Curtain falls quickly on 'Captivity' ad campaign

By Nicole Sperling
In the wake of a public outcry against Los Angeles billboards and New York taxicab tops advertising the upcoming movie "Captivity" with images of the abduction, torture and death of a young woman, After Dark Films said it will take down the offending ads by 2 p.m. today.

After Dark, its theatrical distribution partner Lionsgate Films and the MPAA received a barrage of phone calls objecting to the gratuitous depiction of the film's star Elisha Cuthbert being tortured and killed.

The billboards, first posted March 13, feature four frames with captions above each one. "Abduction" shows Cuthbert with a gloved hand over her face; "Confinement" features the actress behind a chain-link fence with a bloody finger poking through; "Torture" depicts Cuthbert's face, covered in white gauze, with tubes shoved up her nose; and "Termination" shows her with her head thrown back, seemingly dead.

The ads appeared on 30 Los Angeles-area billboards and 1,400 New York taxi tops. After Dark is paying to have them removed -- and while some billboards in the Hollywood area were still visible Monday, others already had come down.

Lionsgate said Monday that it had no involvement with the ads, which were produced by Art Machine Digital, and that all the marketing for the movie had been handled solely by After Dark.

"This film was done in association with After Dark Films. The nature of the association allows After Dark autonomy over their marketing materials, and therefore we neither saw nor approved this billboard before it was posted," said Peter Wilkes, head of Lionsgate investor relations. "Once aware of the materials and the reaction to them, we immediately asked After Dark to remove the billboards, to which they immediately and cooperatively responded."

After Dark said the posting of the billboards was an accident. CEO Courtney Solomon said the wrong files were sent to the printer, who then passed them on to the billboard company without approval from any executives at After Dark. Execs from the indie production company were attending ShoWest in Las Vegas last week and had no idea the wrong billboards were posted until they returned from the convention Thursday to a flood of e-mails and phone calls from angry parents and offended women.

"Personally, I wasn't going to go with this campaign. I thought it was OTP (over the top)," Solomon said. "Nothing like this can ever happen again."

Solomon added that Lionsgate hadn't seen the ad because it wasn't one of the concepts After Dark was planning to use to promote the horror film. "Captivity," director Roland Joffe's film about a man and a woman who are being held captive, is scheduled to open May 18.

He also said that the campaign for bus shelters -- a variation of the second frame in the billboard poster, minus the bloody finger -- had been approved by the MPAA.

Neither Lionsgate nor After Dark is an MPAA signatory, but because they are submitting the film for an MPAA rating, they also are submitting advertising materials to the MPAA's advertising administration.

Sources close to the MPAA said the organization had not approved the four-frame ad, and the posting of the ad was in clear defiance of MPAA rules and regulations.

The MPAA declined comment on the billboards Monday because it had not decided how to deal with the issue.

According to one source, the MPAA could deny issuing "Captivity" a rating, which would make it more difficult to play some multiplexes.

"The billboard was not MPAA approved," Solomon said. "We are working fully to cooperate with them. We intend to become a signatory. We want to play by the rules."

He added that the images on the billboard are not an accurate representation of the film, which stars Cuthbert as a woman who awakens to find herself being held in a cellar. "This movie is certainly a horror movie and it's about abduction, but it's also about female empowerment," Solomon said. "We reshot the ending so the main character ends up in as much of a positive situation as the situation could allow. There is no rape or nudity in it, though it should be an R-rated movie. For the audience it's made for, it's satisfying to that audience. I'm sure that's not the same audience that's complaining about the billboards."

Competing marketing executives speculated Monday that the ads had been erected by After Dark to generate publicity by creating a controversy -- an assertion Solomon emphatically denied. Studio marketers suggested that indie companies that are not MPAA signatories play around with the rules as a way of getting added attention.

"I'm sure it's effective, but it's not my style," said one unnamed marketing executive.