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Film Rating Board Takes Flak

Some family groups think it’s too liberal. Some industry types think it’s too conservative. Some government bodies think it’s too ineffective.

The Rating Board of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) takes flak from all sides. Some family groups think it’s too liberal. Some industry types think it’s too conservative. Some government bodies think it’s too ineffective.
All sides seem to agree that the movie rating system is misleading, but their reasons for thinking so vary.
Maybe it’s time to give the folks at the Rating Board a break.
CARA “is funded by fees charged to producers/distributors for the rating of their films,” according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Web site. The president of the MPAA chooses the chair of the Rating Board.
Although a film’s submission to the Board is voluntary, many theaters won’t exhibit films that are not rated (NR). So most films are rated, and the result often displeases many folk.
Take the National Institute on Media and the Family. One month ago, it published a study in the journal Pediatrics examining not only movie ratings, but television and video game ratings as well.
“When an entertainment industry rates a product as inappropriate for children, parent raters agree that it is inappropriate for children,” the study concluded. “However, parent raters disagree with industry usage of many of the ratings designating material suitable for children of different ages.”
Members of the Rating Board are parents themselves. They “must have a shared parenthood experience, must be possessed of an intelligent maturity, and most of all, have the capacity to put themselves in the role of most American parents,” according to mpaa.org.
The report also concluded that “the economic temptations to down rate a product to capture a larger audience have increased.”
Yet Jack Valenti, MPAA president and CEO, praised theater owners for partnering with the MPAA to make the ratings system a success.
“The best kept secret of our industry is that exhibition and distribution are the only enterprises in America that voluntarily turn away revenues in order to redeem the pledges we have made to parents,” Valenti said in an MPAA press release.
Film industry players have problems with the ratings process too, but for different reasons.
“You can get away with all sorts of things in a raunchy teen comedy, but when you make a movie about reality, you’re held to a different standard,” said John Stockwell, director of the new movie “crazy/beautiful,” in the Los Angeles Times.
Stockwell cited his desire to show one character refusing another character’s efforts to get him drunk.
“It would be great for kids to see the hero of the movie stay sober and continue to be cool,” Stockwell told the Times.
So Stockwell wanted to show Kirsten Dunst’s character spinning out of control, drinking and doing drugs. He would then contrast this behavior with that of the hero, played by Jay Hernandez.
But the scene is not in the final cut of the movie. Why?
“Because to show Hernandez refusing to drink, Stockwell had to show Dunst drinking in the first place, and if Disney wanted any chance at all of marketing the film to teenagers, the film had to have a PG-13 rating–and the MPAA wouldn’t give it a PG-13 if Stockwell showed even a hint of Dunst drinking or doing drugs,” Patrick Goldstein wrote in the Times.
An R rating has become a kiss of death for teen-oriented films, due to marketing restrictions stemming from last September’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report on marketing violence to children.
“It’s perfectly OK for studios to make crude, R-rated teen movies with cartoonish sex and violence,” wrote Goldstein, “but the same studios suddenly get squeamish about political fallout when it comes to marketing R-rated teen movies that deal with sex and violence as serious subjects.”
Goldstein pointed to Miramax Films, which neglected to release “O” (a teen version of “Othello”) for two years because of its serious, R-rated content, but was eager to release “Scary Movie 2,” a film rated R “for strong sexual and gross humor, graphic language and some drug content,” according to filmratings.com.
This catch-22, as Goldstein phrased it, “speaks volumes about our culture’s attitude toward teenagers that the system Washington and Hollywood have designed to protect our children now makes it far easier for them to experience tawdry fantasies than reality.”
And what about Washington and ratings?
On July 11, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) will convene the Senate’s Committee on Governmental Affairs to discuss ratings systems.
Roughly one year ago, Lieberman and other political leaders issued an “Appeal to Hollywood.” The appeal, available at Lieberman’s Web site, was “a call for higher standards and a new ethic of responsibility.”
And last fall’s FTC report hardly made Hollywood feel good. The report stated, for example, that 80 percent of the movies it studied which were rated R for violence were marketed to children under 17.
So folks claim ratings mislead parents, which lead to movies that mislead teens, which cause impressions that mislead perceptions of reality.
And all this from a few letters and numbers like G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17.
Ratings aren’t a substitute for our own discernment, and movies aren’t a substitute for our own reality.
With that in mind, give the Rating Board a break. And take the advice given on one of its posters: Exercise Responsibility.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.