MPAA's Dozen Judge Movies for Millions
The 12 men and women gather privately in an Encino screening room nearly
every business day. Their professions range from hairdresser to health administrator to
homemaker. But their most important qualification--the one that the Motion Picture Assn.
of America believes best enables them to rate movies on behalf of society--is that they
Hired by the MPAA to assign its copyrighted symbols--G, PG, PG-13, R and
NC-17--to films, these parents sit in the dark, jotting notes on lighted clipboards. Their
decisions are guided by a few rules--the MPAA recommends, for example, that any drug use
in a film requires at least a PG-13 rating. But for the most part, the raters rely on gut
reactions to help them decide what most American parents will find objectionable.
do raters come to their conclusions? They do it subjectively, said Jack Valenti, the
MPAA's president and the author of the voluntary rating system that--with just a few
alterations-- has served the movie industry for 30 years. We're dealing in imprecise
boundaries here. In a secretive process carried out more than 600 times a year, the
MPAA's raters weigh the philosophical abstractions of societal mores against the concrete
details of a particular movie. After how many seconds does a lovemaking scene become what
the MPAA terms "too adult" to be rated R? How much blood has to flow before a
film's violence is "too rough or persistent" to be PG-13? Is gay sex more
troublesome than straight sex?
The answers are up to the raters, who discuss each film, then vote by
written ballot, with the majority prevailing. While a few filmmakers each year opt to
appeal a rating to a separate panel of movie industry representatives, by and large it is
the decisions of these Los Angeles-area parents that guide the choices of millions of
moviegoers. For people who wield such power, however, they enjoy unusual anonymity. Their
names are kept secret. They only interact with filmmakers indirectly, through
intermediaries. Even if they wanted to talk publicly about what they do, they can't: All
have signed confidentiality agreements. In the wake of the high school shootings in
Littleton, Colo., as politicians and parents across the country have stepped up their
scrutiny of movie content, there has been much talk about the MPAA rating system and its
role in restricting access to violent films. For example, President Clinton recently
forged an agreement with theater owners to begin requiring photo identification for entry
to R-rated films.
And yet, even as Clinton scolds the movie industry not to "make young
people want what your own rating system says they shouldn't have," very few people in
Washington seem to know how the MPAA's procedures actually work. Which puts them in good
company: Many in Hollywood find the rating process baffling as well.
"The MPAA has two different standards: one for violence, one for
sex," asserted writer-director Spike Lee while on a panel at this year's Cannes
Film Festival. "I mean, I like Saving Private Ryan very much,
especially the first hour. But if that's not an NC-17 film, I don't know what is. That's
the way war should be depicted. But when people walk around picking up their [severed]
arms and stuff like that, that's an R?"
In fact, most movies released in the United States are rated R--a whopping
65% of last year's films. Which may explain why, while a vast majority of parents tell
pollsters that they find the ratings system valuable, many also express frustration with
the amount of violence and profanity found on the screen. Inside the nation's multiplexes,
meanwhile, teenagers routinely thumb their noses at the ratings system, buying a ticket
for a PG movie, then slipping into the R next door. And lately, some filmmakers are
criticizing and even mocking the MPAA, as in the recently released South Park:
Bigger, Longer & Uncut. In the movie, which follows a bunch of kids who sneak
into an R-rated film, one character says: Remember what the MPAA says: Horrific,
deplorable violence is OK, as long as people don't say any naughty words.
Nearly everyone in Hollywood has a favorite story about the inconsistency
of the MPAA ratings board. Some believe big stars can coax preferable ratings out of the
MPAA, pointing to My Best Friend's Wedding, rated PG-13 despite the fact
that Julia Roberts uses a particular four-letter expletive in precisely the sexual manner
that the MPAA guidelines say ought to merit an R-rating. Others allege that big movie
studios wield clout not enjoyed by the independents. How else to explain, they say, why a
sexual threesome involving high school students got an R-rating in Columbia Pictures'
Things (1998) but an NC-17 (before being cut) in the upcoming independent film
Valenti vehemently denies that his raters have ever been manipulated by
movie studios, stars or anything else. And he insists that the rating system's lack of
hard and fast rules is its greatest strength. In contrast to the Hays Production Code,
which set very stringent regulations about movie language and behavior that were
forcefully implemented from the 1930s through the 1950s, Valenti says his system
accommodates changing mores and gives raters the flexibility to make judgments based on a
film's context. I disagree with a number of ratings that come out myself. Those are
errors of subjective judgment. But so long as there are no errors of integrity, I can
handle it, said the MPAA chief. What would you rather have? This crazy, weird,
mixed-up rating system? Or some federally enforced one with $10,000 fines for people who
would disobey it?
The MPAA's system--officially called the Classification and Rating
Administration--has at times been decried for being the very thing it seeks to prevent: a
censorship board. To call it voluntary is disingenuous, many in Hollywood point out, since
without an MPAA rating of an R or lower a movie cannot be advertised in many media
outlets, shown in many theaters or sold to some video stores. For these reasons, movie
studios usually contractually require directors to work with the MPAA to whittle films
down to at least an R-rating.
It's a form of self-censorship. It's the way the film industry feels
it keeps outsiders from telling them what they can put on the screen,"said
writer-director John Sayles, one of the few filmmakers who often finances his own films
and has at times released them without an MPAA rating.
MPAA Protects Raters' Identities
The MPAA will not disclose the identities of the seven women and five men
who rate America's movies, arguing that secrecy insulates them from pressure that might be
exerted by the entertainment industry or other groups.
But a biographical summary reveals that they range in age from 28 to 54.
Five were born in California, while the others hail from Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota,
New York, Ohio, Texas and Canada. All have completed high school; four stopped there, two
attended junior college and six are college graduates- two of whom also have advanced
professional degrees. Four of the raters are homemakers, the rest run the gamut: a
cabinetmaker, a customer service representative, a postal worker, a health administrator,
a hairdresser, a teacher, a food and beverage manager and a freelance manicurist. Their
spouses (all but two are currently married) include a lawyer, a community activist, a
mechanical repairman, a writer and a university administrator. Among them, they have 32
children who range in age from 5 to 29.
Besides parenthood, the raters have a few things in common. They live in
the San Fernando Valley or near enough that commuting to the MPAA's Ventura Boulevard
screening room is not a burden. They sit on the ratings board an average of four years,
though one current member has served nine years, and they are paid--though the MPAA won't
say how much. Raters are selected by Valenti, based on recommendations from community and
parent groups, and he says he strives to have the board reflect the diversity of the
American public. Reluctant to give details, spokesman Rich Taylor would say only that the
current board includes at least two whites, two Latinos, two blacks and two Asian
In a typical day, the raters watch, discuss and vote on three films.
Guiding them in this process are two board co-chairmen--MPAA executives who participate in
ratings discussions but do not formally vote. Not all raters see all movies. A minimum of
eight is usually required to pass judgment on a film, but if a vote is close, the
co-chairmen often ask more raters to weigh in.
While filmmakers never address the board directly, there is plenty of give
and take. If, for example, a filmmaker is unhappy with the board's initial rating, he may
contact one of the co-chairmen to learn, at least in general terms, what the board found
troubling. When changes have been made, the board sees the film again.
During their service, raters experience what Valenti calls "every
trick in the book." Director Martin Scorsese is said to have submitted his films with
extra garish footage, so he would have something to cut when the board came back to him.
Other directors have attempted to wear the raters down by showing them a film over and
over after making only the slightest changes. (MPAA got wise to this ploy and instituted a
new rule: After three screenings of a film, the board will not see it again for a month.)
And Miramax has been known to intentionally court an NC-17 rating for a film, inserting
graphic material to whip up publicity, then editing down to an R before release. While the
board's deliberations are kept confidential, every once in a while internal studio memos
surface that reveal how filmmakers and distributors interact with the MPAA. In 1997, for
example, New Line Cinema was seeking an R rating for Paul Thomas Anderson's film about the
pornography industry, Boogie Nights. Still making the rounds today are a
half-dozen memos, penned by a New Line executive, that summarized the rating board's
reactions to the film. The memos give a glimpse of the meticulous--some would say
humorless--way the MPAA does its work. Delving deeper into each questionable scene
with [the board] this morning, the following may but are not guaranteed to
produce an R. We must wait and see, the executive wrote after the board had seen the
film for the fifth time. The cuts listed below are EXACTLY what must be done. . . .
Use only snippets of the couple [having sex]. I mean two seconds on each of two
shots. . . . Judging the visuals [of another sex scene] is
dramaticallycomplicated by the pre-orgasm dialogue. Half the nudity must be cut.
In another memo, the executive warned that resubmitting the film to the
rating board without heeding its comments and making changes was unwise.
this in no uncertain terms. Another screening at which they feel they are being ignored
will likely entrench their strong feelings toward an NC-17.
More recently, Paramount Pictures'
South Park: Bigger, Longer
& Uncut was screened six times by the MPAA board before it finally got an
R-rating. Studio memos leaked to several media organizations revealed a similarly clinical
analysis of racy material.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of
have not been shy about expressing their disdain for the rating board, which they allege
to be so out of touch with the culture that its nit-picking eventually made the movie
raunchier. Originally, our movie was called South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose.'The
MPAA said, You can't say 'hell' in the title, Parker said. He and Stone's
counterproposal for the title was an obvious penis joke, he said, but the MPAA approved
it. They just didn't get it. There's no way to know if Parker is right because
the MPAA will not comment on how it rated any particular film. But in all likelihood, the
truth is more complex. Charged with applying ratings that they believe a majority of
Americans would find suitable, the board could well have "gotten" the penis
joke, but decided that most people wouldn't.
Meanwhile, distributors who reject the rating board's verdict, appealing
to the MPAA's separate Rating Appeals Board, are even more inventive. They solicit
lettersfrom child psychologists who deem a particular movie harmless, for example, and
often send movie stars or big-name directors to plead their case. For example, Harrison
Ford appeared before the appeals board (made up primarily of movie studio representatives
and exhibitors) to try to get a PG-13 rating for Air Force One. (The
board upheld the original rating--R--as it does in two-thirds of the cases it hears.)
Clint Eastwood had more luck, getting the original R-rating on The Bridges of
Madison County (given because of some sexually explicit dialogue) downgraded to
Board Softer on Violence Than Sex?
Valenti has heard the charge that the MPAA is more restrictive about sex
than violence. He denies it, citing figures which show that last year the board initially
gave an NC-17 rating to 154 films for sex and language, compared with 174 films for
violence. (A vast majority of the filmmakers opted to cut their films in order to get an
R.) Still, he acknowledges that violence is hardest to evaluate. "With language, they
either say it or they don't. With sex, there's just so many ways you can couple. Violence
is a little more complicated," he said. "There's 'Saving Private Ryan' violence,
'Reservoir Dogs' violence, even 'High Noon' violence. 'Saving Private Ryan' was a
reenactment of one of the most crucial days in American history. I think every 13-year-old
in the country ought to see it, even though it was rated R, to understand that the freedom
you take for granted was paid for in blood."
But this kind of argument--that violence shown for "good"
purposes is better than violence shown merely to titillate--has gotten Hollywood into
trouble in Washington lately. The reason: It begs the question, who defines goodness? And
how? "Because the MPAA is anonymous, there isn't any accountability," wrote one
participant in a continuing online discussion of the MPAA rating system on the popular
movie-related Web site Ain't It Cool News atwww.aint-it-cool-news.com. Either get rid
of the ratings system, or find some way to make the MPAA accountable for their ratings.
Another person wrote: The problem lies in the idea that we should entrust the rating
of a film to a randomly chosen group of adults . . . located somewhere in or around
Southern California. [This] is an imposition of the tastes and eccentricities of Southern
California on the the entire nation. Those tastes have prompted some criticism. Some
allege, for example, that when it comes to sexuality, the board judges gay relationships
much more strictly than straight ones. To wit: To get a PG-13 rating, the makers of the
sequel Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me had to omit a gag in which
Rob Lowe, who plays a younger version of Robert Wagner's role as Dr. Evil's sidekick, was
shown in bed with Wagner. "EDtv," meanwhile, which featured scenes of Matthew
McConaughey and Elizabeth Hurley's characters having sex on a table and McConaughey
masturbating under the bedsheets, got a PG-13.
And some suspect that the MPAA rates films about female sexuality tougher
than those focusing on men. For example, an independent teen comedy called
Soon that was a hit at the Seattle International Film Festival has had trouble
finding a domestic distributor (20th Century Fox bought international rights) after being
rated NC-17. The film, which is about three teenage girls who talk frankly about sex and
their interest in it, contains no nudity and no violence. The filmmaker has said that when
she accused the board of having a gender-based double standard she was told that the board
was merely reflecting the mores of the nation.
All this has prompted some to question how much the ratings actually tell
consumers. The letters tell you virtually nothing unless you're a person who
knows you don't want to see any sexuality or violence, said Joan Bertin, executive
director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York-based nonprofit
organization that does 1st Amendment education and advocacy. Bertin worries about recent
attempts to enforce the rating system, like the agreement Clinton reached with theater
owners to require identification for entry to R-rated films. When the president
strong-arms the industry that way, taking this so-called voluntary code and enforcing it,
this subjective process undertaken in secret by a bunch of civilians has now acquired the
force of law, she said. It's a de facto delegation [of power] to this group of
parents out in California. Lately, though, filmmakers have found new ways to satisfy
both the MPAA and themselves--not to mention get a little publicity. For example, James
Toback, the director of Palm Pictures' upcoming Black and White, has put
both the R-rated and the NC-17 version of the film's opening scene on the Internet at
www.blackandwhitefilm.com so moviegoers can
make up their own minds.
And instead of cutting an orgy scene in
Eyes Wide Shut to
obtain an R-rating, the late Stanley Kubrick used digital technology to add characters to
block out particularly racy shots The result: Kubrick's original vision exists and will be
seen, at the very least, in Europe. Film critic Roger Ebert, however, is disappointed by
this tactic. He has criticized Warner Bros., which is releasing Kubrick's film, for not
having the courage to embrace the NC-17 rating--thus confronting the system and perhaps
redefining how audiences view the MPAA's most severe label. By fiddling around with
digital technology, Ebert charges, the studio has produced an R-rated film which is
not, in fact, appropriate for most viewers under 17--with or without adult guardians. . .
. [Warner Bros. has made] the film more, not less accessible to younger
audiences, while denying adult audiences the power of Kubrick's original vision.
The current MPAA rating system was created in the late 1960s, when several
societal and judicial factors convinced Valenti that change was needed. When he took over
the MPAA in 1966, he inherited the Hays Code, a forbidding list of "Do's" and
"Don'ts." With the sexual revolution in full swing, the Hays Code read like a
relic. In April 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutional power of
states and cities to prevent the exposure of children to books and films that could not be
denied to adults, Valenti resolved to act. The movie industry would constantly be looking
over its shoulder, he felt, if it had to debate film content with myriad municipal
censorship boards--more than 40 of which were in existence at the time.
He created the current voluntary system, financed by the movie industry
itself, that would not approve or disapprove film content but instead would advise parents
so they could make informed decisions. Essentially, that system remains in place. And
Valenti plans to keep it that way. The answer is zero, he said when asked what,
if anything, he might change about the system today. It's working.
The MPAA Movie Rating System
The ratings board enjoys enormous latitude in evaluating film content. But
under a system created in 1968, the MPAA offers a few specific guidelines.
Any drug use content will initially require at least a PG-13 rating.
If nudity is sexually oriented, or if violence is too rough and
persistent, the film should be rated R.
A single use of a particular curse word (described by the MPAA as
"harsh" and "sexually derived") as an expletive merits at least a
PG-13 rating. Two uses of this word as an expletive requires an R rating, as does a single
use of the word in a sexual context
G: General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for
PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate
for children under 13.
R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17: No one 17 and under admitted