LOS ANGELES -- After several weeks of high-profile controversy about the movie ratings system, directors and writers who have been critical of the system met Wednesday evening with Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, to discuss their differences in a very low-profile meeting.
Participants in the closed meeting emerged to describe their talk only in the most general terms, calling it informative and saying they would set up a committee of directors and writers to meet again on the matter. While most of those who attended the meeting hurried away without talking to reporters, Valenti and the executive directors of the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America -- who organized the meeting -- spoke with the press in the lobby of the Directors Guild building.
"There was no screaming, no shouting," said WGA Executive Director Brian Walton. And there was no call for dismantling the system: "Everybody feels the system is good," he said.
"I think it was a serious dialogue about a serious subject," said Valenti, a staunch defender of the system he created, oversees and is not inclined to change. "Everything the directors wanted to say they said," Valenti noted. "I hear where they're coming from."
He said there was talk of "how we can make improvements that parents will find helpful" but stopped short of saying that that meant changes were in store.
"It was a lively discussion in which all sides aired their views," said Ed Zwick, director of the film "Glory." "It was extensive but not yet conclusive."
At issue is the X rating, which technically means a film should not be viewed by children under 17 or 18 years old (depending on the area of the country), but which "has come to be universally recognized as pertaining simply to pornography," according to a letter signed by 40 film directors and sent to Valenti last month. The directors suggested that in place of the X rating for non-pornographic films, an A or M rating be used to indicate "strong adult themes."
In the last decade, few commercial films -- outside pornography -- have received the X rating; the stamp of such disapproval can economically handicap a film. The directors wrote in their letter, "An 'X' rated or unrated film is denied exhibition in thousands of cinemas nationwide, display advertising is forbidden by a growing number of major metropolitan newspapers, and radio and television advertising in most markets is not available at all for films that are not rated either G, PG, PG-13 or R. ..."
"I don't know if it's realistic to think there's going to be an A rating," said DGA Executive Director Glenn Gumpel. "But I think there's a commitment to take a look and maybe down the way there will be changes."
Only a fraction of the directors who signed the letter were present. Many were working and unable to attend. In addition to Zwick, directors present were Phil Robinson, Barry Levinson, Walter Hill, John Landis, Menahem Golan, Harold Becker, Wayne Wang and Mark Lester. Wang's new film, "Life Is Cheap ... but Toilet Paper Is Expensive," just received an X rating from the MPAA. But Wang's distributor, New York-based Silverlight Entertainment, has chosen to decline the rating (which is allowed) and affix its own A rating in ads. Mark Lipsky of Silverlight says that the New York Times has accepted ads for the self-rated A movie, which opens in two weeks in New York.
Wang would not make changes in his movie to get a different rating. In his appeal to the MPAA, he tries to explain several arguably provocative actions in his film, which is set in Hong Kong. One involves eating feces, another involves a man defecating on a toilet while speaking on a phone.
Lipsky said the MPAA "mentioned four things to me initially but now they say it was only one thing." That objectionable scene, he said, is one in which a man looks through a magazine containing photographs of naked, pregnant women.
"Nobody gets an X for a naked pregnant woman," Valenti responded. "That's absurd on the face of it. If you see the picture it will become glaringly obvious why it got an X."
Lipsky is responsible for initiating the letter to Valenti and getting directors to sign it. He was not invited to Valenti's meeting Wednesday. "He's not a director," said Valenti. Wang would not comment before or after the meeting.
Valenti's position is that the ratings are a helpful guide to parents and in that regard they have been completely successful. He argues that once there's an attempt to start grading the types of adult films, the system becomes problematic and a target of politics. Municipal and state legislatures -- there used to be local ratings boards across the country -- might step in, he speculates. "If people don't believe that could happen, look at the furor over the National Endowment for the Arts," he said.
Some critics of the ratings system have contended that the ratings board gives more slack to major studio productions and judges sexual material more harshly than violent scenes. "Last Tango in Paris," released in 1972, may have been one of the last major studio releases to get the X rating. In the past year, several independently released films -- "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer," Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" and Wang's new film -- have received X's. "Die Hard 2," with its 200-plus deaths, and "Total Recall," another violent movie, both got R ratings.
In a court case last month, the X ating on "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" was upheld in a New York state court but the judge, Charles E. Ramos, "strongly advised" the MPAA to revise or abandon its ratings system, calling it "an effective form of censorship."
Filmmaker David Lynch was supposedly warned that his new film, "Wild at Heart," might earn an X rating as well -- possibly for a scene in which someone's head is shot off. Lynch reportedly handled the problem by adding a secondary puff of smoke that makes the scene a bit more fantastical but doesn't obscure its intent. Lynch submitted the film to the MPAA arguing that "if you can give 'Total Recall' an R, you should be able to give 'Wild at Heart' an R," according to Leonie dePicciotto, vice president of publicity at the Samuel Goldwyn Co. The film is rated R.
Valenti would not comment on why "Die Hard 2" got an R rating. "I disagree sometimes with the ratings," Valenti said. "These are mortals that are making these decisions. These are parents. All they're trying to do is be an advance warning to parents -- even if it's R, it's restricted."
Valenti also said the members of the ratings board are not influenced by the major studios. "These people ... are shielded. How can they be pressured by the film distributors?"
Although the chairman of the board is known to be Richard Heffner, an academic who divides his time between the East and West coasts, the other members of the 11-member board are unidentified. They live in Los Angeles and work full time viewing movies during their two- to three-year terms. According to Valenti, they range in age from the late twenties to the late fifties, and include men and women, and whites, blacks and Hispanics. They are all parents.
Staff writer Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.