Ratings ‘Ain’t Broke,’ Board Chair Says : Movies: Richard Mosk, the new head of the MPAA board, says he sees few, if any, problems with the current system.
Filmmakers and distributors expecting to see radical changes in the way their movies are rated are in for a big disappointment.
Richard Mosk, the new chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration board, who last month replaced 20-year veteran Richard Heffner, says he sees little, if anything, wrong with the system that’s been used to designate film ratings in this country for the past 25 years.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t break it,” quipped the 55-year-old civil litigation attorney in a recent interview at the Century City law offices of Sanders, Barnet, Goldman, Simons and Mosk, where he has been a partner since 1987.
“Anything can be improved, but I can’t foresee any revolutionary changes,” noted Mosk, whose button-down demeanor and conservative attire--gray pin-stripe suit and starched white shirt--clearly don’t suggest someone interested in bucking the status quo. “It’s not my style. I’m not a rabble-rouser,” assures Mosk, son of California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk.
This spells bad news for those hoping a change in the board’s administration could signal a potential overhauling of a ratings system that for years has come under fire by various filmmakers and independent production and distribution companies who view it as rigid, outdated and a license to censor creative works.
In a recent commentary that appeared in The Times (“MPAA’s Big Chance to Change,” Calendar, July 18), American Civil Liberties Union executive director Ramona Ripston and public affairs director Allan Parachini (a former Times reporter) suggested that a Heffner-to-Mosk transition “affords an opportunity for the industry and the MPAA to partly mitigate the chilling influence of the ratings systems on artistic expression.”
The ACLU charged that the board “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,” and challenged the MPAA and the ratings board to resolve the issues.
Mosk takes issue with the ACLU’s complaints. He argues that senior raters “do identify themselves” to studios or producers in discussing a rating. In many cases, Mosk said, Joan Graves, who was just promoted to vice chairman of the board, acts as the point person.
Joe Fineman, head of post-production at New Line Pictures, concurs that he often talks directly to Graves and sometimes one of the other board members, though he said he doesn’t know them all by name.
Miramax Films’ vice president of marketing David Dinerstein says he too speaks to Graves on day-to-day matters, but besides her, “We never talk to the board or know who they are other than when a film of ours goes up for appeal.”
Like Heffner, Mosk plans to be a direct conduit. “Anyone is free to talk to me,” says Mosk, who unlike his New York-based predecessor lives in Los Angeles, dividing his time between his law practice and ratings job.
He supports the MPAA’s longstanding position that it would be detrimental to publicly identify all board members. “We don’t want people trying to affect them in some way, so it enhances the integrity of the system to keep them anonymous.”
Fineman said in the mid-'70s, when he was working for veteran horror movie producer Roger Corman, “We used to actually sit in the screenings with the raters and had a kind of negotiation with them.”
That’s no longer the case. Films are submitted by producers to the ratings board, which is based in Burbank and is made up of eight to 11 paid members, all of whom are parents. Their job is to provide guidelines to other parents about a movie’s suitability for children. Every film submitted is viewed by the board, then voted on following a group discussion about what most average American parents would consider to be its proper rating.
“Sometimes distributors and producers will complain about a rating, but these are views of what a typical parent would think--it’s a representative sampling,” Mosk explains.
The new ratings chief also objects to the ACLU’s charge that filmmakers are not given specific reasons for a rating. “The idea that they are not told why is just untrue . . . they are told specifics to a particular scene.”
But several Hollywood executives complain that the MPAA tends to be more vague than specific. “They prefer to give you general guidelines and let you interpret what they mean,” one studio executive says. Another top studio executive adds, “Unless it’s a rules violation (you can’t say the F-word more than once and get a PG-13), they’ll usually be vague.”
Dinerstein and his Miramax boss, co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, whose company has had a contentious relationship with the MPAA over ongoing ratings battles, say they find the board’s lack of specificity extremely frustrating. “They indicate to us, but they don’t zero in on an area,” says Weinstein, who is currently fighting the board over back-to-back NC-17 ratings that were slapped on Miramax’s upcoming releases “The Advocate” and “Clerks.” NC-17 bars admission of anyone under 17.
In the case of “The Advocate,” a courtroom thriller based on fact and set in the 15th Century, Dinerstein said, “They wouldn’t tell me exactly what was wrong, only that it had to do with a sexual encounter” between the film’s co-stars Colin Firth and Sophie Dix. The scene does involve nudity, admits Weinstein, who says he was more perplexed over the MPAA’s problem with “Clerks,” a low-budget movie about two New Jersey convenience store cashiers. The film won prizes at this year’s Cannes and Sundance film festivals.
“We were led to guess what they didn’t like, but they wouldn’t give us specifics other than it was about a hilarious off-screen sex scene,” said Weinstein, whose company is appealing both films’ ratings.
Mosk, who at this early stage said he is more “an observer than a participant” in the ratings process, did have a phone conversation with Dinerstein about “The Advocate” in which the Miramax executive said Mosk told him he would watch the film again and get back to him.
“We’re not editors,” Mosk says. “We will point to specific scenes when possible, but if something (like violence or sex) is pervasive, sometimes it can’t be identified so an impressionistic view is given.”
The board’s chairman also points out that “there isn’t a rating until the party accepts it,” and that distributors have three choices when a rating is issued: They can accept it, appeal it, or re-edit their work and resubmit it.
Mosk’s job also entails representing the appeals board on any ratings debate, a task he says he is well prepared for. “I’ve been a litigator all my life,” notes Mosk, who was a member of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and a member of the Christopher Commission that investigated the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney G. King beating.
If a company is not an MPAA member (all major Hollywood studios are), it also has the choice of releasing a film unrated, but that can be problematic when it comes to getting adequate theater bookings, advertising and reviews.
Mosk, who says, “I do not set policy,” insists that if any changes to the existing rating system were to be implemented they would not come from him but from a joint committee of the MPAA and the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. “Generally speaking, the board votes and gives a film a rating. As chairman, I’m there to deal with problems as they arise.”
But Mosk may have more influence over the board than he’s willing to admit. He says he can vote if he chooses, and, “hopefully, they will listen to my opinion.” MPAA president Jack Valenti--who instituted the “voluntary movie rating system” as a replacement for the outmoded Hays Production Code in 1968--takes no part in rating decisions.
Like Valenti, Mosk defends the system as far more desirable than government-controlled censor boards around the world or the alternative of contending with hundreds of local boards.
The ACLU rejects that argument as “unsubstantiated, self-serving and a weak attempt to justify arbitrary MPAA censorship.”
Mosk, who has been screening at least one film a day, says so far he is “pleasantly surprised at how well (the system) runs.”
On a personal note, he said he and his wife always relied on movie ratings to determine what was appropriate for their children to see when they were young (they’re now 24 and 27).
Mosk--a native Angeleno who grew up in a middle-class family in Westwood and frequented the Village and Bruin theaters--said, “I even use it to look at ratings for myself.”