Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How to Fix the MPAA Ratings System

I don't think as badly of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings as many others seem to. There is a real need for a ratings system, and I think that the service the MPAA provides to parents is important. They've made some rotten calls and have some troubling biases, but all in all I don't think their system is completely broken. However, it's gotten bad enough that too much of the movie business now revolves around gaming the system, and theaters and other exhibitors use the MPAA ratings to keep certain films from reaching wider audiences. See the recent "Bully" controversy. However, I do think that the ratings process could stand some major improvements, and I've listed a couple of ideas below.

More Information - On the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) website, there is an explanation of what each of the five ratings designates as far as content. They seem pretty cut and dried, listing out specific elements like drugs and nudity that are considered in deciding each rating. For specific films, you'll also see briefly stated reasons for why a film got a certain rating. "The Hunger Games," for instance, is rated PG-13 for "intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens." However, nowhere on the site does it specify exactly what the violent material or disturbing images are, nor are there any examples or guidelines to compare against. Now consider the the vastly more detailed breakdown of content in "The Hunger Games" provided by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which not only explains how the film fits a particular ratings classification, but also the process by which the filmmakers cut and edited the film to help it achieve that rating. More information means parents can make more informed decisions, and it also guards against certain abuses of the system that I'll discuss below.

More Transparency - The rating system's creator, Jack Valenti used to argue that the ratings examiners had to refrain from making value judgments about a particular film, and only stick to strictly evaluating the content. However, value judgments are an inevitable part of the process, which is why human beings do the rating instead of simply letting computer programs count the F-words. The MPAA doesn't have a set of public guidelines to help in their decisionmaking, like the BBFCA does, which means that their ratings tend to be much more inconsistent and vulnerable to influence and compromise. Filmmakers have long complained about the process of editing their films for certain ratings, where the cuts required by the MPAA are often a matter of imprecise guesswork. This is easily the most problematic part of the current process, where filmmakers are often forced to compromise their films based on undefined criteria and it is far too easy for the raters' personal biases to manifest. As a result, films are more likely to receive higher ratings based on sexual rather than violent content, and there appear to be special sensitivities about female sexuality and homosexual relationships. Not that the MPAA will ever admit it, of course.

More Diversity - There are no particular criteria to become a MPAA examiner, except that the anonymous members must be parents of non-adult children. This makes a good amount of sense, since the ratings are primarily meant for use by other parents, but movie ratings affect everyone, including adult theater patrons. I want the grown-ups to have a few examiners on our side, such as academics, journalists, and maybe a retired movie critic or two. Also, while I'm for every day people taking part in the process, professionals like child development experts and psychiatrists ought to be weighing in on what kids should and shouldn't be seeing. Also, the anonymity of MPAA members is clearly being used to hide glaring problems with the system. Kirby Dick's documentary about the MPAA ratings, This Film is Not Yet Rated, discovered that many of the raters and appeals board members had industry ties they wanted to hide, or didn't fit the few basic criteria to be raters. Compare this to the Australian Classification Board, appointed by the Australian government, that comes out and tells you exactly who all the Board members are.

More Ratings - I'd like to see the MPAA create additional ratings for the films currently categorized as PG-13 and R, which make up the vast majority of Hollywood's output today. This is the area where it's trickiest to make value judgments and where people are most likely to disagree about what it's all right for viewers between the ages of 13 and 17 to be watching. The MPAA does a better job now of specifying exactly what kind of problematic content is in a film, but their language is still too often obtuse and vague. Incorporating sub-ratings for types of content, such as violence, sex, and language, the way that the TV Parental Guidelines do, would be a lot simpler and more helpful. I'd also like to see the institution of a "PG-15" or "PG-16" rating, to address the problematic divide between a PG-13 and R. Right now it's often very difficult to tell where along the continuum between PG-13 and R certain films actually fall, and we could use another sign post.

And Fewer Ratings - A few years ago, Roger Ebert championed the idea of an "A" rating, for films with mature content, to replace the NC-17 which is commonly associated with pornography. I think I'd chuck out the whole category. The lack of thoughtful guidelines have contributed to the NC-17 rating becoming so toxic, hardly anyone even bothers to use it. Many theaters won't play unrated or NC-17 films, and newspapers won't run ads for them. So in 2011, as a result, over two hundred films were released in the US unrated and there was exactly one NC-17 release, Steve McQueen's "Shame." I think the MPAA style ratings system works fine for more mainstream, more populist films, but it's totally hopeless when it comes to more challenging, more boundary-pushing work that incorporates adult content. That's a limitation I wish the MPAA would acknowledge. They're equipped to make suggestions about what children should watch, and the R rating should be enough if the theaters bother to enforce the restrictions. Anything further gets into the business of evaluating material plainly meant for adult audiences, and the MPAA's track record has proven that they're terrible at it.

More Independence - Finally, there's the little matter of the fact that the MPAA is a trade association made up of six of the big Hollywood studios, and there is no question that studio films get more slack than foreign and independent films. The ratings system was initially instituted to avoid the threat of government oversight and censorship, but after years of local film boards disappearing and legal cases removing many restrictions on exhibition, it's really the studios themselves that are imposing the most constricting standards. While nobody wants the kind of government-run or government-affiliated ratings groups in other countries, most of those tend to be much more transparent and fair and predictable, even if their criteria are harsher. That's because they're primarily concerned with providing a service to moviegoers. The MPAA, with all their secrecy and opaqueness, often comes across as placing studio interests above their stated goal of providing information to the public. CARA and the ratings they provide would look far more legitimate and trustworthy if they put some distance between themselves and the studios.

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