A Proposal for the MPAA

July 28, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's no secret that I have been critical of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the organization that doles out motion picture classifications (or ratings) to movies in the United States. My criticism comes on two fronts, both of which I have addressed in long discourses in this space and in other places. It is, after all, one of my favorite topics for ranting. The first is the puritanical nature of the ratings system - that sex and nudity are "punished" while violence is often given a free pass (especially when it's "cartoonish"). I will not go into specific examples here, nor will I provide a detailed series of case studies. I have done those things before and I will doubtless do them again. My second criticism is the lack of consistency in the ratings. There was a time when I could estimate with almost 100% certainty what rating a movie would get. Over the past few years, the accuracy of such predictions has dropped to about 80%. Consistency is slipping. Studio movies are being given more leeway than indies. Politics is playing an ever-larger role in determining when content is "objectionable" or not. Never, for example, would I have guessed that Slumdog Millionaire would be leveled with an R rating. Yes, there's some strong stuff in there, but I have seen worse in films that have been accorded PG-13s.

Almost every time I write a post criticizing the MPAA, at least one reader challenges me to come up with an alternative. So, after some thought, I have decided to propose one. A few things must be kept in mind, however: (1) This is preliminary and some aspects of it would likely not be workable in the real world; it would need some tweaking, (2) This is a radical departure from what we currently have and fits nicely with my Libertarian world-view, and (3) It will be a Cold Day in Hell before the MPAA changes to anything like this. Still, there's merit in discussing something like this even if it's a thought exercise.

The cornerstone of the proposal is scrapping the current ratings system altogether. It can no longer be "fixed." Adding a new rating letter or re-calibrating the existing ones to be more representative of how current American society "thinks" is a detour down a rabbit hole, and will likely lead to more problems than solutions. For example, it would not curb the desire of studios to turn almost everything into PG-13 fare in order to snare a particular demographic. I have nothing against the PG-13 rating in theory, but the watering-down of content in movies that are natural fits for an R and the occasional injection of mildly objectionable material into otherwise PG-eligible titles means there are times when a form of back-door censorship is going on. Playing with the existing ratings would not change anything in these situations. PG-13 would still be the gold standard.

With the current ratings system razed, we could start anew with… nothing. Well, not "nothing" precisely. But no ratings of the current kind. No G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17. There would be a designation for Adults-only entertainment which would be reserved for pornography or movies with "extreme" content. Every film released theatrically would be reviewed by a qualified board to determine whether it is an Adult movie (no one under 18 allowed, period). The composition of the board would be determined at a later date but would include a mix of critics, professional "film people," and ordinary folks. Yes, politics and religion would ultimately play a part in what is decreed to be Adult. But one would assume that nothing that currently falls under the G/PG/PG-13/R umbrella would end up there. Some of the more hard-core NC-17 films probably would while others might not. And it would be important not to stigmatize an Adult film. All the designation would signify is that the MPAA deems the film to be unsuitable for children. (They can see it when it comes out on DVD.)

In addition to providing the Adult/Non-Adult indicator, the review board would provide a detailed content description of what is in the film. It might read something like: "Mild, infrequent profanity; full-frontal nudity in a non-sexual context; graphic violence including on-screen decapitation." Such descriptions would provide parents with ammunition when deciding whether their child should be allowed to see a movie. Ultimately, that's where the responsibility should lie - with parents, not with a theater or with the movie industry. In an ideal world, parents would see all movies in advance of their children and make a decision based on that, but that's an unrealistic (and, some - although not all -might argue, unreasonable) expectation. Detailed content descriptions allow parents to make informed decisions, and they are less inherently biased than G/PG/PG-13/R/NC-17.

Two objections present themselves. The first is that kids would be able to use the content descriptors as a means of determining what they want to see. Case in point… consider this description: "Graphic sexual content, including non-explicit instances of intercourse and oral sex; full-frontal female nudity in a non-sexual context; full-frontal male nudity in a non-sexual context; frontal female nudity above the waist and full rear female nudity in a sexual context." At age 13, this would have been on my "must see" list of films. Today, however, kids have all this information before they go to a theater. Nothing in the proposed content blurb would surprise teenagers. A 13-year old who wants to see naked women and people having simulated sex would know which movies to see long before the content description is printed. And, anyway, the current MPAA ratings system includes some verbiage - I simply suggest something more detailed.

The second objection is that the lack of ratings would allow an 8-year old child to walk into a movie that would be considered a hard R under the current system. And, while parents could say to their 12-year old son, "You are not to see Hot Naked Cheerleader Camp," there would be no "check" in place at the box office to enforce this edict. Is this a problem? Do we want young children to be allowed into films with content that is designed with high school upperclassmen in mind?

Venture into a multiplex on a weekend when a "big" R-rated motion picture opens. Watch the ticket counter and the hallways. You will find that a number of kids buying tickets to a PG or PG-13 movie are actually going into the R movie theater. It's a rare multiplex that makes a serious attempt to enforce the current system - economics do not permit them to post a guard at every auditorium entrance. Currently, except in rare venues where there are only a few screens per complex, there is no realistic way to prevent children from seeing R-rated movies. But they "sneak in" (a process that involves little in the way of true "sneaking") only when they're interested in the movie. Consider something like Feast of Love, which was chock-full of naked women. Hardly anyone under 18 bought a ticket for that movie because it didn't interest them, despite the nudity. (To be frank, hardly anyone over 18 bought a ticket, either - but that's a different story.) In a ratings-free system, things wouldn't change. Kids would see only movies that interested them and the level of "mature content" would not be much of an enticement.

Does this approach address all concerns and solve all problems? Of course not. But I think it's a more workable and less clumsy system than the one in place. It allows parents who don't have a problem with sex and nudity to permit their teenage children to see movies like that. It eliminates the silly PG-13 "one fuck" rule. It allows filmmakers to exercise some creative freedom without fear that they'll have to trim the final product to conform to a rating. It creates more transparency in the flim industry and limits the power of the MPAA. It does not put children "in danger" because it doesn't fundamentally change viewing patterns nor does it allow access to films that are currently barred (because, in today's film-going culture, few and far between are the instances when age becomes an impediment to seeing anything).

This is a work in progress that can evolve in one many directions. None of them will matter because the MPAA changes in its own way and at its own pace. Suggestions and comments are certainly welcome (but please post to the forums and don't e-mail them to me). But for those who have excoriated me for condemning the MPAA without providing a viable alternative, here's my solution. You may not like it, but at least you can no longer accuse me of not taking a position.