Will A New MPAA Leader Bring Changes to Movie Ratings?

After the late Jack Valenti headed the Motion Picture Association of America for over three decades his replacement, Dan Glickman, took over in 2004. Just last week (January 22, 2010), Glickman announced his resignation as CEO of the MPAA. In the interim Bob Pisano, President and COO, will take the helm until a permanent replacement for Glickman is found. I can’t say I’m sorry to see Glickman leave. While the press release from the organization lauds his business accomplishments—mainly working to secure copyright laws that thwarted people who were determined to bring cameras into theaters—the release also mentions how he “worked to modernize the movie rating system.”

For those not aware, the MPAA is responsible for assigning movie ratings in the United States. And while these ratings only apply in the US, they have such an impact in that domestic market that they influence the types of movies that are made, and ultimately shown, in the rest of the world.

Glickman’s modernization began when he encouraged filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival to make more NC-17 movies. He assured them that he would do whatever possible to encourage more theaters to show NC-17 movies. Historically this rating, the most restrictive one available, is shunned by theaters because many of them are located in shopping venues that won’t allow NC-17 movies to be shown. Or theater chains simply have a policy of not exhibiting NC-17 movies.

While Glickman didn’t appear to make many inroads in this area, other unannounced changes to the rating system have quietly taken place. One, that I like to call the “trading game,” has allowed much more violence within the PG-13 rating. To accomplish this trick, you must keep sexuality at a minimum and not go overboard with language. Keep those aspects in check, and you can include violence in a film that used to only be found in an R-rated movie. Probably the most noted example of this tactic is The Dark Knight.

Glickman’s ratings shift also edged into PG territory. In the fall of 2008, we suddenly saw a new type of film that included sexual content that wasn’t seen in the PG rating since the 1970s. Admittedly, the PG rating from those earlier years would include such things as full frontal female nudity, but since the addition of the PG-13 rating in the 1980s, PG has indicated a more benign movie. A few mild profanities, violence within a comedic context, and vague sexual innuendo were the hallmarks of a PG-rated movie over the past couple of decades. However, shortly after Dan Glickman’s tenure began, we saw PG movies like Marley & Me which included a couple of sexual scenes complete with a squeaky bed, along with a mature storyline about the difficulties of conception.

The MPAA movie ratings have always drifted. But what is concerning to me, and I suspect the many parents who rely on the rating system, is that no one tells them when these quiet changes are going to happen. Many parents took their kids to Marley & Me expecting to see a cute little dog movie. They weren’t expecting this much sex in a PG movie. And to make matters worse, the dog dies in the end! Marley & Me was a movie made for adults. The problem is parents have become conditioned to see the PG rating as indicated something a little more edgier than G, but not with a canoodling scene on loud bed springs.

Hopefully the next CEO of the MPAA will recognize who the movie ratings are for: Parents! They are not a pawn to be used by directors and other industry insiders to carefully “position” a film within a desired market. In fact, the film industry’s current obsession with ratings is artistically harming many movies by creating scripts that are obviously fashioned to obtain a desired rating with the hopes of targeting a particular audience. Instead they need to be a consistent tool that parents can use to make decisions about what movies are best for their children. Changing the ratings without any notice to the public undermines the trust that parents have in the system, and will ultimately make the voluntary rating system that now exists in the US useless.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…