'NATURAL BORN' BROUHAHA OVITZ CAUGHT BETWEEN A STONE AND A COCA-COLA SPOT

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It's a Hollywood whodunit: Coca-Cola Co. is shocked at the way Oliver Stone manipulated a Coke commercial in his graphic new film. Hollywood insiders deflect the blame, wondering why Coca-Cola ever tied into a film titled "Natural Born Killers." Superagent Michael Ovitz, who represents both Coca-Cola and Mr. Stone, has an alibi, but some detractors hold him culpable.

At issue is the way Mr. Stone in- tercut Coca-Cola's endearing polar bear commercial.

In the film's climax, a live prison interview with mass murderer Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) by Australian trash journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.) on the tabloid-format "American Maniacs" cuts to a Coke polar bear commercial. Then viewers see Mickey grab a warden's gun and embark on a bloody rampage. The Coke polar bear spot then reappears, showing a refreshed, satisfied creature.

A Coca-Cola spokesman said the company is "concerned" Mr. Stone used the commercial "in a way that we didn't intend and weren't aware of." Coca-Cola said it thought the spot would be in a scene where prison workers are watching the Super Bowl.

Caught in the middle is Mr. Ovitz. "He's got to be held accountable," said one Hollywood observer who's not a member of his booster club.

Mr. Ovitz's high-flying Beverly Hills, Calif., talent agency, Creative Artists Agency, created the polar bear commercial. He's also Mr. Stone's agent.

But Mr. Ovitz has an alibi. The placement was negotiated by Warner Bros. producers, not by CAA, said Coca-Cola insiders. The marketer is a veteran at product placements and had tie-ins with two of Mr. Stone's earlier films, "JFK" and "Heaven & Earth."

Further, close observers of the agency said CAA is not in the product placement business.

So who bungled the deal? A Hollywood executive said "Natural Born" appears to have "slipped through the cracks" at Coca-Cola. That may put the relationship of Mr. Stone and the soft-drink giant on the rocks.

For Mr. Ovitz, the controversy diminishes his superhuman aura. If he were as powerful as his reputation, the thinking goes, how could this deal have been so botched? Mr. Ovitz was on vacation last week, and a spokeswoman declined to comment.

But this Hollywood story may have a happy ending. "Natural Born Killers" was the top grossing film on its opening weekend. At no cost to Coca-Cola, millions will see the commercial.

"I don't think there has been any indication that people hold Coke responsible" for the film's violence, one veteran Hollywood publicist said.

Intriguingly, the film's early success led some to speculate the brouhaha was a seamless, subliminal public relations stunt by Warner, Mr. Ovitz and Coca-Cola.

An Advertising Age Fax Poll on violence and product placements, meanwhile, confirms that many in the industry see nothing wrong with advertising on high-rated but violent TV shows.

"There is more sensational handling of violence with hard network news than anywhere else," one respondent noted.

One person who responded said he wasn't sure Coke was hurt very much by the movie's treatment, noting the whole Coke commercial was part of the movie. "Coke," the respondent said, "was cool.'

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