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Changes in Movie Ratings
January 25, 2007


Part 1 -- Why Independent Producers Want Change


With the recent media coverage regarding television ratings, few have taken notice of the other major media rating system that is being modified. The Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) movie rating system is about to be affected by subtle changes that I feel could spell big differences in the types of movies you find at your local theater. Perhaps even more interesting, these changes in a system intended to help parents are not due to pressure from moms and dads who are frustrated with using the ratings, but instead the catalyst is coming from filmmakers -- especially independent producers.


But first, time for a short history lesson (a usual ingredient in my articles about movie ratings)...


For years, independent films were a rarity in the movie industry. The big studios -- 20th Century Fox, Disney, Columbia, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Paramount -- were the rulers. They controlled virtually every aspect of moviemaking, and even issues they couldn't directly manage they would use their huge circle of influence to maintain or enact change in their favor. One of the ways they are able to exert this influential force is through the MPAA, an organization formed and operated by these six major players.


However, over past years, the technology required to make a movie has become far cheaper, and a huge surge of independents are cranking out films faster than ever before. Each January The Sundance Film Festival becomes The Place for indies to show their wares and attract distributors (who are often owned by the big studios noted earlier) who will buy their films and then take them to market.


But the road to getting a movie on a screen near you is riddled with various obstacles -- one being the necessity to have the movie rated. There is no law in the United States that says a movie must have a rating (there is also no law requiring theaters to enforce the ratings), but one of the organizations falling under the MPAA's influential circle is the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). This group works closely with the MPAA, and insists that any movies showing at a member's theater must have been rated by the MPAA Classification and Ratings Administration (one more acronym... CARA).


For an independent producer, that means he or she must have the movie rated or be satisfied with only showing it in independent theaters that are not part of NATO -- usually "art house" screens often located in, shall we say, the less accessible parts of your community. Obviously, if you are hoping to make money from a movie you have made, you will want it playing in the giant multiplexes dotting America's suburbia.


Likewise, if one of the distributors owned by the big six studios is interested in your film, they will insist that you need to have a rating attached to the movie, as they are direct members of the MPAA.


At this point, a logical question would be, "What's the big deal? Why wouldn't you want to have a rating for your movie? "


It's no secret that most independent movies aren't likely to earn a G or even PG-13 rating. For that matter, the majority fall into the R-rated category and a significant number -- upon their first submission to CARA -- receive the even more restrictive NC-17 rating.


Movie marketers know the PG-13 rating is the box office "sweet spot." PG-13, PG, and G impose no age restrictions at the box office. They are merely "advisories" as to the content in the film. If a six year old can get to a theater, he can walk right in to a PG-13 film.


Thus, from a money-making perspective, the PG-13 rating is the perfect mix. It allows every age access to a film, but still subtly says to teen and adult patrons that there is some edgy content. However, an R-rating requires anyone under the age of 17 to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. (Although I'm certain it's unlikely anyone is asking for proof of guardianship at the box office.) Progressing further, an NC-17 film is not to be seen by anyone 17 or under. These restrictions can severely limit the amount of money your film will make, as teens form a huge part of movie audiences. But an even greater limiting factor exists, and for the most part is still outside the MPAA's circle of influence.


The owners of the buildings where these theaters reside, which are typically in shopping malls or similar developments, will often dictate that NC-17 movies cannot be shown on the premises. Other complications include newspapers and television stations that will not accept advertising for NC-17 movies. Finally, some theater owners simply don't think NC-17 movies are good for their business.


There's no doubt that getting an NC-17 movie to the marketplace is difficult, and that's where the issue of ratings is heating up.



Part 2 -- More NC-17 Movies Coming to a Theater Near You


For years, independent producers (and foreign filmmakers) have claimed their movies receive stricter ratings than movies coming from the big six studios that contain similar content. One filmmaker who decided to make a strong statement about this inequality is Kirby Dick. His recent documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, made its debut appearance at the Sundance Film Festival early last year, and circulated through art house theaters last fall.


Dick also contests that sexual content is rated more restrictively by CARA than is violence, and that sexual behavior seen as (quoting Mary Harron, the director of American Psycho who is interviewed in the film) "unusual forms of sex" are especially prone to receive a higher rating.


This Film Is Not Yet Rated received an NC-17 rating for the graphic sexual examples he includes from other films. Yet, it's obvious that Dick only submitted the film for a rating to make his point and gain access to the inner workings of CARA. Dick then surrendered his rating, made revisions to the film to include the rating process he went through (which obviously wasn't included in the version originally submitted to the MPAA) and then released it as an unrated movie.


On January 23, 2007 This Film is Not Yet Rated releases to DVD, and the timing is impeccable, with the head of the MPAA, Dan Glickman, visiting the Sundance Film Festival in Park City Utah and giving the producers there a big sense of hope for marketing edgier entertainment.


In the industry trade publication Daily Variety on January 16, 2007, it was reported that Glickman and ratings head Joan Graves would both be kicking off a "campaign" to help indie filmmakers and parents better understand the ratings system and make it more transparent.


His inspiration for making the changes? Dick's documentary.


Quoting Glickman directly from the article by Daily Variety writer Pamela McClintock: "The documentary made it clear that we probably haven't done as much as we can to explain how it all works," Glickman told Daily Variety, adding that the voluntary ratings system--devised and implemented by Jack Valenti, his predecessor -- is a "gem," even if it needs some polishing.


But on January 22, 2007, Variety's web publication variety.com reported the results of the "kickoff:" Glickman wants the movie business to embrace the NC-17 rating and has appointed a liaison to help filmmakers with questions about the ratings process. This is an obvious reaction to one of Kirby Dick's repeated points in his documentary is that no one knows who actually decides the rating of a movie at the MPAA. The names of the members of CARA's review board have always been secret, and filmmakers often receive conflicting reasons as to why a movie receives a particular rating.


But even more enticing to independent filmmakers working in edgy themes is Glickman's statement, "We are going to talk about this with the Directors Guild of America and NATO. [NC-17] is one of our ratings, and we would like to see it used more."


I'm betting this doesn't mean Glickman is going to instruct the board to issue more NC-17 ratings for movies that would now be rated R. That's further confirmed with another announcement he makes that explains how the ratings board will be using a new ratings descriptor to indicate certain R-rated movies aren't appropriate for younger children. (Hold that thought for a few paragraphs...)


How this affects you will depend on where you sit with all of these variables. Some families are more sensitive to sexual content than violence. Others are the opposite.


However, I see problems with these changes, which should concern every parent, no matter which side of the sex versus violence fence you sit on.


To begin, if we are looking forward to the prospect of having more NC-17 movies playing in our neighborhood theaters, NATO better be prepared to do a far more effective job of checking for age verification than has been done in the past. In December 2001, the Federal Trade Commission's Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A One-Year Follow-Up Review... indicated that a study conducted for the report witnessed one-third of 13-yar-olds and nearly two-thirds (62%) of sixteen-year-olds gained admittance to R-rated films without an accompanying adult.


This was just twelve months after the feds rattled the cages of the entertainment industry, threatening legislation-backed movie ratings if the MPAA's voluntary system could not be effectively enforced. Can we assume these compliance rates have improved any since then?


NC-17 films contain very high levels of sexual and violent content. It is probable to conclude a child or even teen could suffer psychological consequences after viewing such material. (I would suggest even many R-rated films have the potential to cause emotional harm to young viewers.)


Remember, unlike the bar on the corner of your street, 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.


Further, if NC-17 movies are to become financially viable, they will need to be marketed somewhere. Outdoor advertising? Television? The Internet? Movie trailers at the start of other films? Will the industry be able to police itself in these areas?


Finally, back to my earlier comment regarding the decision to qualify certain R-rated movies as not being appropriate for young children. What does that mean? Isn't that inherently obvious in the R-rating itself? Or is this indicative of plans for the MPAA and CARA to acquiesce on certain films with more explicit sexual content, and give them an R-rating with this new descriptor instead of an NC-17 in order to balance the perceived inequality between sexual and violent content? 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.


I can't help but feel as studios and independent producers fight this battle through the MPAA, that parents are on the outside of the loop. I fully endorse First Amendment rights, and recognize that those who want to produce NC-17 films have a right to do so. Yet children have rights as well, and it's up to adults to ensure their protection. The tobacco and alcohol industries have had to live with highly restrictive marketing and selling rules because their products are known to cause harm to children (and, arguably, adults). However, well over a thousand studies have concluded that violent media can have a detrimental impact on a child's mental health. Unfortunately, hardly any studies involving extreme sexual content have been completed, so we lack the scientific proof of potential harm.


Obviously, the answer is to make theaters as accountable as bars and retailers selling alcohol and tobacco. However, based on previous performance, I find it difficult to believe that theaters have the staff and resources to effectively limit access to minors from seeing these films, especially considering how many of their staff are minors themselves! And I'm certain these movies won't be exclusively promoted in "adult" media or in places where children won't be regularly seeing the advertisements.


I encourage parents to contact the MPAA and NATO and let them know they are being watched. The movie industry is already at risk of alienating a huge segment of their potential audience who write to me frequently complaining about not being able to find a film that meets with their tastes. Parents are frustrated with a ratings system that, despite the MPAA's claims of being very successful, is still used as a marketing ploy by many studios that release films cut to the very highest limits of the PG-13 or R-rating.


Our film industry is an essential part of our culture, and has long been a pastime families have enjoyed, and for the most part financed. With the constant pressure to push the envelope and appeal to a particular segment, which I personally believe is a small fraction of our society, Hollywood is at risk of writing itself a very unhappy ending.


Contact information for the organizations included in this article:

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)

Office of the Chairman and CEO

1600 Eye St., NW

Washington, DC 20006

Website: www.mpaa.org


Classification and Rating Administration (CARA)

15503 Ventura Boulevard

Encino, CA  91436

Website: www.cara.org


National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO)

P.O. Box 77318

Washington D.C. 20013-7318

Tel. 202.962-0054

Fax: 202.962-0370

Website: www.natoonline.org


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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