A low-budget, inspirational football movie made by Baptist pastors in Georgia has triggered a flood of attacks by Christian groups that accuse Hollywood's main trade association of penalizing the film by giving it a PG rating.
In the last week alone, the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which oversees the rating board, has been swamped with more than 15,000 e-mails arguing that "Facing the Giants" deserves a more family-friendly G rating. The complaints -- the number of which may be 10 times the previous record for reaction to a ratings decision -- say the movie is being unfairly targeted for its religious themes.
The filmmakers say they were told that those themes had prompted the PG rating. MPAA officials deny that was the reason.
Across the Internet and on talk radio, religious groups and conservative commentators have seized on the rating flap as evidence that Hollywood is anti-Christian. And the third-ranking House Republican has written to MPAA Chief Executive Dan Glickman demanding answers.
"This incident raises the disquieting possibility that MPAA considers exposure to Christian themes more dangerous for children than exposure to gratuitous sex and mindless violence," said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
The MPAA created the voluntary film rating system in 1968 in response to public concerns about increasingly daring Hollywood productions. A 10-person board of parents, solicited from groups such as the PTA, serves the Classification and Rating Administration, an independent body funded by filmmakers.
By design, the process is cloaked in secrecy. Except for the chairwoman, board members' names are not made public and the deliberations are conducted in private, in part to shield board members from outside pressure. But filmmakers often complain that the board's decisions can be arbitrary, inconsistent and so lacking in specificity that it's hard to know why they were applied.
So opaque is the system that director Kirby Dick made a documentary about it, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film examined what Dick alleged was the MPAA's habit of imposing more restrictive ratings on explicit depictions of sex than on gruesome violence.
Usually, ratings battles focus on the other end of the scale, with filmmakers lobbying to get an R instead of an NC-17, or sometimes a PG-13 instead of an R. But always, the debates center on the inherently subjective nature of the decision-making.
"Facing the Giants" appears to be a case in point. The MPAA rating board gave the film, which is about a high school football team that succeeds through faith, a PG rating "for some thematic elements."
Confusion about the precise meaning of that vague phrase is at the heart of the outcry.
Joan Graves, chairwoman of the MPAA's rating board, said Tuesday that the decision had nothing to do with Christianity but was based on football violence as well as the inclusion of mature topics such as depression and infertility.
In a rare interview granted in an attempt to defuse what she calls a controversy born of miscommunication, Graves said that although infertility and depression are involved in the coach's "crisis of faith," the religious story line itself did not raise a red flag.
"If we see somebody on the screen practicing their faith and indicating they have a faith, that's not something we PG," Graves said, adding that the board's goal is simply to alert parents to content in movies that they should research.
"We think our rating is correct," she said of "Facing the Giants." "I think it gives parents an alert that there may be something in the film they'd want to know about."
A PG rating means that the MPAA board believes parents need to determine whether their children should see the film. A G rating means the board believes a movie is suitable for all audiences.
A spokeswoman for the filmmakers, however, said they had expected a PG rating because of the infertility subject matter, but that's not the reason they were given.
"When we asked what the reason for the PG was, we were told it was the religious content," said Julie Fairchild, the spokeswoman. She added that the rating board representatives they spoke with "didn't even mention the infertility."
Graves acknowledged that the board's justification for a PG rating may not have been clearly expressed to the filmmakers. Alex and Stephen Kendrick, the brothers who made the movie, have no plans to appeal the rating, their spokeswoman said.
The film stars a volunteer cast from the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. Members raised $100,000 to finance the production, which Samuel Goldwyn Films and Destination Films, a unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment, plan to release in September in about 400 theaters.
Ironically, some Christian groups believe the PG rating -- not to mention the publicity -- will attract more teenagers, who typically shun G-rated films.
"I think that a G for a lot of teenagers is the kiss of death," said Bob Waliszewski, a media specialist with Focus on the Family, a Christian group.
Waliszewski screened "Facing the Giants" and contends the PG rating isn't warranted. But, he said, "it's a case where unfairness will probably be a blessing in disguise."