Ratings rewrite heats up

Valenti meets with studios' marketing watchdogs

WASHINGTON — Discussions about re-rigging the movie industry’s ratings system seem to be intensifying, with a strong push to refine the popular R rating category, according to several industry sources.

Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy Jack Valenti may even be softening to such suggestions. As creator of the MPAA ratings system, he is its staunchest defender, so any change in his position carries significance.

Asked about changes to the 32-year-old ratings system, Valenti told Daily Variety Wednesday that there are no concrete plans to do so, but that he is “always looking at ways to make it better.”

One studio exec agreed there is no final decision regarding the various ratings proposals on the table, but stressed that possible alterations are being paid serious attention. The exec said Valenti’s comments represented a “huge change” in attitude.

Also on Wednesday, Valenti held his first meeting with newly installed marketing compliance teams from the seven major studios and DreamWorks.

The luncheon rap session, held at the Peninsula hotel in Los Angeles, is part of a larger MPAA plan to calm outraged lawmakers on Capitol Hill by making sure that violent, R-rated films are no longer marketed to kids under 17. The compliance officers will oversee a series of major marketing directives, and focused primarily on advertising issues at the lunch.

Valenti has argued that the new, 12-point MPAA initiative sufficiently addresses outstanding concerns, but lawmakers and some studio execs say it’s the ratings system itself that must be changed. The Director’s Guild of America also has called for such action, suggesting a “hard R” and a “soft R.”

Parents satisfied

Countering, Valenti has pointed to study after study showing that the vast majority of parents are satisfied that the ratings provide the information they need to decide whether a child should see a particular movie.

Valenti has confided to colleagues that he fears that a decision to split the R rating into two, as many filmmakers now propose, would open the door to a series of revisionist demands that would make the entire system untenable.

In Washington, politicians on both sides of the aisle want the movie, music and vidgame industries to come up with a universal code of conduct, including Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.)

Earlier this month, Lieberman sent a letter to Valenti and other entertainment execs saying that the 12-point plan didn’t go far enough in eradicating problems pointed out in an FTC report, concluding that the movie biz does an end run around its own rating system by marketing violent movies to teens and children.

Valenti responded on behalf of the studios in a letter sent to Lieberman Monday and released to the press Wednesday. He had intended to send the letter last week, but held off in light of the unresolved presidential election.

Valenti detailed for Lieberman the widespread support for the ratings system.

“So when you ask in your letter that we ‘listen to millions of parents,’ we are doing precisely what you ask us to do,” Valenti wrote.

“We hear their voices. Clearly and repeatedly they tell us that what we are doing on their behalf is valuable to them. Perhaps one reason for their support is that we are the only enterprise in the entire nation that deliberately turns away revenues at the box office in order to fulfill our obligation to parents,” he said.

Attaching the 12-point MPAA initiative to his letter, Valenti said it makes important and substantial changes that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

Valenti intends to meet at least once very two months with the various compliance teams, which will supervise a series of changes in the way movies are marketed. The changes include more detailed ratings explanations in ads and movie trailers; a prohibition on including kids under 17 in test screenings for movies rated R for violence; and a prohibition on attaching trailers for R-rated movies to movies rated G and PG.

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