Sex, gore and gangsta rap cast a shadow over movie giants

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Disney was in full family mode - wearing its Cinderella best - in New York's Central Park on Saturday. The occasion was the premiere of its latest animated feature, Pocahontas, projected on to four eight- storey screens arrayed along the southern edge of the Great Lawn. Walt would have been proud.

The hullaballoo accompanying the movie's launch - be prepared, the lovable American Indian princess will be crossing the Pond soon on cereal packets, burger wrappings, whatever - comes at an opportune time for Disney. The company has recently found itself under fierce attack for allegedly forsaking its cartoon heritage in favour of sex and gore. Among its sins are distributing, through its Miramax subsidiary, the films Priest and Pulp Fiction.

Disney is not alone in the doghouse, however. Early this month, Senator Bob Dole, lead contender for the Republican presidential nomination next year, unleashed an excoriating assault on Hollywood in general for infecting America's young with what he called "nightmares of depravity". While Disney was surely on his mind - his wife, Elizabeth Dole, who heads the American Red Cross, recently said she was selling her Disney shares - he reserved special opprobrium for the biggest entertainment giant of them all: Time Warner.

Senator Dole's speech was not a one-night wonder. Even before his intervention, William Bennett, Ronald Reagan's education secretary, began a campaign of criticism against Time Warner, focusing not just on the most carnal of its recent movie releases, such as Natural Born Killers and True Romance, but even more determinedly on the company's distribution of rap music.

In a letter to the board of directors, Bennett, who is partnered in his crusade by Dolores Tucker, head of the National Political Congress of Black Women, demanded that Time Warner disassociate itself in particular from so-called "gangsta rap", which specialises in lurid lyrics, often about guns and sex. Rap artists signed with Time Warner include Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg.

Time Warner crossed similar territory two years ago when controversy erupted over an Ice T album that featured a track called Cop Killer. Its chairman, Gerald Levin, struck back, defending his company and freedom of speech. (Time Warner, however, has since discreetly parted company with Ice T). This time, however, he and Time Warner seem much less certain how to react. When it comes to the record industry, Mr Levin, you might say, is in a spin.

Already, these are not easy times for the chairman, who took over from the late Steven Ross in 1992. Under pressure from frustrated stockholders, he is trying to shrink Time Warner's $15bn debt - the main legacy from the merger of the old Time and Warner Communications companies in 1989 - while restructuring the group to separate its movie, music and publishing interests from its cable ventures. Some on Wall Street wonder whether Mr Levin can survive any more strife at Time Warner's Rockefeller Center headquarters.

And strife there is. Last week saw a remarkable outburst from Henry Luce III, one of Time Warner's directors and son of the founder of Time Inc. Siding clearly with Messrs Dole and Bennett, he appealed to the company's management to rid itself of the gangsta rappers.

"Management keeps saying it's complicated, but I don't see how complicated this can be," he told the New York Post. Of some of the records in question, he went on: "There are lyrics which are offensive and shocking and not only are they offensive and in bad taste, they reflect poorly on the company". A few directors are reportedly allied to Mr Luce, including Fay Vincent, a former commissioner of baseball, and Carla Hills, former president George Bush's foreign trade supremo.

Ignoring the furore does not seem an option for Mr Levin. The Bennett camp threatens to air national television advertisements condemning Time Warner if it does not exit the gangsta rap market. But to do so would carry a cost. Rap music is not easily dismissed. Last year, it accounted for almost 10 per cent all the music industry's $12bn in sales in the US.

Within that, gangsta rap, which first surfaced in Los Angeles, proved particularly profitable. There are three rap albums in the US Top 20 this week, all by gangsta artists. And being seen to run scared of the critics - to cave in to censorship - would do nothing for Time Warner's image in the youth market.

As a first gambit, Mr Levin has asked his new head of Warner Music, Michael Fuchs - his predecessor, Robert Morgado, is in the midst of messy negotiations for a settlement after being ousted last month - to explore setting industry- wide standards on what might be acceptable in rap lyrics.

Few industry insiders consider that a workable prospect, however. Hillary Rosen, president of the Recording Association of America, observed: "There is virtually no way to get everyone to agree on what constitutes prohibitive language." The association held a meeting of music executives at the end of the week. What came of it, if anything, has not been made public.

Mr Levin could take more drastic steps. Rumours are surfacing that he might even order the disposal of the Warner Music Group altogether. But with 22 per cent of the market and revenues last year topping $4bn, that would indeed be painful. More credible would be a dumping of Time Warner's recently acquired 50 per cent stake in Interscope Records, whose artists include Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Interscope had revenues of $110m last year, of which about a quarter were generated by rap.

Nor, meanwhile, is Pocahontas likely to put Mr Bennett, Senator Dole and the rest off the Disney scent for long. Shortly to be released here is Kids, the film that sent tremors through the critics at Cannes. Another Miramax offering, it graphically depicts the progress of a 17-year-old male as he runs amok among Manhattan's young virgins, only to reveal later that he is HIV positive.

But Disney, unlike Time Warner, is at least in good shape to do battle with the moralisers if it chooses to. Last week, its stock hit a 52-week high. That followed record first-quarter profits, fuelled principally by The Lion King, but also by another little earner - Pulp Fiction.