Originally created 07/30/01

Movie ratings: Evolving or becoming useless?

Sen. Joe Lieberman keeps castigating Hollywood on the issue of marketing R-rated movies to kids. So far as I know, however, he hasn't mentioned the decline of the PG rating, which seems to be going the way of theater ushers and new cinemas with fewer than 16 screens.

The Motion Picture Association of America started its voluntary ratings system in 1968 with four categories: G, M, R and X. The M (Mature) rating evolved into the present PG (Parental Guidance) rating. A fifth category, PG-13, was created in 1984 after complaints that "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" was too intense for PG but not intense enough for R. The X, largely appropriated by the porn industry, became NC-17 in 1990.

But recent movie and video releases have become more and more concentrated in just two categories, PG-13 and R.

According to the MPAA, 88 percent of the properties (theatrical movies and direct-to-video releases) submitted to the ratings board last year received one of those designations. Through May 2001, the figure is 89 percent.

In comparison, 77 percent of the films and videos rated in 1994 received the PG-13 or R ratings.

The decline of the PG rating has been especially marked in the past three years. Only 51 films sported that designation in 2000, less than half the number that got the PG rating in 1996.

(Surprisingly, the G rating is making a bit of a comeback. Only eight movies qualified for the most wholesome rating in 1990. Last year, 36 films had a G.)

It seems that filmmakers aiming for one of the PG ratings would prefer to get the edgier label. Hollywood has decided that teenagers are its prime audience, and PG-13 incorporates the age floor right into the rating itself. No self-respecting adolescent is going to want to go to some wimpy PG movie.

What's the difference between a PG and a PG-13? The Motion Picture Association of America offers some surprisingly specific guidelines on its Web site, www.mpaa.org. Click on the heading Movie Ratings and then on the heading How It Works.

"The theme of a PG-rated film may itself call for parental guidance," it says. "There may be some profanity in these films. There may be some violence or brief nudity."

The PG-13 rating raises the bar in terms of theme, violence, nudity, sex and language. Any drug use in a movie automatically results in a minimum PG-13. So does a single use of certain sexually oriented expletives. Nudity or language in a sexual context automatically draws a minimum R rating. So does the repeated use of the f-word, even in a nonsexual context.

A panel of between eight and 13 members bestows the ratings by majority vote after viewing each film. The only qualifications for the board are "a shared parenting experience" and "an intelligent maturity." Their mission is to help parents make decisions about what movies might be suitable for their children.

The procedure draws a fair share of criticism, much of it for condoning excess violence while being prudish toward sexual content. As a parent, however, I have found that it generally fulfills its goal, especially now that the ratings board actually explains the factors behind its decisions - sex, violence, language and so forth. But as a critic, I go to enough movies that I know what to expect from a PG-13 rating as opposed to a PG or an R. That may not be true for many other parents.

The problems with the system arise in large part from the reactions it provokes from the people it is supposed to serve. The ratings are not supposed to be a censorship tool but, rather, just the opposite - a means of identifying movies that are made for adults as opposed to those appropriate for children of various ages and sensitivities.

But the stigma attached to the X rating because of its identification with pornography has created some unfortunate consequences. The NC-17 rating, created to erase that stigma, inherited it instead.

Some newspapers will not carry ads for NC-17 movies, and some theater chains won't run them.

That makes it a losing proposition financially, especially because many video chains, including Blockbuster, won't stock them. As a result, studio contracts demand that filmmakers deliver movies that will rate R or better. An NC-17 will usually be edited to meet R standards.

Since 1993, no more than five projects a year have received an NC-17. The only major studio film in the group is the universally lambasted "Showgirls."

Independent filmmakers have the option of releasing a film unrated, but that defeats the stated purpose of the ratings system. So does lumping almost 90 percent of the movies submitted for ratings into just two of the five possible categories.

Each of the following movies from last year were rated R: "Billy Elliott," for repeated use of the f-word; "Gladiator," for graphic violence; "Scary Movie," for gross, explicitly sexual humor; "Quills," for sexual content in word and deed; and "Traffic," primarily for its drug theme.

I would gladly take my teen-age children - and probably even younger ones - to "Billy Elliott." I wouldn't let them within a hundred miles of "Quills." But both movies have the same rating. In a rational system, "Quills" would be in a designation for adult films (not to be confused with pornography) that does not carry the undeserved disrepute of the NC-17 rating.

We shouldn't forget that when the original ratings first came out, such respectable films as "Medium Cool," "The Killing of Sister George" and "A Clockwork Orange" received the X rating, and no one thought twice about it. "Midnight Cowboy" won the Academy Award for Best Picture with an X rating. That all changed by the time "Deep Throat" surfaced in 1972.

This year's box-office results offer some hope that the PG rating, while becoming less prevalent, isn't dead yet. It adorns four of the year's 12 biggest-grossing films so far: "Atlantis," "Dr. Dolittle 2," "Spy Kids" and the top box-office draw of all, "Shrek."

As that lovable ogre would agree, it's hard to argue with a whole lot of green.


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