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How does a film rate an R?

Well, we still don't know. But the MPAA is trumpeting its "reforms."

By Steve Persall
Published January 26, 2007


This week's big deal at the Sundance Film Festival wasn't a film picked up for theatrical distribution.

It was the Motion Picture Association of America's goodwill tour, making nice with independent filmmakers who don't trust the ratings system that is supposed to help parents determine whether movies are appropriate for their children. Kirby Dick's expose This Film Is Not Yet Rated stoked their skepticism when it premiered at Sundance last year.

The documentary earned only $302,000 in extremely limited release - the MPAA and theater owners are business pals, after all - and is now available on DVD.

Every flop should be so influential. Dick's investigation lifted the veil on a private process claiming to serve the public. He questioned how accountable anonymous raters can really be. He noted that major studios, who are MPAA members, consistently get more leeway - and softer ratings for similar content - than the independents. And he pointed out that sex and nudity inexplicably score tougher ratings than even the most gruesome violence.

What's more, when filmmakers appeal their ratings, they aren't allowed to cite previous films, making it almost impossible to win reconsideration.

You say toMAYto . . .

MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman calls the ratings system a "gem that needs a little polishing."

Some filmmakers call it a form of censorship since unrated films such as This Film Is Not Yet Rated seldom find audiences. Some theater chains and advertising outlets won't do business with them at all.

Glickman visited Sundance to make nice and promise to do better, offering the first ratings reforms since adding vague content descriptions a decade ago. Online reporters from the festival saw Glickman everywhere but inside screenings, chatting with filmmakers about the changes. The MPAA even sponsored breakfast for a selected group of independent artists, perhaps in case they were the starving type.

New rules are expected to take effect in March after Glickman sells theater owners on the ideas at their annual ShoWest convention in Las Vegas. The National Association of Theater Owners typically agrees with whatever the MPAA wants, a privilege Jack Valenti earned with 36 years of arm-twisting before Glickman took his job in 2004.

When R means R

Moviegoers will notice only one change: a clearer explanation that many R-rated films really are unsuitable for children. What that entails and which films qualify hasn't been spelled out.

The R rating means "Restricted: Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian." Those words don't appear in TV or newspaper ads or on movie posters, but you can find the explanation on the Web at

There won't be a new rating, just a designation that certain movies are "hard Rs" - likely more words in that tiny type and an extra appeal for underage moviegoers who manage to sneak into a "hard R" film.

Children under 17 will still require an accompanying parent or guardian to see R-rated movies, so nothing changes. The MPAA can still claim to be a conscientious adviser to parents, and theater owners will post a sign in the box office window to remind them.

Only the most honorable managers - and those who feel secure in their employment -will attempt to talk adults out of buying tickets for children, no matter what's on the screen.

Subtle changes

Most moviegoers won't notice or care about Glickman's other Sundance promises, such as identifying some but not all ratings board members online. Each ratings board meeting comprises 10 demographically diverse parents, so members whose children are grown are expected to be replaced.

Filmmakers will be allowed to cite previous ratings if they appeal a rating, but the board will rely more upon context - for example, the historical carnage of Apocalypto vs. the gleeful gore of Saw - so that change amounts to a draw. Appeal boards may occasionally be expanded to include studio outsiders, possibly independent filmmakers. Standards for each rating will be posted at, but there won't be a checklist of, for example, how many f-bombs, pelvic thrusts or dismembered limbs constitute a "hard R."

As further proof of the MPAA's cosmetic approach to a chronic problem, a new Web site called Red Carpet Ratings ( offers rating descriptions for new releases and - here's the "breakthrough" - in larger print than usual. The explanations are still vague (what's the difference between "sexual content" and "sexuality," anyway?), but they're BIGGER.

Big deal.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 11:40:52]

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