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What's behind the R rating? There's an art to the fine print

The MPAA strives to rate movies without giving away the show.

August 14, 2007|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

It takes a lot of creativity, and sometimes even a thesaurus, to be a movie rater these days.

From their San Fernando Valley screening room, the Motion Picture Assn. of America's raters watch more movies in a year than some people see in a lifetime. With each one, they try to summarize potentially objectionable parts while not giving away the plot.

Take "Superbad," the latest geek comedy from producer Judd Apatow opening Friday that includes, among other things, porn jokes and a school kid who sketches the male anatomy in lurid detail.

The MPAA rated it R for "pervasive crude and sexual content." Add to that "strong language, drinking, some drug use." There's also "a fantasy/comic violent image," Finally, it's "all involving teens."

"Some parents don't give a hoot about language but they are concerned about sexuality or violence," said Joan Graves, chairwoman of the ratings board for the last 18 years. "We're trying to give them as much information as we can."

For nearly 40 years, parents have relied on the MPAA's rating system to give them at least a clue as to what their kids want to see at the multiplex. Reacting to past criticisms that they didn't tell parents enough, movie raters now offer up increasingly elaborate summaries that, at the same time, must carefully dance around key plot lines. The result can be a mouthful of words that is bewildering to filmmakers, and amusing to those who bother to read the often very fine print.

The recent horror-comedy "Fido" fetched an R for "zombie-related violence," which means dining on human flesh. "Team America: World Police," a 2004 politically incorrect satire with jokes about AIDS and nuclear war, got an R rating for "graphic crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language -- all involving puppets."

In doing so, raters have created a special kind of language that requires a lot of reading between the lines. Kimberly Thompson, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston who has studied the history of movie ratings, said that the MPAA's descriptions are often vague, such as with the oft-used phrase "thematic elements."

"My guess is that many parents have a hard time distinguishing the difference between 'innuendo' and 'sensuality,' " Thompson said.

Graves said the goal of raters is to provide parents "a snapshot."

Christina Nihira of Edmond, Okla., a stay-at-home mom with three children ages 2 through 5, said she appreciated getting details. With her kids already picking up a few coarse words at preschool, she decided to keep them away from "Shrek the Third" after seeing the MPAA's warning of "crude humor."

"They're at that age where they're exposed to potty humor almost every day," Nihira said. "Seeing it repeated in the media doesn't help you keep things under control."

Operating outside the spotlight has been a hallmark of the board since it was created by late MPAA President Jack Valenti in 1968, partly to prevent censorship from outside the industry. One reason for the secrecy is to preserve the system's integrity by shielding raters from outside pressures. Graves said she treated each ruling "as if there is an attorney-client privilege."

The ratings board, made up of 10 to 13 parents of school-age children, screens upcoming films at its Encino headquarters. It then votes to label them G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17, and hashes out the reasons, listing the most important ones first.

In the early 1990s the MPAA started disclosing ratings reasons publicly, although the fine print often went unnoticed. In 2000, the Federal Trade Commission said "a significant percentage" of ratings disclosures in movie ads were too small to be easily read. In response, studios made them more legible in advertising materials and included them on DVD packaging, although the print is often still small.

Reasons for ratings are displayed in most movie ads and on DVD packaging for all but G-rated films. Red Carpet Ratings, the MPAA's weekly e-mail newsletter, lists the factors behind each new rating for 2,500 subscribers. Filmratings.com, the board's search engine, gets 38,000 weekly hits.

Raters sometimes use a thesaurus to find the right phrasing, Graves of the ratings board said, and ultimately they will weigh objections from producers. Filmmakers might prefer, for example, the phrase "gory" to "bloody," or "sexual assault" to "rape."

Today's brutal R-rated horror films often come with the longest warnings. This summer's "Captivity" centered on a Manhattan supermodel abducted and held in a subterranean cell, forced by her hooded captor to drink a cocktail of pureed eyeballs and entrails. The MPAA's description was "strong violence, torture, pervasive terror, grisly images, language and some sexual material."

"Alien vs. Predator" in 2004 may have been the first film to earn a PG-13 in part for "slime." After hatching from human stomachs, aliens spew green blood and goo.

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