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 have kids.
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.
"How 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' "Wild Things" (1998) but an NC-17 (before being cut) in the upcoming independent film "Black and White"?
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 Americans.
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. "They've said 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 "South Park," 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 PG-13.
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 "Coming 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."
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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 children.
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.
In 1998, the MPAA rated 662 films.
Sources: The Motion Picture Assn. of America and its Web site www.mpaa.org
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The Hays Code
The Hays Production Code, on the books from 1922 to 1968, set very specific and stringent regulations about language and behavior in movies. Below, excerpts from the code as it existed in 1956.
* Crime: Crime shall never be presented in a way [that might] inspire others with a desire for imitation. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail. Drug addiction or the illicit traffic in addiction-producing drugs shall not be shown if the portrayal stresses, visually or by dialogue, their temporarily attractive effects.
* Sex: The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. No film shall [imply] that casual or promiscuous sex relationships are the accepted or common thing. Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden.
* Language: Vulgar expressions and double meaning having the same effect are forbidden. This shall include but not be limited to such words and expressions as chippie, fairy, goose, nuts, SOB, son-of-a.
* Obscenity: Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or emphasizing indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene. Obscenity in words, gesture, reference, song, joke or by suggestion, even when likely to be understood by only part of the audience, is forbidden.
Sources: The Motion Picture Assn. of America and its Web site