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SUNDAY REPORT

MPAA's Dozen Judge Movies for Millions

July 18, 1999|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 12 men and women gather privately in an Encino screening room nearly every business day. Their professions range from hairdresser to health administrator to homemaker. But their most important qualification--the one that the Motion Picture Assn. of America believes best enables them to rate movies on behalf of society--is that they have kids.

Hired by the MPAA to assign its copyrighted symbols--G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17--to films, these parents sit in the dark, jotting notes on lighted clipboards. Their decisions are guided by a few rules--the MPAA recommends, for example, that any drug use in a film requires at least a PG-13 rating. But for the most part, the raters rely on gut reactions to help them decide what most American parents will find objectionable.

"How do raters come to their conclusions? They do it subjectively," said Jack Valenti, the MPAA's president and the author of the voluntary rating system that--with just a few alterations--has served the movie industry for 30 years. "We're dealing in imprecise boundaries here."

In a secretive process carried out more than 600 times a year, the MPAA's raters weigh the philosophical abstractions of societal mores against the concrete details of a particular movie. After how many seconds does a lovemaking scene become what the MPAA terms "too adult" to be rated R? How much blood has to flow before a film's violence is "too rough or persistent" to be PG-13? Is gay sex more troublesome than straight sex?

The answers are up to the raters, who discuss each film, then vote by written ballot, with the majority prevailing.

While a few filmmakers each year opt to appeal a rating to a separate panel of movie industry representatives, by and large it is the decisions of these Los Angeles-area parents that guide the choices of millions of moviegoers. For people who wield such power, however, they enjoy unusual anonymity. Their names are kept secret. They only interact with filmmakers indirectly, through intermediaries. Even if they wanted to talk publicly about what they do, they can't: All have signed confidentiality agreements.

In the wake of the high school shootings in Littleton, Colo., as politicians and parents across the country have stepped up their scrutiny of movie content, there has been much talk about the MPAA rating system and its role in restricting access to violent films. For example, President Clinton recently forged an agreement with theater owners to begin requiring photo identification for entry to R-rated films.

And yet, even as Clinton scolds the movie industry not to "make young people want what your own rating system says they shouldn't have," very few people in Washington seem to know how the MPAA's procedures actually work. Which puts them in good company: Many in Hollywood find the rating process baffling as well.

"The MPAA has two different standards: one for violence, one for sex," asserted writer-director Spike Lee while on a panel at this year's Cannes Film Festival. "I mean, I like 'Saving Private Ryan' very much, especially the first hour. But if that's not an NC-17 film, I don't know what is. That's the way war should be depicted. But when people walk around picking up their [severed] arms and stuff like that, that's an R?"

In fact, most movies released in the United States are rated R--a whopping 65% of last year's films. Which may explain why, while a vast majority of parents tell pollsters that they find the ratings system valuable, many also express frustration with the amount of violence and profanity found on the screen.

Inside the nation's multiplexes, meanwhile, teenagers routinely thumb their noses at the ratings system, buying a ticket for a PG movie, then slipping into the R next door. And lately, some filmmakers are criticizing and even mocking the MPAA, as in the recently released "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut." In the movie, which follows a bunch of kids who sneak into an R-rated film, one character says: "Remember what the MPAA says: Horrific, deplorable violence is OK, as long as people don't say any naughty words."

Nearly everyone in Hollywood has a favorite story about the inconsistency of the MPAA ratings board. Some believe big stars can coax preferable ratings out of the MPAA, pointing to "My Best Friend's Wedding," rated PG-13 despite the fact that Julia Roberts uses a particular four-letter expletive in precisely the sexual manner that the MPAA guidelines say ought to merit an R-rating.

Others allege that big movie studios wield clout not enjoyed by the independents. How else to explain, they say, why a sexual threesome involving high school students got an R-rating in Columbia Pictures' "Wild Things" (1998) but an NC-17 (before being cut) in the upcoming independent film "Black and White"?

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