into the inevitable independent producer burial grounds.

If Sohmer takes over, as expected, the speculation is that Columbia product will take a creative turn toward the television look. You grow what you know and what Sohmer knows is TV.


The Coca-Cola Co. knows TV, too, and would seem more at home with the kind of carbonated family entertainment that sort of production bias would bring. In fact, the common view is that Coca-Cola has been trying to run the studio ever since buying it in 1982. It just doesn’t know how.

McElwaine’s 2 1/2-year career as head of a major studio won’t make the mogul hall of fame, but at least he was trying to make movies. It will be interesting to see if the new Columbia management follows in that eccentric tradition.