The secretive movie ratings system — the bane of Hollywood filmmakers, who often complain that its judgments are inconsistent — is about to get an overhaul.
For the first time in its 38-year history, the group that operates the system plans to make its ratings rules and regulations public. It will also describe the standards for each rating, and detail the appeal process.
In addition, it plans to publish demographic information about the parents who serve on the ratings board and reveal the identities of its senior raters.
To date, the identities of the people who hand out the various ratings — such as the family-friendly "G" and the much-feared "NC-17" — have been a closely guarded secret. However, filmmaker Kirby Dick attempted to expose the members in his 2006 documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated."
The ratings system was established by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theater Owners, and is overseen by the Classification and Ratings Administration. It was designed to ward off local ratings boards that threatened the film industry.
MPAA chairman Dan Glickman and Classifications and Ratings chairwoman Joan Graves will discuss the planned changes over breakfast Sunday with filmmakers, producers and directors at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Although they don't plan to unveil anything as dramatic as a new letter rating, they do have other changes in mind. The size of the appeals board will increase later this year, with both the MPAA and theater owners group appointing new members. And while filmmakers have not been allowed to cite precedents in other films when appealing a rating, that also is about to change.
"Sometimes, filmmakers don't understand that we rate entirely in context. They'll see something in one movie and think they can include it in their movie," Graves said. "Now, at the appeals board, they can refer to other films, which before they couldn't do, although we'll still make a judgment within the context of the film."
The changes will be formally announced to movie theater owners at their annual ShoWest convention in Las Vegas in March.
Glickman — whose group represents the major Hollywood studios — will be making his second visit to Sundance. It will be Graves' first foray into the indie-focused gathering, where a lot of filmmakers are distrustful of the ratings system.
Dick's documentary argued that the ratings board favored the MPAA's member studios at the expense of independent filmmakers, an opinion widely held in the indie world.
"I don't think that was true, but the perception was there," Glickman said.
The upcoming changes, he added, aren't intended as a response to the Dick documentary. Glickman, a former Clinton administration Cabinet member, said he began reaching out to the independents as soon as he took over from Jack Valenti, the lobbyist who came up with the ratings system, in September 2004.
"There was a feeling of detachment and alienation, and I wanted to open a dialogue with them," he said.
The ratings board, which looks at about 900 films a year, has plenty of contact with indie filmmakers, because about 65 percent of the films it rates are produced by companies outside the studio system. (On average, about nine ratings are appealed each year, and about one-third of the appeals result in the original rating being overturned.)
The ratings board is made up of 10 members — it's budgeted for as many as 13 — who are chosen to offer a representative sampling of parents' views. Their identities traditionally haven't been revealed, to protect them from outside influences.
That will still be the rule, but the MPAA plans to release more information about the demographic makeup of the group. It will reveal the identities of the senior raters, who interact with filmmakers and distributors. And it will formalize its rules so that raters whose children are grown don't remain on the board. Board members also will undergo formal training.
It also will increase its efforts to explain the ratings to filmmakers and the public. The ratings in movie ads have been carrying brief explanations of the content that triggered a given rating since the late '90s.
During the past year, Glickman has had a number of informal meetings with indie power-brokers on both coasts, paving the way for the Sundance powwow.
One myth that Graves said she will be happy to dispel: "I keep hearing about how many 'thrusts' you can have in a film. We've never had a rule about the number of 'thrusts,' " she said, laughing.