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Change in Film Ratings Favored : Parents Want More Details; Producers Want Status Quo

By a wide margin--73% to 18%--American adults favor changing the motion picture ratings system to reflect the content that earns films their ratings, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

The nationwide telephone poll, conducted this month, revealed that while most adults (60%) say they find the G, PG, PG-13, R and X ratings scale useful as a guide for deciding which films children should see, they would like the ratings to carry additional codes to signal excessive profanity, sex or violence.

Nearly 40% of the 1,826 respondents said they are equally concerned with the amount of sex, violence and profanity in films, while 27% singled out violence and 20% named sexual content as their chief concerns.

Only 6% said they were primarily concerned with profanity.

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In another area, 92% of poll respondents agreed that video stores should enforce the ratings system and not rent or sell R, X or unrated films to minors.

The clear messages from the poll:

--Americans are adamant about needing a monitoring system for the movies their children see.

--The movie ratings, initiated as a voluntary industry system by the Motion Picture Assn. of America in 1968, has become an accepted part of the cultural landscape.

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--The ratings, as now used, are too vague.

Responding to the results of the Times Poll, MPAA President Jack Valenti said he is opposed to making any further changes in the ratings system.

Valenti acknowledged that the inherent vagueness of the ratings is a problem (“More information is what parents would like to have, no question about it”), but said he is opposed to adding the symbols V (violence), S (sex) and L (language) because they would merely add to the confusion.

“I don’t think a parent would be satisfied with V, S or L,” Valenti said, in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. “I don’t know what that tells them. It doesn’t tell me anything.”

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Valenti said that an added V would indicate that a film contains violence, but it would beg additional questions about the type of violence and the severity of it.

“That would be a logistical nightmare,” Valenti said. “If its says V, (the moviegoer) wants to know what kind of violence . . . to what degree, in what detail. I am unwilling to give insufficient information to people. It would be dishonest to the picture.”

Valenti, a White House aide during Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, created the current ratings system as a way of staving off local and regional censorship of movies in the wake of a 1968 Supreme Court ruling confirming the right of communities to establish their own film- classification systems.

Having hundreds of local film boards rating movies was a daunting prospect for film makers and distributors, so Valenti set in motion the Classification and Rating Administration to rate films out-of-the-box from Hollywood.

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The board, which is composed of a changing six-person panel of paid Los Angeles-based parents, plus a permanent president, has rated nearly 8,000 movies during its 19 years, and it has met Valenti’s objective of fending off local censorship.

It also has faced a steady barrage of criticism from people inside and outside the industry for ratings that often seem arbitrary and occasionally discriminatory.

Independent film makers and distributors who are not members of the MPAA have frequently accused the organization of showing favoritism to members during ratings appeals hearings.

Producers who are unhappy with their ratings can argue their case before a larger body, but the independents say they lose a disproportionate number of their arguments.

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Film critics have often voiced outrage over incidents where ratings have forced artistic compromises. Earlier this year, English director Alan Parker made several trips to the editing room, cutting one scene in “Angel Heart” frame by frame until the ratings board gave the movie (shortened by 10 seconds) an R rating.

When the ratings were established, the MPAA copyrighted the symbols G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested) and R (no one under 17 admitted without parent or guardian). Valenti said the X (adults only) was not copyrighted on the advice of MPAA attorneys who said that if film makers were not allowed to self-apply the most severe rating, the association could be subject to charges of discrimination.

The early days of the ratings system paralleled the advent of the porno film industry, and pornographers began self-applying the X (usually multiplying it by three) to its products.

As a result, the X has become associated in the public consciousness almost exclusively with hard-core pornography. Because many newspapers and broadcast media refuse advertising for films branded X, the major studios no longer attempt to market pictures given the MPAA’s “adults only” rating.

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Directors like Parker must now agree contractually to deliver films rated no stronger than R, and critics have rallied to their cries of artistic censorship whenever the ratings board has insisted on changes.

Valenti said decisions to alter films for broader ratings are economic decisions and that if directors sign such contracts, “they are bargaining away their artistic integrity.”

Critics and others have suggested changing the X to A (adults only), but Valenti said that would merely give pornographers a new symbol to adopt and that we would soon be back where we started.

“A rating takes on the patina of the films which inhabit the category,” Valenti said. “In a New York minute, newspapers, exhibitors, parents, just plain moviegoers would ‘know’ what the new label meant to them.”

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David Friedman, president of the Adult Film and Video Assn., said the porn-film industry would not abandon the X for whatever symbol the MPAA substituted for it. Friedman said the X was useful in establishing an identity for hard-core films two decades ago, but in their specialized market, X now marks the spot.

Valenti has also resisted adding another category, one between R and X, on the grounds that it would dilute the impact and usefulness of the ratings system.

“If you start calibrating this thing so thinly, you’re going to corrupt it,” he said.

Valenti was also opposed to the creation of PG-13, a cautionary rating sandwiched between PG and R, until other influential members of the MPAA--reacting to public indignation over the violence in the PG-rated “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"--insisted on it.

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At last month’s convention of theater owners in Atlanta, Valenti released results of an Opinion Research Corp. survey that showed that 73% of parents approve of the ratings system. An accompanying press release quoted the Opinion Research Corp. as saying “the introduction of PG-13 and its attendant publicity has contributed positively to the results.”

The press release said Valenti was “particularly heartened” by the apparent acceptance of the PG-13 rating.

The Times Poll asked parents whether they actually use the ratings in determining which films their children can see. About six of 10 said they use the ratings “often” or “always.” Four in 10 said they use it “seldom” or “never.”

Valenti said he was pleased by The Times Poll’s figures.

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“Any time you have a majority close to 60%, I count it very good,” he said. “In politics, it would be a landslide.”

As for making the ratings more specific, Valenti said the responsibility rests “100%" with parents.

“I think there are limits to what can be done in a simple ratings system. This system demands parental responsibility. . . . The ratings are cautionary warnings, flares fired in the night. It is up to parents to act on the flare.”

From The Times Poll, it seems clear that the enforcement of film ratings at video stores is becoming a major issue with parents. The Video Software Dealers Assn. last month endorsed the MPAA ratings and encouraged its members to enforce them.

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But are they?

“I think the majority of stores are enforcing them,” said Lou Fogelman, president of Show Industries, and a member of the dealer association’s board. “It behooves us to enforce them. There is obviously a lot of concern about it.”

Fogelman acknowledged problems with enforcing a system that has no legal underpinnings to begin with. If minors insist on renting R-rated tapes, the store can enforce the rating only by refusing to serve them.

“There is not an easy solution,” Fogelman said. “All we can do is police ourselves and try to adhere to the ratings.”

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Fogelman said there have been discussions about a video dealer’s ratings system, but the logistics and costs of establishing one--plus the confusion it would undoubtedly cause--have prevented the discussions from getting very Results of Times Poll of Attitudes Toward Ratings

How Often Do You Use the Ratings?

Always 26%

Often 31%

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Seldom 22%

Never 19%

Unsure/refused 2%

Favor or Oppose Adding Additional Grades Like V for Violence, S for Sex, L for Strong Language.

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Favor strongly 54%

Favor somewhat 18%

Oppose somewhat 9%

Oppose strongly 10%

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Unsure/refused 9%

Which Gives You the Most Concern: Scenes With Excessive Violence? Scenes With Unduly Explicit Sexual Activity? Scenes With Unnecessary Profanity?

None 4%

Profanity 6%

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Violence 27%

Sex 20%

Equal 39%

Uncertain/other 4%

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Video Stores Should Not Rent R or X or unrated films to children.

Agree 92%

Disagree 6%

Unsure/refused 2%

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(The telephone survey of 1,826 adult respondents has a margin of error of 3%. Results of the “How Often Do You Use the Ratings?” question reflect the answers of parents with children under 17 only.)

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