Fixing What's Broken

April 20, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Can the ratings system be fixed? Perhaps, but only with radical action. Maybe not as radical as what I'm about to propose, but mere "tweaking" will not be enough. Out-of-the-box thinking is required, and there's not a lot of that in Hollywood. The odd thing is, almost everyone agrees that the MPAA System is broken, but no one wants to do what's necessary to correct the problem.

First, I'll detail my proposal (which has no chance of ever being considered), then I'll tackle the most obvious objection. The idea is simple: abandon the current rating system. Create two ratings: "A" (Adult) and "NA" (Not Adult). The former category would contain everything currently encompassed by the "NC-17" and so-called "hard-R" categories (explicit sex, lots of graphic nudity, extreme violence, or a combination thereof). No one under 18 would be allowed to see an "A" film or to rent it on video. (Of course, someone else could rent it for them, like when I was 12 and had someone who looked 18 buy a Playboy for me...) "NA" would be everything else - "G," "PG," "PG-13," and all "R" except the "hard" stuff. "NA" films would have a detailed description of what's in the film: profanity, nudity, sex, violence, etc. (much like the current list of descriptors used by the MPAA). There would be two levels of description - the high level one and a more detailed one. The detailed one would give explicit information: what words are used and how many times, what kind of nudity and how long, what sex acts and how much was shown, and so forth. If websites run by a person or small group of people can do this today, there's no reason the MPAA adopt this approach.

"NA" movies would not be policed. There would be no restrictions regarding who could or could not go in. That's between children and their parents. "A" movies would have to be guarded or otherwise watched to prevent minors from sneaking in. Many multiplexes wouldn't show "A" movies because of the added expense (one person always standing guard), but plenty of art-houses would.

The biggest objection is that a 10-year old would be allowed into a movie showing breasts, sex, and featuring lots of swear words. Under my system, this is correct - that would be allowed. But the reality is that it happens today. If a 10-year old wants to see an "R" movie, he or she can. Just buy a ticket to Robots and sneak into The Amityville Horror. Walk into a "hot" "R"-rated movie on a Friday night and see how many 10-16 year olds are there. In some cases, they will comprise up to 50% of the audience. Multiplexes often don't care, so the current rating system is rendered ineffective. (I was told by someone who works at a theater that at the 7:00 opening night showing of The Matrix Revolutions, more than 2/3 of the audience was under 17 - and that was an "R"-rated movie.)

Provide parents with enough detailed ammunition about a film that they can make an informed decision about whether that movie is something they would approve of their child seeing. If they say "no" and the child sees it anyway, how is that different from what's going on today? And isn't it possible that there's an element of thrill in sneaking into an "R"-rated movie? Take away the forbidden fruit and perhaps there would be a drop in kids sneaking into certain movies. (Another personal anecdote - I once snuck into an "R"-rated movie just to see if I could do it. I didn't stay to watch the film, because the subject matter didn't interest me. Granted, that was during an era when, because of the lack of screens, sneaking into an "R"-rated movie was an art form.)

Would this increase the number of adult-oriented films? That's hard to say. Possibly not, but at least the "NA" category would be broad enough that everything wouldn't be "PG-13" quality. Would some religious groups complain? Sure, but the box office always talks louder than special interests. And it would take some of the wind out of the sails of "family rights" groups when they came to understand that one objective of this new rating system is to enhance the ability of parents to safeguard their children's viewing habits (at least in theory).

There are many other objections, but it's pointless to go over every one since I'll win a Pulitzer Prize before the MPAA begins to consider a system like this. But it's interesting to think where a more open system could lead, and how it might reduce the de facto censorship that is turning everything into "PG-13" muck.

Tomorrow: Can Ridley Scott break the curse of the "Swords and Sandals" feature?