Saturday, August 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Sex and Lucia': Ad flap raises concerns

Seattle Times movie critic

Spanish director Julio Medem's romantic fantasy "Sex and Lucia" received much acclaim at the Seattle International Film Festival in June — Medem won the fest's audience-voted best- director award. Now it's getting a different kind of publicity: Last week, The New York Times, the BBC and other media reported that The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer (whose ads are handled by The Times under a joint-operating agreement) rejected ads for the film.

The decision didn't affect editorial coverage of the film, which opened Aug. 16 at the Harvard Exit: Both papers reviewed "Sex and Lucia" last Friday and are including it in listings.

"Sex and Lucia," a box-office hit and multiple nominee for the Goya Award (the Spanish Oscar), is being released unrated. If submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board, it would likely be rated NC-17, due to its frank scenes of sexuality and nudity. (During the film's Seattle run, nobody younger than 18 will be admitted.)

Earlier this month, The Times' ad department reviewed a proposed ad for "Sex and Lucia," which consisted of a photograph of actress Paz Vega riding a moped. Beside the photo are quotes from critics, with the largest reading, "One of the most erotic films ever made" and, in smaller print, "one of the best movies of the year." Below the photo are the words: "This film is not rated but contains strong sexual content and language. No one under 18 will be admitted."

Times spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin said decisions to decline movie ads are rare, with the ad department receiving "maybe 4,000 to 5,000" movie ads a year and scrutinizing perhaps one every six months. In this case, the language on the ad triggered an internal review process, involving several managers in the ad department. After examination of a trailer provided by the film's distributor, the ad was rejected.

"The decision not to accept the ad is consistent with the advertising department's guidelines for 'adult' entertainment," said Coughlin.

The Times routinely declines ads for NC-17 films (such as last fall's "L.I.E.") and occasionally declines ads for unrated films (most recently, Catherine Breillat's "Romance"), which are considered on a case-by-case basis. Although ads were initially declined for the unrated 2000 film "Requiem for a Dream," the ad department reversed its decision after further review.

The Times did run ads this year for "Y Tu Mamá También" an unrated, no-one-under-18-allowed film containing nudity and sexuality. "You look at the different ads, you look at the different films, and you make a different judgment call about the statement on the ad. The ad itself (for 'Y Tu Mamá') did not contain those statements (about strong sexual content)," said Coughlin, who acknowledged that she could see how some might view the decision as inconsistent.

Karol Martesko-Fenster, head of film for Palm Pictures (distributor of "Sex and Lucia"), said that no other newspaper, in the dozens of cities playing the film, has objected to the ads. "Not a single peep from anyone," he said. "It's most ironic that this happened in Seattle."

And Seattle International Film Festival programmer Kathleen Murphy worries about the long-term effect of such decisions, pointing out that filmmakers and distributors may be reluctant to bring their movies to the festival in the future if subsequent advertising may be banned in the city's major newspapers. She notes that the policy may have "a serious impact on the caliber of films to which Seattle audiences will have access. And it is just not worthy of a city known for supporting the arts and opposing any form of arts censorship."

Coughlin disputes the characterization of the decision as censorship: "It's a decision about standards for the advertising content of the newspaper. We are a locally owned community newspaper, and we make decisions about our community, our readers."

She said the ad department is reviewing its guidelines. "We want to look carefully at our guidelines and make sure that they are current with what we consider to be standards and morals in society, and that we're not out of step."


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