MPAA Alphabet Soup: A & PG

April 19, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Over roughly the last decade, Roger Ebert has been lobbying for an "A" rating somewhere in between the "R" and "NC-17" - an indicator to potential viewers that a film is adult in nature but not pornographic. (That would raise the question of what constitutes "pornography," but that's a topic for another day.) Sorry, Roger, but it will never happen.

Originally, the "NC-17" was supposed to fill this function. After the "X" rating became associated with pornography, the MPAA recognized that a legitimate adult rating was needed. Instead of calling it an "A", they used "NC-17" (No Children 17 or Under Admitted). The "X" was no longer officially sanctioned by the MPAA, but it was still widely used by the porn industry. To the best of my knowledge, "NC-17" has not been adopted for rating porn films (except "artistic porn" - the kind that occasionally shows up in art theaters), yet it has become box office death. Many theaters will not show an "NC-17" movie and few newspapers will advertise it. Seeing this trend, Roger Ebert renewed his crusade for an "A" rating.

The MPAA argues that an intermediate rating between "R" and "NC-17" is unneeded, and they're probably right. After all, "R" means no one under 17 is admitted without a parent or guardian, while "NC-17" means that no one 17 and under is admitted, period. There's not much middle ground. If an "A" was instituted, it would probably have the same parameters as the "NC-17," and would likely suffer the same fate. The fact is, no matter what the rating is, non-porongraphic films with strong sexual content (extreme violence and profanity routinely get the "R" rating, so an "A" would only target films containing graphic sex and/or extreme nudity) will be boycotted and dengrated by certain activist groups. If an "A" rating was instituted, it would soon be seen by a majority of mainstream movie-goers as another "X" or "NC-17." I doubt an informational campaign would help. Furthermore, there would be a lot of confusion over the line of demarcation between the "A" and "NC-17."

While I applaud the idea of having an "A" rating, it's not realistic in today's political climate. The MPAA isn't going to approve this, and, even if they relented, it wouldn't be long before the "A" became as stigmatized as the "NC-17." This is a sad truth, because it puts truly adult movies in a bad position. Fortunately, a number of high-profile art films in the past couple of years (such as The Dreamers) have elected to accept an "NC-17" rating. Maybe this represents a shift of sorts.

(As an side note, had The Passion of the Christ been accorded an "NC-17" for extreme, graphic violence - which many argue should have been the case - it would have legitimatized the rating. Of course, that's not a controversy the MPAA wanted to become embroiled in, so they gave the film an "R" rating.)

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, I am convinced that the "PG" rating should be abolished as meaningless. The number of "PG" movies has shrunk over the years, and, in 2005, only a handful of mainstream releases will display a "PG" on their posters. Few (if any) parents differentiate between "G" and "PG" when making a determination about whether their offspring can see a film. Both are deemed family-friendly. Indeed, the only difference is that a "PG" film can have an occasional mild swear word or some flatulence humor, while such things are banned from "G" movies (which must be squeaky clean). Why not widen the criteria for a "G" and eliminate the "PG?"

I know, just like Ebert's "A" rating, this isn't going to happen. Why? Because the MPAA is too entrenched to overhaul a rating system that no longer functions properly? Or because it makes too much sense? Probably both. So, next time I write in this space, I'll propose my idea about how to revamp the ratings system. Like the "A" rating, it's pie in the sky, but it's something I want to throw out there. It's always better to criticize when you have an alternative in mind.