The MPAA takes on the web -- Quietly but quite effectively, the organization has started to police Hollywood movie websites

The Web lost one more piece of its notorious freedom on June 1. That’s when Hollywood started submitting its movie websites to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for approval. Webmasters and Net surfers have been reeling ever since.

Historically, page makers have posted whatever it takes — with the emphasis on edgy material — to get the most hits. With the MPAA signing off on official film sites, there will be no ”nudity, violence, profanity, drugs, drug paraphernalia, violence towards women, violence towards animals, cadavers…a whole list of things,” says MPAA senior vice president Bethlyn Hand. ”Basically, it’s whatever parents would find objectionable for their younger children to see or hear.”

Hollywood execs didn’t grudgingly allow the MPAA to regulate websites, however — they demanded it, or at least they’re saying they did. ”This is something the studios embrace,” says New Line Cinema’s director of interactive marketing, Gordon Paddison. ”They are a body that works with the studios, not against them.” Indeed, on March 25 the folks at the MPAA met with the marketing chiefs of major studios, including Buena Vista, MGM, Warner Bros., Columbia TriStar, and New Line. This led to the decision to have all sites meet the same guidelines that other film-related promotional materials (posters, TV ads, trailers) have been following for 30 years. For Paddison, that meant the site for Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour ”could not have the picture where two guys were pointing guns in each other’s faces.”

If Hollywood has to relinquish control to anyone, clearly it would prefer employing a familiar, industry-approved system to facing potential new regulations restricting online content. ”We sought to preempt any outside policing,” says Warner senior VP Don Buckley. Such policing could hypothetically include variations on the hotly debated rating-and-blocking system for television programs known as the V-chip: ”As soon as there’s a V-chip, there will be a digital chip,” Paddison believes.

Still, some renegade sites surely will try to dodge the MPAA. Producers can always get friends to put up faux fan sites with non-MPAA-approved content. Or they can send risqué promotional bulk e-mails (a protected private endeavor) to people they think would appreciate such goodies — perhaps knowing that fan sites will inevitably get hold of the raunchy stuff in due time. But those are needlessly duplicitous tactics. ”There are smarter ways to do this,” Paddison explains. ”Find a new paradigm for marketing online. It just requires us to be smarter instead of cheekier.”

If webmasters do get cheeky, the MPAA can flex its creative muscle too. ”We have sanctions,” says Hand. ”We can revoke their film’s rating because they used it without our permission. Or we can sue them because our ratings are trademarked. So if you find someone who says, ‘Well, we’re not submitting,’ it’s just a matter of time before we catch them.”