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August 17, 2009

Group Wants to End MPAA Ratings

Conservative 'Movieguide' launches petition to drop system and adopt another -- but what?

Movieguide, a very conservative Christian organization, has launched a petition to urge the MPAA to drop what it calls a "failed" ratings system and "return to a 'standards-based' Code of Decency," according to an article on its own site.

"The MPAA's ratings system never worked really well, but it has gotten much worse since it added the ambiguous PG-13 rating," said Movieguide founder Ted Baehr said. "Parents, especially mothers, can no longer trust the ratings for movies, especially in light of the PG-13 ratings for movies like THE LOVE GURU and LAND OF THE LOST, and the R ratings for pornographic movies like BRÜNO." (Just an aside here: Especially mothers. Huh? That's an insult to dads like me who care very much about teaching our children how to be discerning. Just the realm of "especially mothers"? Come on.)

Baehr claims that the MPAA ratings system is not "based on standards." Well, that's not exactly true . . .

The MPAA does have standards (you can read them here), but they're apparently not up to Baehr's standards, which he says are based on the "Code of Decency." He urges the MPAA to ditch its ratings system and return to this "Code."

Movieguide doesn't say what it means by the term "Code of Decency" -- at least not here. They referred to it here in calling for, among other things, the elimination of all R-rated movies and "most" PG-13 movies: "We support a return to the Moral Code of Decency and the vetting of all scripts for movies going to public theater and DVD retail within 20 years, if not in 3-5 years. That would probably include the elimination of all R-rated and NC-17 content as well as most PG-13 content."

Movieguide keeps capitalizing the term "Code of Decency" as if it's some official document or something, but it's not. (Go ahead and google it: You won't find it anywhere but at Movieguide -- and at places quoting them.) Perhaps they are referring to the old Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), which was in effect from 1930 to 1964 and included such requirements as these:

> "No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it." (Wow. Who's going to determine that arbitrary criteria?)

> "Correct standards of life . . . shall be presented." (Again, according to whom?)

Or, perhaps, Movieguide was referring to the National Legion of Decency, which was even stricter than the Production Code. The Legion of Decency, founded by a Catholic Archbishop in 1933, put every film into one of three categories: "morally unobjectionable," "morally objectionable in part," and "Condemned by the Legion of Decency." That system has since been slightly revised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting; you can read its current ratings guidelines here.

So I'm not sure if Movieguide, when calling for a "Code of Decency," is referring to the Hays Code, the Legion of Decency, some blend of both, or something of Movieguide's own making. (Perhaps they want to call all the shots?) They're unclear. But when you're calling for the abolition of something -- in this case, the MPAA's rating system -- you're obliged to be clear what you want to replace it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm the first to acknowledge that MPAA's system is flawed, and some of its ratings seem way off the mark. Many people have opined how to fix it -- even suggesting to scrap it and start all over. I'm fine with that discussion, and I think the motion picture industry should be open to any suggestions on how to fix it. But any such suggestion needs to offer a specific solution, not merely a mention of a nebulous "Code."

Movieguide's article quotes Baehr as saying that "the entertainment industry must return to the kind of system it had during the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Golden Age of Television, when it was a wonderful life in America because Mr. Smith went to Washington, Ricky still loved Lucy, and the Bells of St. Mary's rang out across the whole land." That's all well and good, but again, where is the definition of this "system"? A link, please? (A minor quibble here: Is Ricky and Lucy's marriage really a model? Seems like many, if not most, of the episodes involved one of them deceiving the other. Funny, yes. But still, deceit was the rule.)

Finally, the petition itself simply states: "I sign my name to the official petition filed by Movieguide to end the MPAA Rating System and instead establish standards-based ratings which are not controlled by the entertainment studios."

That's it. It does not specify what should replace the MPAA's system, except that whatever it is should not be controlled by the entertainment studios. While there's certainly merit in the call for a system that isn't "controlled by the entertainment studios," I think it would behoove the potential petition signer to know precisely what he/she is signing up for, rather than merely what he/she is signing against. Is Baehr suggesting that he and/or Movieguide should set the ratings? And if so, does that mean the elimination of all R-rated and most PG-13 movies, as they have called for? Heaven forbid.

Yes, the MPAA system is flawed, and it should be held up to scrutiny. It's a system that does make mistakes and errors in judgment. But ultimately, whether it's the MPAA's standards or Movieguide's or some nebulous "Code of Decency," the ultimate responsibility lies with parents, who must do the necessary research into films before deciding whether or not they -- or their children -- will see a particular film.

It's irresponsible to rely on a single "rating" to make an informed decision. A moviegoer must know himself/herself (or his/her children), must know his/her conscience (and their children's), his/her sensitivities (and their children's), and his/her level of maturity -- spiritually, emotionally, psychologically -- before deciding whether a film is appropriate or not. And no simple rating system alone can do that.

Some people like to think that they can decide what's right for everyone; we get enough e-mails here to validate that, e-mails essentially saying, "NO Christian should EVER watch such-and-such a movie, and if they do, they're clearly not a Christian, or they've deceived themselves and are headed straight to hell." Seriously.

The MPAA's ratings system is far from perfect, but for me, anyway, it's just one tool in a process of learning to discern. I've never decided to see a movie (or not) based solely on its rating (with NC-17 being an exception, of course). I've never ruled out a movie simply because it's rated R, and I've never assumed a G or PG movie is "safe for the whole family." That's irresponsible.

Good discernment is more than just a snap judgment based on a couple of letters, numbers, or stars. Good discernment requires more digging to be better informed.

What do you think? Would you sign that petition? Is the MPAA's rating system broken? If so, how would you fix it? Should it be scrapped altogether? If so, what would you replace it with?

We'd love to hear your comments. And keep your opinions and disagreements civil, please.

8/20 UPDATE:
The folks at Movieguide, partly out of response of this call for more clarity, have updated their petition with more specifics about suggestions for how they would replace the MPAA system. There are some good suggestions in their new list, so it's a start. The proposed solutions are more specific than they were the other day, when I first blogged about this, so I appreciate their clarifications.

Still, some of their suggestions could be difficult to enforce or interpret. No. 4, for example, says, "Detailed and protracted acts of brutality, cruelty, physical violence, torture, and abuse shall not be presented." If so, we'd have no films like The Passion of The Christ, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, and many more -- unless those films were toned down in such a way as to not graphically present such horrors . . . and then I'm not sure how "true" such films would be to their subject matter. Similarly, No. 2 reads, "Evil, sin, crime, and wrongdoing shall not be justified." While there's a seed of a good idea in there, I'm not sure it's realistic, and it depends on what is meant by "justified." Can sin be depicted in movies? I would certainly hope so; how else can a filmmaker illustrated the reality of a fallen world in need of redemption. Does it mean that the sinner shouldn't be depicted as "getting away with it"? I hope not, because that certainly happens in the real world all the time -- another indication of our fallen nature. Does it mean that filmmakers should at least pause before depicting habitual sin without consequence? I'd be a bit more likely to nod at that sentiment, but even then, there would have to be exceptions.

The point: Even if the flawed MPAA system is overthrown, and an outside group determines the standards instead, there will never be a perfect system, there will always be debate about what the ratings/standards really mean and how they can be interpreted, and so on. I'm all for improving the current system, but I'm also convinced that no system will satisfy everyone. But I'll give Movieguide a hat tip for continuing the conversation and at least looking for answers.

What do you think? Read Movieguide's proposed changes, and let us know your thoughts. Sign their petition if you're comfortable with it; if you're not, feel free to offer criticism, but offer solutions too. And not just here; let Movieguide know too. It's a conversation worth having.

(Image above from Movieguide's website.)


I had to stop and think of the last time a film rating impacted my decision to see something or not. It's been so long that I don't remember. As it happens, I'm more concerned with relative quality than what some arbitrary group of parents (that's a key word) thinks about a film.

Why do we even need a ratings system?

I do my own homework before I go out to see a movie. I look at the trailers, I read Roger Ebert, I take a spin past Rottentomatoes.com. I've got a dozen places where I've followed movies from months or years, and have a good idea of what the film is about, or whether I'll like it enough. That's why I was able to go to (and enjoy) The Proposal (good rom-coms are a guilty pleasure) but avoided The Ugly Truth (I'm waiting for Gamer for my next Gerard Butler flick).

My rating system has more to do with quality than degrees of offense towards parents with kids. I've seen G-rated films that were excellent and avoided R-rated films that were poor. By the same token, I've taken my kids to some R-rated films but not other PG-rated films.

Give me a good story, well-told, and let me decide for myself whether the material is fit for myself or my kids / grandkids.

Mark writes "We'd love to hear your comments. And keep your opinions and disagreements civil, please."

It would have been nice if Mark had done the same. Christian infighting reflects badly on the body of Christ and benefits none of us.

Mark was quite civil. MovieGuide deserves to be questioned and even challenged when they put out petitions like this one. Mark was respectful and never attacked MovieGuide or anyone associated with it. But he does ask some questions and challenge some of their ideas . . . that's not in-fighting, it's "iron sharpening iron". It's discernment.

And no, I would not sign the petition. I certainly wouldn't want MovieGuide to make these types of decisions about what is morally acceptable and what is not. The ratings system certainly has its problems - but Mark is correct that it should be only one tool in making good decisions, not the only tool.

Read the article again. It isn't attempting to 'sharpen iron': it neither offers constructive dialogue nor helpful suggestions. The tone of the article is negative. Movieguide doesn't include fathers, 'mis-labels' a certain decency code, and is implied to be among those who make snap judgements about movies based on ratings codes.

My suggestion (to Mark, Movieguide, et.al), let's take a step back and actually work together as Christians on this problem. The MPAA ratings are in some measure broken. The definition of PG-13 has been historically unstable. Although I doubt anyone thinks a rating system by itself is a serious solution (a look at the movieguide website shows they aren't afraid of favouring rather adult films), I'm sure most would agree that a more consistent rating system would be more useful. So, if Movieguide isn't proposing one, Mark could. Such would certainly be more productive than the current article.

For what it's worth, I wouldn't even necessarily rule an X-rated or NC-17 film out of bounds. One of my most prized DVDs is the now-out-of-print Criterion edition of RoboCop, which is based on the original director's cut of that film, which was rated X back in 1987 because the film is so violent. (The film wasn't released to theatres until a few of the gorier bits had been cut and the film was re-rated R. I happen to think the R-rated version is better -- a little restraint is a good thing, here -- but I don't see any significant moral difference between the two versions.)

I also own a copy of Requiem for a Dream, which was originally rated NC-17 because its depiction of drug addiction -- and the degrading lengths that people will go to, to keep their addiction fed -- is incredibly intense. In that film's case, the rating was eventually "surrendered" so that the film could be released theatrically without any rating whatsoever, but the fact remains, as far as the MPAA was concerned, the content of that film merited an NC-17. (An R-rated version was eventually created for video, otherwise stores like Blockbuster wouldn't have carried that film at all.)

Movieguide does have a point when they say that the ratings should not be administered by the industry. For one thing, the fact that the major studios basically own the MPAA means that the MPAA tends to be a lot more lenient in its treatment of big-studio films than it is in its treatment of smaller or more independent films. That's a problem. In most countries, such as my own (Canada), it is the government that assigns ratings to the various films, and presumably this allows the films to be treated more fairly, no matter who made them.

But it is extremely unlikely that we are ever going to see a return to the kind of self-censorship that Hollywood performed between the 1930s and 1950s. For one thing, film is legally recognized as an artform now, and is thus protected by American freedom-of-expression laws; this was not the case during the so-called "Golden Age", when film was legally regarded as no different than food or drugs or any other commodity that the government could regulate. For another, filmmakers increasingly rely on foreign grosses to make their profits, and foreign audiences tend to be less puritanical, for lack of a better word.

And finally, many films are produced by independent or semi-independent companies that are out of the Hollywood loop to begin with. This means many films are produced by people who are more open to R-rated films than the big studios might be. It also means many films are produced by people who are more open to Christian themes than the big studios might be. And sometimes -- as in the cases of The Passion of the Christ and Woman Thou Art Loosed -- the church-supported films have, themselves, been rated R.

Does Movieguide want to argue that films like those were insufficiently "decent"? Or would they be lenient to "our" films the same way the MPAA has been lenient to "their" films?

Mark seems to enjoy taking a shot at a Christian organization actually trying to do something about a very real problem. He says Movieguide is not clear about what it really wants but the best he can come up with is every family doing its own research to determine what's good. That's not reasonable. To determine what's good or bad you'd wind up watching a lot of bad just to make a decision. It's wiser to go to a source like Movieguide and read what objectionable material is in the movie, read what worldview the movie is promoting and then decide if you want to consider it for your family.

The issue larger than just personal viewing decisions is that of what the MPAA is doing to American culture. When the Motion Picture Code was dropped Hollywood went from an approach where major studios agreed not to make movies with certain objectionable content to simply rating any content anyone felt like filming. Imagine God rating sin rather than just outlawing it. "Thou shalt not commit adultery" would become G: no adultery, PG: no adultery involving babies, PG-13: no adultery involving teenagers, R: adultery permitted with single person, NC-17: orgies so bad you can't do it in public view. Ratings have FAILED to protect American culture from horrific decline. That's what Movieguide is saying.

The MPAA gave Bruno: "Rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

The old Motion Picture Code included the following:
IV. Obscenity
Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.
V. Profanity
Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ - unless used reverently - Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.
VI. Costume
1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.
2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.
3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.
4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

If the Motion Picture Code we followed today the movie patrons would not have to feel like they were walking through the the valley of the shadow of death posters to get to the theater showing Up. People would not be assaulted by previews trying to advance the cutting edge of gruesome horror or sick comedy.

What America needs most is revival. With revival comes a heartfelt hunger for the will of God. God's will is standards based. There are dos and don'ts. God's kingdom doesn't change. There will be no Heaven Today magazine describing trends in heaven. God will never change His mind and decide sodomy is acceptable in heaven.

Jesus told us to pray, "Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heaven." The Christian Film & Television Commission's call for Hollywood to return to decency standards during production is a bold step. It will not turn earth in to heaven, but it would certainly slow Hollywood's race to hell.

I've worked with Ted Baehr and Movieguide for over 20 years. He and I share a burning desire to pass to our grandchildren a culture that is less morally toxic. Under the time period the MPAA has provided its rating we have become far, far worse. A revived Motion Picture Code will not replace the need for a sweeping revival, but it is a step worthy of the support of Christians who wish to see less filth come pouring out of Hollywood.

Why is it that whenever someone pops defending Movieguide on a thread regarding the publication, he or she always turns out to be affiliated with Movieguide? Is there no one who likes the publication outside of those who already work for it? (And, more to the point, are you all really that scared of losing your jobs?)

Mass censorship on the scale they're advocating here is not only short-sighted, it simply isn't workable in an age of global, instantaneous media. Mankind has always been sinful, and as long as he's been making movies, they've been as sinful as was possible. There are countless pornographic films produced semi-illegally during the age of the Hays Code, for anyone who cares to look for them (not to mention the gritty noirs produced within the studios, which consciously pushed against the Code's boundaries).

In the age of the Internet, whatever content people are willing to film will become instantly available to all, with no regard for whatever rules are being imposed on Hollywood. Re-introduction of the Hays Code would simply push objectionable content to other venues, and would have no effect on the culture that MG is so concerned about.

Above all, this move to censor Hollywood strikes me as a lack of faith in the sovereignty of God -- as though ending depictions of sin will somehow end the sin itself, and as though forcing people to view films acceptable to (certain) Christians will somehow turn them Christian. God's will is done with or without our help -- but if we're serious about ending evil in the world, our time would certainly be better spent doing good, instead of merely stabbing at evil's shadows.

Mr. Outten, if you're reading this, I'd like to know where you stand on the Hays Code's ban on miscegenation. Do you find interracial marriages morally offensive? :)

I'm not sure how much resurrecting the Production Code would accomplish. At least three of its tenets are blatanly ignored in Rita Hayworth's stunning, dark, and very explicit "Gilda", a fair number of Hitchcock films (the raunchy sex talk in North by Northwest, the necrophilia in Vertigo...), and countless others. Contrary to the bizarre rose-coloured hindsight that holds up the golden era of film as being pure of content, there were an awful lot of films made prior to the Code's scrapping that are anything but fun for the whole family. The point I'm trying to make is, like the MPAA system, the Production Code was also conveniently ignored when faced with enough star power or financial temptation. Sure, the ratings system has changed, but not the way its treated or applied by the industry.

Peter, now you've made me curious to look up the guidelines by which our government assigns film ratings. You may be on to something about government ratings assignments making more sense than industry ones. The 14A (age 14 to adult) rating, which I never thought about and seemed kind of arbitrary, makes a heap of sense as until last year 14 was the sexual age of consent in Canada. So if you're old/mature enough to have sex, you're old/mature enough to see certain things on film...

I love my country. :D

Elly: For what it's worth, things are a little more complicated in Canada because each province has its own film classification board -- and in Quebec, they use a different ratings system altogether. So, for example, Saving Private Ryan was rated 18A in British Columbia but 14A in Ontario and 13+ in Quebec. That might make it sound like some of the provinces are more lenient than the American system, which gave the film an R rating; however, one very important difference is that the 14A and 13+ ratings are truly restrictive ratings -- nobody under 14 or 13 gets into the theatre, at least not without a guardian -- whereas as far as I can tell, the American PG-13 rating is purely advisory, and children of any age can still buy tickets to those movies. So if the American system had gone easy on the film and given it a PG-13 rating, it would, on a practical level, have been no different from giving the film a PG or G rating.

And that is why I am partly sympathetic to the folks at Movieguide, when they say that the PG-13 rating -- invented in 1984, when films like Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were considered too intense for a PG rating but nowhere near intense enough for an R -- has made things worse. Some films are suitable for teenagers but not for children, and the PG-13 rating pretends to make that distinction -- but in actuality, it just makes a wide range of "mature" films open to young'uns, from the sexual innuendos of Austin Powers to the violence and torture sequences in Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum. I would argue that those films probably do need something stronger than a PG rating and weaker than an R rating -- but the PG-13 rating, which is really no different from a PG rating or a G rating, simply isn't it.

Steven Greydanus once wrote a piece about what he referred to as "ratings creep," meaning the MPAA had loosened its restrictions over the years. Among the examples he cites refuting the idea is ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING, which landed two f-bombs, and still walked away with a PG-13. In 1987.

Likewise, both the original PLANET OF THE APES and Zeffirelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET received G ratings upon release, yet APES contains a prominent expletive, and R&M contains sexual nudity. Both were later elevated to PG.

Movieguide likes to beat this horse from time to time, and I doubt the initiative will have any pull. If Christians really want more morally grounded films, they need to step up and make better movies. And they need to remember that telling a moral story sometimes involves dealing an honest hand to the reality of a fallen world.

I wonder if creating a PG-15 rating might help things. Then I also wonder if it wouldn't add to an already confused system. Granted, the MPAA system has its flaws--Greydanus even asserts as much; his piece critiquing a specific study rather than the MPAA itself.

As a parent, and as an artist, I maintain his conclusion: No matter what the rating, parental guidance is always required.

See Greydanus' post at: http://www.decentfilms.com/sections/articles/ratingscreep.html

Something that disturbs me is that, according to what I've read (and I know - you can't believe everything you read, so feel free to correct me) is that the ratings are actually given to movies by a group called the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), which is supposedly comprised of....parents! I concede the point that the ratings themselves may be flawed, but I think it's rather telling that some parents don't seem to be bothered enough by the content of some movies that push 'PG-13' so hard that they really should be 'R'. I'm like other posters in that I read reviews from a myriad of sources - Christian and secular alike - before making a decision regarding whether my kids - or even myself - should watch a particular flick. After reading some reviews, I feel so sorry for the reviewer that sat through all the muck - and so grateful, too.

Peter, I'd forgotten about the provincial divide and the admission restrictions. I'm from Montreal, and you've reminded me of numerous incidents as a young teenager where mom took me to a G or PG movie and got a little surprise. And also a good point about our ratings been restrictive - the only time I've ever been carded for a movie was for the PG-13 Jurassic Park: The Lost World at the Cavendish Mall in Montreal (I was a scrawny child), but the following year on a class trip to D.C. saw The Matrix in the theater, no questions asked. Is it not until the NC-17 that U.S. ratings become restrictive? Is that why studios work so hard to avoid it?


Oh get over it. He is allowed to have an opinion and give constructive criticism. Just because it's a Christian organization doesn't mean he has to blindly go along with it.

Yes, the ratings system is broken, but in this day and age discerning Christians have no excuse to walk blindly into a theater. I had a friend who is sensitive to violence but wanted to see The Happening. I suggested a movie review site like Christianity today that gives a good idea of what may offend. I didn't have to watch Borat, Bruno or any movie with certain names attached to know I may want to avoid them. Mike Myers and Adam Sandler come to mind as two of those names.

We have the tools to discern. Many of us just refuse to use them; this is laziness.

I agree with Movieguide and I disagree. I think the current ratings are a good STARTING POINT - and only that. As consumers I think we often give more thought and research into which toaster is the better brand than which movie, book, television show or radio station we expose ourselves to.
Taking the rating into consideration and then seeking out and reading reviews from organizations that hold similar beliefs to you will give you the tools you need to determine if a movie is right for you. Of course this it's sometimes difficult to do without accidently uncovering plot twists you didn't want to know in advance. Once you have an idea of how the reviews are structured(and although I like CT's reviews there are many sites that are similar and very useful to me) you get a sense of when a plot point might be revealed.

So how can movie ratings be improved? To me there's on important thing they could do to expand on the rating and that's to adopt additional codes on WHY the movie earned that rating - Is it violence, gore, horror, nudity, sexual content, language? This again is why some review sites are helpful to me - some go down to the level of counting each swear word, how many times they use alchol etc. If it were laid out for us - right next to the rating on the movie posters, in the paper and on-line next to the movie times etc. it would be a good start.
I don't know that we have to go as far as a code of decency that essentially censors movies. I certainly would agree that there's too much gratuitous violence and nudity in many movies but I can't bring myself to agree that a conduct committee should be in a position to tell the makers of the movie they must remove this or that scene. This already happens when a studio try's to get a movie reduced from R to PG but it should be the studio's choice to make the change as it should be our choice to see the movie or not. Regardless though; additional information about why a movie has the rating it has and more tools to discover content before we make our decision to attend would go a long way.

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