MPAA’s new film ratings chief Kelly McMahon brings fresh eyes to a 50-year-old system
Motion Picture Assn. of America’s new film-rating chief Kelly McMahon can relate to parents who have to figure out what’s appropriate for their kids to watch. She has an 8-year-old son who loves scary movies.
The 46-year-old longtime corporate lawyer says she’ll let her son watch a film like “Jaws,” which got a surprisingly low PG rating in 1975. But she knows other parents wouldn’t allow their kids to see the intense classic shark movie.
“We’re in the minority, I know,” McMahon says with a smile at the MPAA’s offices at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, where the nonprofit organization screens movies for its team of movie raters. “I’m not going to turn on ‘Jaws’ when his friends are over.”
Those kinds of judgment calls have recently taken on a much larger significance for McMahon, who now has one of the thorniest and least-understood jobs in Hollywood. On Monday, McMahon took over as head of the MPAA’s ratings board, leading the small group of parents who anonymously assign ratings, ranging from G to NC-17, to hundreds of movies a year.
She replaces Joan Graves, 77, who recently retired after 18 years as head of the ratings body.
The MPAA, led by former U.S. ambassador Charles Rivkin, is looking to McMahon to bring a fresh perspective to the 50-year-old ratings system, which has sometimes taken heat from moviegoers, filmmakers and political groups. Some critics have accused the MPAA of permitting too much violence in PG-13 movies, while being overly sensitive to sexual content. Many also see the group’s language criteria, in which more than one F-word usually earns an R, as overly rigid.
McMahon, in her first interview since taking the helm, defended the ratings system, which she says has remained a reliable and essential tool for families navigating the multiplex.
However, she says one of her first major goals is to reach out to parents, filmmakers and political groups — including LGBTQ and religious organizations — to hear their concerns. She also wants to add more people to the rating board to ensure its decisions are representative of American consumers. The board currently employs only eight raters; McMahon wants to grow the board to 12. She also wants to address the once-common G (general audiences) rating, which has virtually disappeared from the industry.
“I think I’ll be asking more questions of our raters and the process,” she said. “As great as any system is, there’s always room for improvement.”
Late MPAA President Jack Valenti, who led the organization for decades, launched the rating administration in 1968 as an alternative to government censorship amid the decline of the dreaded Hays Code. The Classification and Rating Administration, as it is formally called, has doled out roughly 30,000 ratings, according to a report the association issued last year.
Counting F-bombs and dissecting sex scenes in movies can seem quaint at a time when questionable material is widely available online.
Yet ratings remain highly influential. They are critical for studios’ business because they can influence a film’s commercial performance, experts said. An R rating can shrink the audience for a movie that was designed as a broad-based summer blockbuster. An NC-17 designation can destroy a movie’s box-office prospects by making it so no one 17 and under will be admitted to the theater.
“It’s a real matter of commercial significance,” said Alan Friedman, an entertainment industry attorney at Fox Rothschild who has helped studios appeal ratings and previously served as general counsel to Miramax. “Many dollars flow from getting the rating that you’re trying to get.”
McMahon, a UCLA School of Law alum who grew up frequenting the local drive-in theater in Long Island, N.Y., is a relative newcomer to the ratings.
Her predecessor Graves first joined the MPAA as a part-time rater in 1988 before ascending to the chair position in 2000. McMahon, by contrast, previously served as corporate counsel at the MPAA for nearly 12 years, spending much of her tenure reviewing contracts, employment issues and other business matters. Before that, she was an associate at a Century City law firm.
For an avid movie watcher, whose favorite films are “Braveheart” and “The Princess Bride,” the rating chair job was attractive to McMahon.
“It’s so unique and so interesting,” she said of her new role. “You grow up with the ratings. ... That was a part of me growing up.”
McMahon started sitting in on screening sessions in January to get accustomed to her new role.
“It was nerve-racking at first,” she said. “You don’t want to be the sole PG when everyone else is PG-13.”
However, she’s no stranger to the controversies ratings cause. For the last year and a half, she has overseen the rating appeals process, in which studios and filmmakers try to get ratings changed. That experience gave her insight into the process and the concerns of filmmakers and studios.
The first appeal she faced was for the 2018 Warner Bros. release “15:17 to Paris,” which the MPAA had rated R for violence. Director Clint Eastwood, who wanted the rating changed to PG-13 to get the widest possible audience, made his pitch to the MPAA in person.
“He was very persuasive,” McMahon said. “Joan’s funny. Going in, she was like, ‘I always lose to Clint Eastwood.’”
Sure enough, Eastwood prevailed and got his PG-13.
Following Eastwood’s presentation, McMahon walked the famed actor-director to his car and helped him retrieve a parking slip that he’d dropped in his vehicle.
The changing of the guard at the MPAA comes during a broader evolution of the lobbying group amid major industry upheaval, including the consolidation of the studios and the rise of digital players that compete with the traditional movie companies. One of its members, 20th Century Fox, was recently absorbed by Walt Disney Co. The MPAA recently welcomed streaming giant Netflix Inc. into its membership, which consists of Disney, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures.
As for the ratings, a key challenge for McMahon and her team is to keep up with the times and figure out what most parents will find suitable for kids. Finding common ground can be tricky in an increasingly polarized nation where cultural values are vastly divided by geography and political preference.
“The hardest part of that job is having to adjust to all of those changes and remain relevant,” said Ethan Noble, head of New York-based Motion Picture Consulting, which helps studios, including Netflix, navigate the ratings. “You have to keep Middle America happy, and you have to keep the coasts happy. It’s a tightrope to walk, for sure.”
The system is sure to remain an occasional political flashpoint. Now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 challenged the R-rating for the transgender-themed drama “3 Generations,” arguing that the rating would keep the film from reaching vulnerable young people. GLAAD accused the MPAA of bias against transgender story lines. The MPAA lowered the rating to PG-13 after the studio made cuts.
But the job has had yielded unexpected personal benefits for McMahon, who lives in Sherman Oaks. For one thing, her son is now curious about what she does for a living and asks what movies she saw that day.
“It’s really cute,” she said. “It’s brought this relationship we didn’t have before, where he’s actually interested in what I do.”
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