The MPAA’s Joan Graves watches out for the movie watchers


Joan Graves has never published a movie review in her life, but she is arguably more powerful than any movie critic in the country. As the head of the movie ratings system for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, Graves presides over a 10-member board that rates more than 700 films annually and assigns them one of five grades, from G to NC-17.

It’s the kind of job that, it’s safe to say, probably makes a lot of people wonder how the board comes up with that decision. Graves, a mother of two, says it often gets down more to gut feeling than rocket science: “What would I want to know about this film before I let my child see it?”

Graves joined the MPAA as a part-time “rater” in 1988 after working in commercial real estate. In 2000, she became chairwoman of the group’s Classification and Rating Administration, Hollywood’s self-governing ratings system. The organization traditionally has had all the transparency of Opus Dei, but Graves is now eager to “demystify” the group’s work by talking about the process by which it reaches decisions.

Members of the Rating Board typically watch three movies a day, five days a week (Graves herself still tries to see at least one each day) and receive “teacher’s pay,” Graves says.

The MPAA recently redesigned its ratings website (at It allows parents to search individual films dating back to 1968 -- when the ratings system was launched -- by title, year or rating, along with a general description of the potentially objectionable content. The site also allows consumers to subscribe to a free weekly e-mail service, called Red Carpet Ratings, that provides ratings information on current films.

Why the online makeover?

We wanted to make our website more user-friendly, so parents know where they can get information about our ratings and the descriptions and make their choices better. It’s been almost two decades since we started adding descriptions, but parents are still saying, “We don’t know where to find them.” If you look at the welcome page, you can pretty much click and be happy. Before, we were in the dark ages.

Some people think you operate behind a veil of secrecy. I take it you’re trying to change that view?

We aren’t very secretive, but we know there are some misunderstandings about what we do and how we do it. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a cartoon featuring a man in overalls at a dreary desk with a long-dead plant. The caption read: “Housed deep within the bowels of the Motion Picture Assn. of America is a man named Wallace McEntyre, and he, and he alone, understands what may or may not be appropriate for children under 13.”

My name’s not Wallace and I’m not partial to overalls, but I do feel that an important part of my job is to demystify the work that my colleagues and I do to provide information to parents.

What’s the biggest fallacy?

The biggest misimpression is that people in Hollywood do this. In fact, the parents who sit on our ratings board can’t have anything to do with the film industry, and member companies don’t even know their names. We try to keep them anonymous so they won’t be subject to any pressure.

We have 10 members, each of them parents, who serve on our board, usually for seven years. We try to have a mix from all over the country, from big cities and small towns, and we avoid people who have an agenda. After they watch a movie, a senior rater hands out ballots and the parents vote on what rating to assign to the film. It’s majority rule. If the producer agrees with our assessment, the movie is certified and rated. If they disagree with us, they can take it to an appeals board made up of industry people.

Isn’t this a subjective process, ultimately?

At the end of the day our job as raters is simple -- to ask the question any parent would ask: What would I want to know about this film before I let my child see it? Of course, the answers to these questions change as society changes. Scenes that may have caused a scandal 40 years ago are more commonplace today. Rhett Butler’s famous declaration in “Gone With the Wind,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” comes to mind.

There’s the board’s rating. And then there’s the rating everyone else thinks the movie should have been given.

We do get some complaints and I get a lot of feedback from people I talk to, including from my own family. I have two daughters, and they certainly let me know if they think we might have gotten a rating wrong.

richard.verrier@latimes .com