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G -- for good ideas

The movie industry's aging ratings system is getting a welcome, if slight, makeover.

January 19, 2007

THE MOVIE INDUSTRY'S ratings system, which dates back to Lyndon Johnson's presidency, is older than the target audience for most of its movies. Jointly run by the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, the system has drawn many complaints from filmmakers, critics and parents over the years for being inconsistent and occasionally inscrutable. This week, the MPAA and the theater owners announced a handful of changes, due in March, that could make the ratings easier to understand and more consistent.

Like the Great and Powerful Oz, the ratings board has worked behind a cloak of secrecy that contributed to the sense of arbitrariness in its actions. The board -- made up of parents, almost all working anonymously -- seemed more tolerant of graphic violence than suggestive content, profanity or drug use. Filmmakers also said the raters treated movies from independent studios more strictly than major Hollywood releases.

The board will post online its criteria for each of the five ratings categories: G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. The point is to make the process more transparent; the board now publishes only a broad description of the way it judges films. Just how detailed those criteria will be is still being worked out. The system shouldn't be reduced to an accounting exercise (two to five blood-spattering attacks equal a PG-13, six to 12 equal an R), but the board still needs to give a much clearer idea of what differentiates films in each category. A training program will also be instituted for raters.

The MPAA also said that when filmmakers appeal a decision, they will be able for the first time to cite how other films with similar scenes have been rated. And the appeals panel will be broadened to include people not from the major studios or theatrical chains. Those steps should help improve the ratings' consistency.

Discussions among the board, directors, producers and other parties are continuing. One piece notably absent from this week's announcement: giving parents a more detailed description of the content in each film that may not be suitable for minors. But the MPAA and the theater owners are taking the right first steps by trying to improve the consistency and predictability of the ratings.

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