Guest Column: Matt Stone

Motion Picture Assn. Against America?

THE WALLS ARE CLOSING IN on the Motion Picture Assn. of America and its president, Jack Valenti. Politicians, filmmakers, parents and critics are beginning to see through the organization’s use of smoke and mirrors.

In a column for Daily Variety (July 20), Valenti excuses the MPAA’s inadequate ratings system while attacking “whiny” movie producers, directors and critics. But these groups are guilty of only one thing: the desire to live in a world where movies are not censored. The MPAA itself is the source of the current ratings system crisis.

The MPAA is comprised of seven companies: Paramount, Buena Vista (Disney), Warner Bros., MGM, Sony, Fox and Universal. The MPAA is the Hollywood studios’ lobby. The studios pay Valenti’s salary. This explains why studio films get preferential treatment over independent movies. This also explains why the MPAA’s ratings board fails so miserably at achieving its two stated goals: providing parents with information regarding movie content, and maximizing the creative freedom of filmmakers. Valenti’s assertion that his organization exists to serve the public is a lie of awesome dimension.

This is not to say that Valenti is evil or malicious. It’s just a pesky fact of life that you work for the people who pay your salary.

The incestuous MPAA-studio relationship has escaped any liability for a system that combines uninformative ratings with little enforcement of its own age restrictions. Even the television ratings system qualifies its ratings with labels like nudity, violence, drug use, etc. Why won’t the MPAA adopt a similar system and tell consumers why a film receives a rating? Because the MPAA, or more specifically the studios behind it, want to hide the facts to protect revenue.

With over half of movies released in the U.S. receiving an R rating, it’s obvious why the studios want no enforcement of age restrictions. They want kids to get into these films. (The recent token stab at ID-ing kids in movie theaters was a typical publicity smokescreen, and theaters have already gone back to business as usual.) We live in the moviemaking capital of the world and still have no viable way of distributing mature movies to mature people.

Valenti doesn’t like the C-word, but censorship is the MPAA’s primary business. He maintains: “The fact is that the movies rated NC-17 for violence undergo editing. All those films, by the director’s own volition, not by any command of the rating board, make adjustments to get the R rating.”

Who wants to call bullshit? Those cuts are made because an NC-17 ruins a film economically. They are not made of the directors’ own volition, any more than the Kosovars left their homes of their own volition. Do this, says the MPAA, or pay the consequences!

JUST WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE who make up the MPAA? The ratings board members’ identities are kept secret. Valenti thinks this is best so that the members aren’t “badgered.” Maybe we should make the Supreme Court anonymous, too. When the hell did we all get snookered into this secret society deal? Did God appoint Valenti? Is this America?

To hear Valenti invoke the spirit of America in defending censorship is nauseating. A hardened Beltway and Hollywood insider, he has conned everyone into thinking he represents the average American when really he is a well-paid lobbyist for the studios. The MPAA’s compass is guided by profits, not moral conviction.

Ironically, the same liberal Hollywood circles that applaud every new regulation put upon tobacco and firearm companies think their own industry should be exempt from such controls. What if tobacco companies were allowed to write their own warning labels? What if alcohol companies were in charge of ID’ing people? The movie-making community is trusting its future autonomy to a bumbling, irresponsible organization. As an industry, we are practically begging for government intervention.

VALENTI WARNS THAT WITHOUT the MPAA, big, scary government would step in with their own ratings system. How could this be worse than what we have now? We have just censored Stanley Kubrick’s final movie. That’s the price we are paying for the current system.

A public ratings board would ostensibly be accountable to the people. The proceedings would be public, the guidelines published and we could all have a voice at the ballot box. Best of all, a public ratings board would be subject to the guidelines of a little thing called the Constitution.

For the MPAA’s rating process to survive, it needs to serve public interest and allow artistic freedom. Three easy-to-follow steps can offer parents some security, artists real freedom, and give the MPAA credibility.

1) Include symbols for nudity, violence, language, drug use, etc. next to the rating. In addition, adding qualifiers such as M for mild and E for extreme will give parents information why a movie is rated a certain way.

2) Enforce age restrictions at theaters. We ID kids for alcohol, guns and driving, but the MPAA and the National Assn. of Theater Owners have convinced everyone that ID’ing at the movies is somehow impossible.

3) Drop the NC-17 rating altogether. Anything deemed unsuitable for people under 17 should be rated R. With the added labeling, parents can make educated decisions about content. And no filmmaker would have to cut anything, ever.

These changes can give the American public confidence in the MPAA’s ratings system. Of course, no substantive change will ever come from within the MPAA. The system already works for them. Any changes will only come from the two groups the MPAA ignores: the artists and the public.

(Matt Stone has produced three R-rated movies.)

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