ARE the ratings that Hollywood gives its movies becoming irrelevant?
The Motion Picture Association of America started rating films in 1968 to indicate suitability for children. Ever since, some group or another — whether of parents or politicians or filmmakers — has complained: Too broad. Too easily manipulated. Too arbitrary.
The association, financed by the movie studios, has occasionally bowed to public pressure and tinkered with its evaluation process. In 2007, for instance, it started considering smoking alongside sex, violence and profanity when assessing films.
But the ratings system is coming under fresh attack via the Web, and that may make bigger changes inevitable, some Hollywood veterans fret. Studios count a movie’s rating as one of their primary marketing tools, and they worry that any recalibration would cut into their attendance — and profits.
The standard Hollywood ratings — G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17 — must now compete with all manner of Internet-based ratings alternatives, some of which are gaining new traction through social networking tools.
SceneSmoking.org, which monitors tobacco use in movies, issues pink, light gray, dark gray or black lungs to films, depending on how smoking is depicted. Kids-in-Mind.comranks movies on a scale of 1 to 10 in categories like “sex and nudity” and “violence and gore.”
Movieguide.org issues ratings from a Christian perspective. A “+4,” or “exemplary,” means “no questionable elements whatsoever.” A “-4,” or “abhorrent,” means “intentional blasphemy, evil, gross immorality.”
Easily disseminated on the Web, these alternative services are becoming scrappy competitors to the Hollywood voice of authority.
Jack Valenti, who ran the M.P.A.A. for 38 years and created the ratings system, used to call people who complained about the system “C. W.’s,” or constant whiners. Joan Graves, chairwoman of the organization’s Classification and Ratings Administration, listens more patiently to complaints, but is no less emphatic in her stance: the ratings system is not broken.
“If we tried to respond to the demands of every special interest group, we would shoot ourselves,” she said in an interview. “That doesn’t mean we can’t improve,” she added. “We are always on alert for ways to make tweaks so that ratings are more informative or more realistic.”
Grass-roots ratings sites do not mute the association’s voice, Ms. Graves said. “People complain when they are surprised, so the more information they have, the better,” she said.
But she says the sites are one reason her organization is striving for a more consumer-friendly online presence, noting that a redesigned M.P.A.A. site will appear in coming months. The goal is to be more informative about why movies receive certain ratings. “We want to be more transparent,” Ms. Graves said.
In 2006, the association introduced a service called Red Carpet Ratings, a weekly e-mail blast intended to make it easier for parents to get official ratings information.
Many advocacy groups have complained that the PG-13 rating, which cautions parents but does not restrict entry, is inadequate. In response, Ms. Graves says the association has talked about dividing the R rating into new categories. She also says that “there might be a need to develop a 15 rating,” for movies not appropriate for children under that age.
But financial forces are at work against any changes. If the difference between a PG and a PG-13 rating can be tens of millions of dollars at the box office, the last thing studios want is to slice the pie thinner. Theater owners are reluctant to changes for the same reasons, and would need more employees to enforce, say, an under-15 restriction (with school ID cards, learner’s permits and parents offering proof of age).
Hollywood created ratings to prevent government policing of its content. To determine ratings, the association uses a board of 10 to 12 parents of children ages 5 to 17, with no person staying longer than seven years. Although all the participants live in the Los Angeles area, their geographic backgrounds and ideological views vary, Ms. Graves said. A studio can either accept the rating it is given or ask what editing would be required for a less restrictive one.
The Internet has started to pick away at the M.P.A.A.’s authority in other ways. Consumers can now easily look up the ratings that Hollywood movies receive in other countries, where studios exert much less control. “I Am Legend” and “Cloverfield” were both deemed PG-13 at home, for instance, but Britain slapped both with a 15 rating.
Such disparity was recently brought to the forefront by Universal Pictures’ decision to release multiple versions of “Brüno” in Britain to get around ratings restrictions there.
Bloggers, with a hunger for minutiae, have also started to report when studios try to make minor edits to get a less restrictive rating. The filmmakers behind “Brüno,” the raunchy comedy about a flamboyantly gay fashionista, used this strategy; the pixilation of some penises, among other small cuts, ultimately sneaked “Brüno” under the R wire.
Last week, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood a Harvard group with an e-mail list of more than 30,000 people, started a Web petition against the M.P.A.A.’s PG-13 policies, which it sees as too lax. The group wants the Federal Trade Commission to step in, to ensure that PG-13 movies are marketed only in ways consistent with the rating.
“We think there is a critical mass building against the M.P.A.A. on the Web that will hopefully result in major changes to its ratings practices,” said Susan Linn, the advocacy group’s director.