The nuts and bolts of movie rating

The Classification & Ratings Administration is under the jurisdiction of the Motion Picture Assn. of America and its semi-silent partner, the National Assn. of Theater Owners. It consists of two separate arms: The rating board, which classifies films, and the advertising code, which approves or disapproves all ads and press material.

The rating board has 11 members, “all parents who have themselves experienced the difficulties of determining their own youngsters’ moviegoing,” according to chairman Richard Heffner (who’s also university professor of communications and public policy at Rutgers U.). They assemble in L.A. for two or three screenings every day (sometimes more); there’s no official quorum, but Heffner says, “We’ve never gone below five or six. I firmly believe there is safety in numbers.”

As soon as the film ends, there is a “green ballot,” a green piece of paper that asks: “Do you think most American parents will want this film restricted or not? If yes: R or NC-17? If not: G, PG or PG-13? Write your reasons.”

When a producer asks about reasons for the rating, “We always try to be helpful,” says Heffner, “but sometimes we simply can’t be as specific as filmmakers want us to be. We’re not film editors, and don’t pretend to be.”

If after two edits (which means the raters will have seen the film three times) the producers don’t get what they want, they may have to wait at least 30 days for another screening, to give the raters time to cool off (“Raters may get gaga about their ability to be as shocked as parents seeing a film for the first and only time,” says Heffner).

Appeals board

If unhappy, the filmmakers have alternatives: to release the film unrated/self-rated, or to appeal. The appeals board consists of 14 to 20 reps from exhibs and major and indie distribs.

Heffner: “There is a language rule and a drug-use rule. They’re imposed upon us by the industry, meaning NATO and the MPAA”:

1) Language — Even one use of any of the “harsher, sexually derived words” guarantees at least an initial PG-13, even if the word is used as an expletive. The film gets an initial R if The Word is used in a sexual sense, or used more than once. The exception: If the board believes a lesser rating is more appropriate and votes by a 2/3 majority, the film can get another rating.

2) Drug content. If there is any drug-use reference, the film is guaranteed at least a PG-13, with 3/4 majority needed to overturn it.

Despite rumors, there are no automatic rules regarding nudity, sexual encounters or violence. Heffner says, “Rules make decisions easy, but they rob it of reason” and the policy that works best is the rule of reason.

The advertising administration reports only to MPAA topper Jack Valenti.

According to senior VP, administration/director of advertising Bethlyn Hand, when a film is submitted for rating, “One contingency is that the distributing or producing company will submit any and all advertising and publicity for approval” before it’s shown to the public.

All TV and newspaper advertising must be suitable for general audiences. Trailers can be suitable for general audiences, or restricted (but the latter can only play in theaters showing R and NC-17 films). Even the smallest newspaper ad has to carry notice of the film’s rating. The same is true of trailers; the only exceptions are “teasers,” those coming attractions that are filmed before the pic is completed.

Four powerful mothers

The ad department is L.A.-based. Hand says, “I have a staff of four mothers,” with low turnover, since “it’s a long, educational process.”

There are no absolutes, says Hand: “We can’t give a list of do’s and don’ts.” Most distribs’ ad departments understand the needs, but try to “put in something a little different”– which means, according to Hand, that “nine out of 10 times , something will be disapproved” the first time around. She says, “If there’s a problem, we all come in,” and they will call the studio within 24 hours.

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