Rating the Ratings

Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification and Ratings Administration, and Dan Glickman, chairman of the MPAA, at the Sundance Film Festival.
Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification and Ratings Administration, and Dan Glickman, chairman of the MPAA, at the Sundance Film Festival. (By Carolyn Kaster -- Associated Press)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 22 -- Dan Glickman says the changes in the movie ratings system he announced here Monday were not inspired by the Sundance documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," which trashed the ratings body that grades films G, PG, R, etc., as a super-secret, censorious cabal that suffocates filmmakers -- and gives violent movies a pass while being too strict about sex.

The timing? Purely coincidental, says Glickman, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, which lobbies for the major Hollywood studios in Washington, and runs the rating system along with the National Association of Theatre Owners.

"My desire to make the system more transparent is two years old," says Glickman, who was at the annual Sundance Film Festival to meet with moviemakers to discuss the ongoing tweaking of the ratings process. "What I saw in that film were a lot of people with misconceptions of the ratings system -- or we had not explained well what we do."

Yeah, right, says Kirby Dick, director of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," which coincidentally is being released on DVD today. The movie premiered last year at Sundance and had a humble theatrical run, grossing $306,845 domestically, but a larger impact in the indie film community, which embraced the doc as a kind of call to arms. Dick's take? "I think it's a good beginning, and I applaud that, but most of the changes are cosmetic and they have a long way to go to repair a broken system."

And the changes? Not very earth-shattering.

Glickman and Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification and Rating Administration, briefed reporters Monday and stressed that the ratings themselves were not being altered. A PG-13 will still be a PG-13, etc. What is changing slightly is the process and its openness.

For the first time, the administration Web site ( http://www.filmratings.com/) will post the ratings rules and try to make ratings clearer. For example, it will now include the admonition that many R-rated movies are not suitable for young children. This came about because of vociferous complaints from theatergoers who were reportedly appalled to see parents with very young children attending slasher-horror films like the "Saw" movies. Another change: The board will allow a filmmaker who appeals a rating (arguing, say, for a PG-13 instead of an R) to cite similar scenes in other movies.

The 10 raters employed by the ratings administration view more than 900 films a year and grade them based on criteria that most American parents would agree with, according to Graves. Until now, the identities of these raters, who are supposed to be parents with children under 18, have been kept secret. Now, the group will reveal the names of the three "senior raters" and offer basic demographic information (but no names) of the other seven so that people can get a better feel for the kind of people making these judgments. One thing that "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" did was criticize the board for employing raters who no longer had children under 18.The raters' starting salary is $40,000 a year and they work for an average of three to seven years.

Another change: Until now, representatives of the Catholic Conference and the Council of Churches were allowed to observe the ratings appeals. Now, other groups "from different backgrounds" will also be invited.

Finally, Glickman says, the group will continue to fiddle with the machinery for another few years, including the NC-17 (adults only) rating, the "kiss of death" commercially, he points out, as many movie houses won't screen films with that rating.

Though Dick wasn't satisfied with the changes announced yesterday by Glickman, who refused to be in his film (which got an NC-17 rating), he did admit the timing of the announcement the day before the release of his DVD was sweet: "Yeah, I have to thank them for that."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company