MPAA's Big Chance to Change

Ramona Ripston is executive director and Allan Parachini is director of public affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California

The recent announcement of a change in command at the Motion Picture Assn. of America's classification board affords an opportunity for the industry and the MPAA to partly mitigate the chilling influence of the ratings system on artistic expression ("Film Ratings Board Picks Mosk as Its New Leader," Calendar, June 29).

During the two decades that the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration was headed by Richard Heffner, it evolved as a Star Chamber body. CARA refuses to identify its members, screens films in secret and declines to give filmmakers specific reasons why their work has received, for example, an NC-17 instead of an R.

Because of the power CARA and MPAA hold over film marketplace, the secret rating system effectively wields the power to kill any film without having to state reasons for the action.

The MPAA, led by its president, Jack Valenti, offers a stock response to criticism. If the MPAA did not exist, so Valenti says, filmmakers would have to contend with hundreds of local governmental rating boards. We reject this argument as unsubstantiated, self-serving and a weak attempt to justify arbitrary MPAA censorship.

The power to bar a film from access to the broadest audience has long made CARA and the MPAA a force for filmmakers to fear. This fear is nowhere more pervasive than among the ranks of independent filmmakers.


Filmmakers today find they must play a game with their work in which they must somehow divine how a secret panel of viewers, employing criteria that have never been publicly enumerated, will react. When filmmakers question the reasons for ratings they have received, they are usually unable to obtain any specific response and are often smugly reminded they have the alternative to release their films unrated. In conveying such information, MPAA officials always know full well unrated films will have a difficult--in some cities impossible--time in getting theater bookings, being advertised and being reviewed.

With the departure of Heffner and arrival of attorney Richard Mosk, CARA and the MPAA have a unique opportunity for reflection. Although any industry-run ratings scheme like MPAA would have entirely too much censorship power, the fact is that the industry has accepted MPAA, for better or for worse.

That said, the Heffner-to-Mosk transition offers a challenge to CARA and the MPAA to:

* Identify members of CARA and produce criteria for what qualifies CARA's panel members.

* Permit filmmakers to interact directly with CARA to address its concerns.

* Give filmmakers specific reasons for a rating. Often, something as cryptic as "too much skin in the bedroom scene" or "too much violence in the third car chase" would permit filmmakers to at least know why an otherwise arbitrary rating has been issued.

That is not to say that the MPAA rating system would safeguard artistic integrity and free expression entirely, even if such changes were made. However, reform of the CARA-MPAA system could go a long way toward making an imperfect system less so and to making it easier for filmmakers to understand decisions that control their creative lives and their livelihoods.

We hope Mr. Mosk is open to such reform. As so many people in the creative community already know, it is high time for such a change.

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