Saturday, June 11, 2011

Meaningless Ratings (2002)

What follows is an article I wrote for a Catholic website in 2002. The article reveals some of the motivation behind the research that resulted in The Moral Premise, which was begun the next year. I'm resurrecting it here for the record and to facilitate some discussions with some I consult with about the nature of the motion picture industry. It is dated, so I've done a little editing and added a few comments [in brackets].

"I'd rather write an R-rated film that told the truth than a G-rated film that lied." That's what respected Christian producer and screenwriter, Brian Bird, said to me over lunch recently in Hollywood. He was tired of taking his children to see G-rated Disney fare that presented a worldview that was distinctly non-Christian — e.g. elevating faith in magic and fairies over faith in God and the angelic hosts.

For Christians, the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) film ratings, and the recent TV-ratings, do not tell whether or not a film is acceptable — to children or adults. But as a rough gauge of acceptability, they have provided some help. Or so I thought until recently.

When we first started our motion picture development company we made a decision to focus our efforts on writing only G, PG, and PG-13 rated films. No "R-ratings" we said — unless we felt particular inspired to do something as poignant as Schindler's List and we avoided gratuitous elements. But in recent months, some of the PG-13 films that have hit the theaters have caused us to rethink that rule. [And in 2004 there was THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with a strong "R".] Increasingly, films that used to be rated R now appear to be rated PG-13. So recently we made the decision that our efforts would instead focus only on G and PG ratings, with PG-13 as the rarely allowed exception. [This makes business sense as well. The fewer admittance restrictions to a film, the higher potential box office.]

What is going on inside the MPAA rating board wasn't announced but it is being noticed. Peter Bart, VP and Editor-in-Chief of Hollywood's most respect trade publication, Daily Variety, wrote in his August 5, 2002 editorial “PG-13 Pictures Rate an 'R' for Raunchy” (p. 19):
More and more films like Austin Powers in Goldmember — movies steeped in toilet jokes and sexual innuendo — are earning PG-13 ratings rather than the more restrictive ratings they might have received a few years ago.

Is it pure coincidence that ratings mavens have seemingly become more liberal at a time when the major distributors are more conservative? When I asked one studio chief last week, he sat back and grinned: "Puzzling, isn't it?"

But parents may not be puzzled about whether they'd like their 13-year-olds to become aficionados of Austin Powers. Sure, no nasty penises or vaginas are on display (just some interesting facsimiles), and no one commits sexual intercourse, but the overall level of humor makes American Pie (which got an R) seem like a course at the Harvard Divinity School. When Dr. Evil refers to his lair, a submarine, as "long, hard and full of seamen," he is actually lifting the level of dialogue.
To set the record straight there are a number of motion pictures with PG-13 and even R ratings that, although they are not suitable for children, tell morally valid, redemptive stories with strong Judeo-Christian themes and values. Among such recent PG-13 films are: PAY IT FORWARD, THE APOSTLE, and WHERE THE HEART IS. Worthy R rated fare include WE WERE SOLDIERS, AMISTAD, THE GREEN MILE, AND BLACK HAWK DOWN, [and in 2004, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST].

On the otherhand, there are also movies that deserve their restrictive R rating for no reason other than the filmmaker, in possession of a truly redemptive Judeo-Christian story, made stupid decisions regarding language and sexuality. One such movie is MAGNOLIA — a film that I would highly recommend if it wasn't for the zillion or so [unnecessary] expletives.

What Peter Bart suggests is that the MPAA ratings board has caved into the desires of filmmakers and the studios to produce raunchy, vile movies yet not necessarily jeopardize their $50 million marketing budgets. Instead of an R rating they get the more marketable PG-13. Why is the R rating now a problem when five years ago it wasn't? Because, not only are parents keeping a closer eye on what their kids are seeing, but theaters are doing a much better job of keeping kids out of R movies.

Additionally, TV shows with kid audiences are likewise turning away advertisements for films with R ratings. All of that hurts attendance. And while that's good for parents, it's bad for filmmakers of such fare. So, to help the studios and distributors appear to have a cleaner image, MPAA has embraced what might be called “ratings equivocation”. What used to be R can now be classified as PG-13. The result? Less conflict with critics, and more tickets sold ... to kids.

Parents beware. Don't read too much into a rating. Instead, get the scoop on the story and read what good Christian reviewers are saying about the picture, [although I still cringe at how some Christian reviewers count sweat words, and the number of times little Billy gets slugged in the stomach by big Bully. See my other post on "The Good of Conflict and Immorality in Movies.]  Better still, go ahead of time or along with your child or teen, and don't be embarrassed to walk out.

I love the movies. I produce them. But in regard to my children and grandchildren, I have little patience for irresponsible filmmaking.

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