March 2007 –Does the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) exist to serve the viewing public of mainstream America or the entertainment industry?
That question prompted a January meeting between AFA and the MPAA. Randy Sharp, AFA director of special projects, and Pat Vaughn, general counsel for AFA, traveled to Los Angeles where they met with Joan Graves, chairperson of the Rating Board of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). CARA is operated by the MPAA and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the two organizations that created the ratings system over 38 years ago.
The Rating Board is a committee of 10 to 13 parents, from different parts of the country and diverse backgrounds, who actually rate the motion pictures. They watch over 1,000 films in a year, averaging about three per day.
According to the MPAA’s Web site: “The Board views each film. Each member estimates what most parents would consider to be … [the] appropriate rating. After group discussion, the Board votes on the rating. Each member completes a rating form spelling out his or her reason for the rating. The rating is then decided by majority vote.”
However, Parents Television Council columnist Rod Gustafson explained there is no law in the United States that requires a movie to be rated.
“[Furthermore] … there is no law you can fall back on if a slack theater employee doesn’t check your child for age. There is no law forcing theaters to hire extra staff to make sure a teen who buys a ticket to a Disney film isn’t heading for another cinema within a multiplex,” he wrote.
While there is no type of legislation governing movie ratings, NATO does insist that movies showing in its member theaters must be rated by the MPAA/CARA. Presently, there are five MPAA ratings: G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. The NC-17 rating is usually avoided because NC-17 movies are scorned and make for bad business because society considers this rating to be the equivalent of an X rating.
But MPAA Chairman Dan Glickman hopes to change that perception by encouraging the movie business, including independent filmmakers, to embrace the NC-17 rating and look at it as an open door to edgier content – not exactly what concerned parents were hoping to hear.
Especially since the MPAA formed the ratings system to act as a guide for parents by providing “advance cautionary warnings to parents so that parents could make the decision about the moviegoing of their young children,” as posted on the MPAA Web site.
An inaccurate system …
“Instead, the ratings have declined. The content is more coarse, and the raters are more desensitized,” Sharp said.
This desensitization results in what AFA sees as a faulty ratings system, especially when it comes to the inclusion of profanity.
“The ratings system is inaccurate for depicting contents of a movie,” Sharp said. “The ratings say ‘some’ language, and the scope of that language is this big,” he added, stretching his arms to their full span.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from movies released in 2006 to support his claim. For example, The Good Shepherd is a movie about the early years of the CIA. The MPAA rated it R for “some violence, sexuality and language.” Based on a review at Screenit.com, there are a total of 11 profanities, four of which are the “F-word”. The sexual content is labeled extreme and there are several sex scenes as well as some male and female frontal nudity.
Yet, all the MPAA tells the moviegoer is that it contains “some violence, sexuality and language.” (Emphasis added.)
The same R rating is also applied to Harsh Times, “a tough-minded drama about two friends in South Central Los Angeles and the violence that comes between them,” as described on IMDB.com.
Although the MPAA explains that this 120-minute film contains “strong violence, language and drug use,” it would be impossible to know that “strong” means a total of 513 profanities, 296 of which are the “F-word.” (Emphasis added.) That averages out to 4.3 profanities per minute. On top of that, the rating description never mentions the sex and nudity content that Screenit.com labels as heavy.
The inaccurate descriptions are not only happening in the rated R category. There is evidence that it’s happening across the board, especially in PG and PG-13 films. For example one PG-13-rated film contains a total of 40 profanities while another one contains 6. One movie rated PG contains 30 profanities while another one contains zero.
In addition to providing vague descriptions for ratings, it also appears that the Rating Board is continually allowing more and more objectionable material to “creep” into films, causing the ratings to be deceiving.
For example, the 1997 film Good Will Hunting is rated R and contains a total of 218 profanities, according to Screenit.com. At least 139 of those profanities are the “F-word.” So 10 years ago, a film with at least 139 uses of the “F-word” was given an R rating. Today, a film with 296 uses of the same profanity is still given the same rating.
“If that doesn’t suggest a ratings creep, then I don’t know what in the world does,” Sharp concluded.
In need of change
“But the MPAA doesn’t believe it to be this way,” he added. “While AFA realizes that a movie’s rating is based on more than just the number of profanities, this is a prime example of the unreliability of the present ratings system.”
Glickman even admitted in a recent Daily Variety article that “[w]e probably haven’t done as much as we can to explain how it all works.”
It was recently announced that the MPAA will be undergoing some changes in the near future. While details about the proposed changes are still vague, Variety.com reported in January that Glickman and Graves kicked off a campaign that is intended to make the ratings process more user-friendly and transparent for both parents and filmmakers. The campaign includes “a new admonishment to parents that certain R-rated movies aren’t suitable for younger kids, period.”
The disclaimer will provide additional information about the film’s inappropriateness. While this is a worthy effort, Gustafson noted, “It’s important to recognize that R-rated films with this new descriptor will still allow any age patron into the film, as long as an adult accompanies them.”
And even if an adult doesn’t accompany an under-aged viewer, it’s still likely that the child will see the restricted movie.
According to information in the Federal Trade Commission’s 2001 study “Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A One-Year Follow-Up Review,” “one-third of 13-year-olds and nearly two-thirds (62%) of 16-year-olds gained admittance to R-rated films without an accompanying adult,” Gustafson cited.
Instead of an age-based approach to ratings, AFA would like to see the system take a more content-based, quantitative approach to its ratings. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10, the sexual content of a movie could be rated as S-10. That would clearly tell parents that there is an extremely large amount of sex in that particular movie.
“To be realistic, it’s unlikely this will happen,” Sharp said.
Following a roundtable discussion at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Glickman emphasized to the press that the ratings system is not being changed as part of this upcoming reform. Rather, the reforms are intended to make the whole ratings process more public – which can still leave parents perplexed when it comes to knowing a movie’s specific contents.
Parents need to have sources they can trust when it comes to deciding if a movie is appropriate for their children and even themselves. AFA considers the following Web sites to be among the best resources at this time:
“However, we should not have to rely on third parties,” Sharp said. “If the MPAA is really there to give guidance, it should have it’s own ‘Screenit’ style of information.”
The MPAA thinks it does, while AFA begs to differ.
As of press time, AFA was still engaged in conversations with the MPAA.