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Ugly reality in movie ratings

Is it necessary to subject our children to unrelenting violence and kinetic mindlessness in the name of entertainment, and to market R-rated movies and the equivalent videogames to younger consumers? Most reasonable people would say it is not. At the other end of the market, it is also wrong to abandon the concept of films intended for adults only.

A movement is growing to rethink the ratings systems.

Congressional hearings are underway. In a blow to Jack Valenti's stonewall defense of the MPAA ratings, the Directors' Guild of America has called for an overhaul of the movie ratings. Sooner or later, Hollywood's chickens had to come home to roost.

The movie industry created its Code and Ratings Administration in the late 1960s, to head off local censorship. That worked, but the original vision faded, the adult category collapsed, and the R category became polluted with material not suitable for those under 17, at the same time that theaters in general stopped enforcing its guidelines anyway. The open secret was that Hollywood counted on under-17 dollars for its R-rated special effects and horror movies. At the same time, it carelessly abandoned the concept of adult films. "Adults only" used to be the only ratings category; in recent years it's the only one missing. Adult choices have faded while 12-year-olds sample a buffet of entertainment options. Today the nation is in the curious position of (1) retailing unsuitable content to kids, while (2) having no workable category for adult material.

We have arrived at this condition through an erosion of the ratings system. Movies that would have been NC-17, like "Scary Movie," are now R. Movies that would have been R, like "Coyote Ugly," are PG-13. The MPAA consults its guidelines, and pounds its gavel. What is needed is an approach that is guided less by mysteriously flexible guidelines, and more by the overall suitability of a film for various age groups--a common-sense informational approach for parents. It could resemble the excellent web site Visit that site and you will see how comparatively useless the MPAA ratings are.

Consider. "Coyote Ugly," which glorifies girls who dance on top of bars to sell more drinks, gets a PG-13 because there is technically no nudity. But "Almost Famous," which shows a bright teenage boy successfully negotiating the minefield of a rock tour and forming a value system with the support of his mother, gets an R because of brief and insignificant nudity and language, and drug use presented as a cautionary lesson. If you were to see the two movies side-by-side you might be as mystified as I am why the MPAA thinks one is appropriate for 13-year-olds, while the other is questionable for 17-year-olds. But of course the MPAA cannot have values; it can only count beans, or nipples, or four-letter words.

The R category is ready to burst from the questionable material crammed into it. At the same time, the younger teenage market is served with movies that are R in their hearts but PG-13 to the MPAA bean-counters. How do you make an R into a PG-13? Keep the same story and values, but eliminate the nudity and language. Violent action is okay. You can kill people as long as you keep your clothes on and watch the F-word.

The R category is under such pressure to stretch because the adults-only category is missing in action. As the Director's Guild observes: "The NC-17 rating... has been an abject failure: many films that should not be seen by minors are re-cut so that they receive a 'hard' R rating." The DGA calls for a new "simple, clean and detailed rating," a "code of conduct governing the marketing of movies intended for mature audiences," and "zero tolerance" in the enforcement of enforcement of ratings.

This is common sense. The NC-17 rating is useless, because with rare exceptions no studio will release an NC-17 film. Why not? Because some media outlets will not accept the ads, because some theater leases forbid such movies from being shown, and also because of greed. Jack Valenti and his employers have no enthusiasm for any rating that would require them to deny admission to a single customer. The R rating is so porous that almost anyone who really wants to see an R movie can do so. The DGA's call for "zero tolerance" is no doubt chilling for Valenti and his bosses.

The DGA wants movement in two areas--more protection for children through strictly enforced ratings, and more freedom for adults through a rehabilitation of NC-17. It is time, the DGA says, for a simpler, more useful code. It seems to me five categories are required:

G: Suitable for all.

PG-13: Some content may not be appropriate for younger children.

R: No one under 17 without parent or guardian.

A: Adults only.

X: Pornography.

While R should be more strictly observed, the PG-13 category should be graded more realistically. Worthwhile movies often contain some "language," and may contain sexuality. Teenagers have heard the words. They have seen breasts. They had when I was 13, and they certainly have today. A movie like "Almost Famous" should not be rated R because of its mild (and edifying) treatment of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It applies values to its content. It shows a kid in the real world, trying to do the right thing.

The R and A categories should be enforced with "zero tolerance."

The X is not an issue since porno is not in theaters, but it must exist simply to establish that an A movie is not an X movie. How to define the difference between A and X? The porn industry knows what a porn film is, and so do its customers: An X film presents sexual behavior graphically. It is based on the "money shot." A-rated movies might suggest sexual activity, but could not depict it in gynecological detail.

Such a ratings system would have to come with acknowledgments that the studios and exhibitors are sincerely prepared to release A-rated movies and enforce the R rating. As the DGA's statement points out, the current impasse means that directors' visions are compromised, while at the same time "adult-oriented movies are seen by the very groups for which they are not intended." It's time for a change.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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