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Movie ratings board invites scrutiny

The group says they welcome feedback on their complicated system
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hollywood’s film ratings system appears as simple as A-B-C — or at least G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17.

The categories, aimed at letting moviegoers know what to expect in a film’s depiction of sex and drugs, violence and language, are applied to all the major studios releases as well as most independent productions.

But the power of the 38-year-old code, its durability and widespread acceptance by the public belie the confusion and criticism that swirl around it — something the Motion Picture Association of America says it wants to change.

In an interview with The Associated Press, MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman and Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification and Ratings Administration, detailed the process they contend is simply parents helping parents.

Among the questions they addressed: Who rates the films? Do studios influence the decisions? Are independent films treated unfairly? Is the ratings board pushing a Hollywood-crafted social agenda or, conversely, suppressing creative freedom?

The latest barrage against the code comes in “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” a Sundance Film Festival documentary from Kirby Dick that claims to yank the curtain back on an allegedly flawed system.

Yank away, said Graves and Glickman: It’s sound and can withstand the scrutiny.

While evaluating close to 1,000 films a year is “more of an art” than a science, Glickman said, the approach is effective and fulfills the goals laid out when then-MPAA chief Jack Valenti implemented it in 1968.

“The underlying purpose is not to censor the film. It’s to give a rating that parents will understand and properly guide their children,” Glickman said. “That is a great public service.”

(The code also supplanted dozens of local censorship boards that were making studios jump through hoops before films could be shown, and forestalled a potential government crackdown on the industry.)

In a recent poll conducted for the MPAA, 78 percent of parents with children younger than 13 said they find the evaluations useful.

Who rates the movies?
Although the ratings have been modified over the years — the “X” that became the proud emblem of porn films was jettisoned — the approach in place now is essentially the one created in conjunction with the National Association of Theatre Owners.

All films from MPAA members, the major studios, must be rated; independent films can venture into the marketplace unrated but only the hardiest attempt to do so because most theaters are reluctant to screen unrated films.

Considering the lofty players and millions of dollars on the line, it’s a distinctly low-profile band that gathers in two MPAA screening rooms in Encino to determine what a film should be labeled: moms and dads.

“The ideal person is out in the community getting feedback from other parents,” Graves said. “We don’t want hermits. We don’t want anybody with a cause. ... We’re looking for parents with solid judgment who want to raise healthy kids and know that a lot goes into it.”

Through a screening process that relies on referrals from groups such as parent-teacher organizations, Graves looks for people from different regions and seeks a balance in gender and ethnicity. All must be unconnected to the movie industry.

They’re paid an undisclosed annual salary for the three-to-five-year position on the ratings board, and get popcorn perks.

The identities of the 10 to 13 members are kept confidential to prevent harassment or attempts at influence, Graves said.

“Keeping the raters’ names private is quite a different thing than having a secret system. Our system is not secret,” she said.

A delicate processScreening three movies a day, the group starts the decision-making process with a simple “Preliminary Ratings Ballot” that asks whether a film should be given an unrestricted rating for children under 17 (G, PG or PG-13) or a restricted rating (R or NC-17), and to briefly state why.

Ballots are counted and a majority vote results in a proposed rating, with Graves serving as tiebreaker if needed.

The studio or filmmaker submitting the project has several choices: accept the rating; ask guidance in achieving a less-restrictive rating, or take their case to an industry appeals board made up of exhibitors and distributors. (Non-MPAA members can release films unrated.)

Of the roughly 920 films submitted for rating last year, eight went to appeal; two of the ratings were overturned. Graves recalls one 1997 decision that created grief for the board: when an R rating for “My Best Friend’s Wedding” was reduced to PG-13 despite an extreme expletive.

“I heard from so many parents about that. They felt so betrayed. When parents are angry, they feel we are part of Hollywood and pushing things on them. We aren’t, and we aren’t. ... We’re supposed to be reflecting standards, not setting them.”

Providing advice to filmmakers seeking a less-restrictive rating is a delicate process.

“We never, contrary to what you may have heard, say, ‘Take this out, take that out,”’ Graves said. “If they ask as or beg us ... we’ll help. It’s not something I love to do, because the director taking his work apart is never a pleasant situation.”

She won’t comment publicly on disputes, calling it inappropriate in a competitive industry, but filmmakers are often vocal. She disputes the claim that studios get preferential treatment over independents, saying directors often fail to take into account context for a scene or its graphic nature.

In other words, a decapitation in one film might garner a PG-13 rating, but make it bloodier in another project and that could earn an R — indie or studio, she said.

Discrimination against gay sex?The criticism that gay sex scenes draw more restrictive ratings than straight ones is wrong, Graves said: “If something is graphic enough to be R, it’s graphic whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual.”

But a gay kiss might earn a PG-13 instead of a PG, a designation she said reflects the fact many parents might feel younger children are unfamiliar with homosexuality.

An edge of irritation creeps into Graves’ voice when she discusses how film companies sometimes cast the ratings board as the bad guy when trying to soothe aggrieved directors.

“I have found that many words are put in our mouths,” she said, citing one in particular. “We would never, never use the word ’objectionable,’ because that’s not how we view things. We view them as there, and therefore it’s a certain rating.”

A former stock broker who also worked in real estate, Graves started as a part-time rater in 1988. Her conservative attire says mainstream business, not Hollywood power broker, although she’s a crucial gatekeeper for the industry.

Her belief in the ratings board is firm.

“I love movies so much that I think if we do a good job, it’s a win-win. I don’t want government censorship, and I think if we can give parents the correct information, they won’t be angry, their communities won’t be. And it’s better for the studios and the filmmakers, at the end, because they can make the films they want to make.”