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The Nation : Why Assault After Assault Can't Kill Rating System

November 20, 1994|Jack Valenti | Jack Valenti is president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Assn. of America

WASHINGTON — The sounds one hears in Hollywood these days are the result of a collision between producers/directors/distributors and the movie industry's voluntary rating system. The producers grouse that the sys tem is out of touch with reality. The ratings board claims it is attuned to the desires of American parents. No wonder Prozac is a best seller.

For 25 years, the rating system has tried to adjust to society's changing mores and to keep abreast of parents' evolving "acceptance level" of the movies their children see even as the public's perceptions of movies and their content fluctuate. Consider: Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," rated "R" when it was released in 1969, was re-rated "NC-17," the old "X" rating, when it was re-released this year. But according to the rules of the rating system, a previously rated film re-entering the marketplace can retain its original rating, so "The Wild Bunch" carries the "R." Yet, the moral is clear: What was acceptable for children in one rating category more than 20 years ago may not be today.

Because the production cost of films has ratcheted upward, some producers and distributors argue stridently against an NC-17 rating. Less restrictive ratings, they believe, will increase their box-office take and make it easier for them to recoup their costs and turn a profit. But the moving-rating board cannot act as a council of economic planners. Moreover, the rating board is constrained to classify movies strictly on the basis of what might offend or disturb parents if their children were watching them.

Enter a dilemma: Producers and directors want the right, without any outside interference, to make their film the way they want to make it and, at the same time, demand a rating that would be most congenial to ticket sales. Then add the ardor of filmmakers to push the creative envelope in telling their stories.

But the rating board, mindful of its obligations to warn parents of potentially objectionable content, has no choice but to apply ratings that are both accurate and suitable for parental needs. As a consequence, the movie-rating system regularly receives a pounding in the trade papers, the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and in the daily print and broadcast press. The "assaulters" are mostly producers, directors and distributors who use the rating system as a marketing punching bag, trashing it to gain free publicity for their movies. The big surprise is that it works.

Which is why one bears witness to odd couplings: hired lawyer-gunslingers congregating at the O.K. Corral with distributors/producers armed with bazooka press releases. They lie in wait for TV commentators and newspaper film critics.

The strangest stranger to enter this congregation is Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor. Acting on behalf of a film distributor, he recently issued a denunciation of the rating system, damning it as "censorship." Alas, Dershowitz, as a law student, would have been awarded an "A" in Posturing 101, but he would have surely flunked Constitutional Law. All the more reason to nod approvingly at Dr. Samuel Johnson who, when attending a reception in 18th-Century London with the actor David Garrick, said, pointing to a man across the room, "David, I do not choose to speak ill behind any man's back, but that gentleman over there is an attorney."

Perhaps the lawyers-turned-ratings-sluggers should listen not to their silken ambiguities, which can make a trumpet sound like a tin whistle, but heed the needs of American parents. Those who cry "censorship" have to be instructed in case law. Any paralegal could advise them to consult two Supreme Court rulings, handed down in April, 1968. In Interstate Circuit vs. City of Dallas, the court declared that state and local entities could construct their own classification apparatus to restrict children's movie-going, and in Ginsberg vs. the State of New York, it ruled that while adults could see whatever they chose, children could be barred from viewing certain movies. Thus, prohibiting children from watching certain kinds of movies does not torment the First Amendment.

In their zeal to annihilate the rating system, producers and their lawyers ought to understand that both nature and politics abhor vacuums. If the movie industry is unable to sustain its 26-year-old voluntary ratings enterprise because of unworthy attacks, all empty of evidence, you can bet that states, counties and cities will move in with their own.

Year after year, American parents have expressed their support for and approval of the ratings. Since 1969, the Opinion Research Corp. of Princeton, N.J., has annually conducted a nationwide survey to determine how parents judge the system. This year, parental approval rose to an all-time high: 77% of parents with children 13 and under said the ratings were "very useful" to "fairly useful" in helping them guide their children's movie-going. Only 20% found it "not useful." That's the kind of approval rating any candidate for public office would kill to own.

It is a nice turn of irony that the most admiring supporters of the rating system are the folks to whom the system is directed and for whom it was created: the parents of America.*

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