Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Truth About Ratings

A few days ago, I went to see a movie and couldn’t help but notice a brochure that was strategically placed in the lobby. It was called “The Truth About the Ratings” and subtitled “The Ratings are Your Friend”. It was published by Motion Pictures Association of America. The question is, is it really the truth. It states that ratings are assigned by a board of parents who consider factors such as violence, sex and language. And they assign a rating they believe a majority of parents would give a film. The brochure states that the rating boards are made up of parents who represent a diversity of American parents who are not affiliated with the movie industry.

Sounds good. Right? But there is something missing from this brochure. That would be the truth. I don’t want to sound cynical but somehow I’m not sure the rating board is your friend. Yes, they have made some improvement in the past few years because of criticism that has been directed toward how films are rated. But the reality is film ratings are nothing more than a marketing tool used by the film industry, especially by the major studios. They get the rating they want.

You cannot talk about Hollywood unless you understand the rating system. Much of what the film industry does is based on what rating a film receives. This wasn’t the original intent when the rating system was put into place in 1966. The system was designed to help parents make informed decisions about the nature and content of films. Today Hollywood has used it to their advantage. Today PG-13 has become the rating of choice because it can guarantee a broader appeal and higher profits. The criteria for the rating system has changed and evolved over the years. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health finds that today’s PG-13 films have more content that is similar to R-rated movies from the early 1990s. Hollywood has made PG-13 cool. They have quietly lowered the standards in order to increase the content that will appeal to a younger demographic.

As eager as studios are to embrace a PG-13 rating, they are equally determined to avoid a PG rating. Therefore, filmmakers must increase the content in order to receive the higher rating. That usually means adding bad language or suggestive sexual content. The PG rating is no man’s land. After the initial theatrical release of a PG-13 or R-rated film, studios may re-edit the film for home video. The industry calls this an unrated version because it is not resubmitted to a ratings board. Unrated versions contain more graphic nudity, language, sexuality and violence. By going this route, studios have the best of two worlds. They have access to a broader audience during theatrical distribution, but they can also create a mystic or cult following with a home video release.

One of the primary audiences for theatrical distribution is teens and young adults. They buy most of the movie tickets. Manipulating the rating system serves the studios’ best interest in maximizing profits that can be generated from this audience. Re-editing films is primarily directed toward teenagers for home viewing.

The rating system is a mystery. No one can adequately explain what the criteria is for a PG, PG-13 or R rated film. The criteria is a moving target. A film is submitted to a ratings board. The process is subjective, and each board has different members. It is possible that a film can receive a PG-13 rating from one board and be resubmitted and receive an R rating from a different board. There is no clear, defined line. Movies are rated on sensuality, nudity, language, rape, drug and alcohol usage, smoking, violence, gruesome images, disturbing images, dramatic content, war violence, sexuality, suggestive language, etc. The rating system is unreliable. It can serve only as a tool but cannot be counted upon for accuracy

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