Glickman addresses movie ratings

Speech reviews history of system

On the verge of its 40th anniversary, the movie rating system remains vital as both a public service and a representation of the First Amendment at work, said Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Dan Glickman in a speech given to the Media Institute.

“Is the system perfect? No. Does it do a good job of conveying clear information to parents? Yes. Does it safeguard artistic freedom? So far, yes,” Glickman stated.

An MPAA spokesman said Glickman’s extensive remarks are so far the only plans the org has to mark the 40th anniversary, which will occur on Nov. 1.

The speech reviewed the history of governmental authority over movie content, at first directly with censorship boards, then indirectly through the notorious Hays Code, an ostensibly self-imposed system named after the MPAA’s founding president, Will Hays.

“Viewed through modern eyes, (the Hays Code is) both humorous and troubling,” the speech says. “Only `correct standards of life’ could be presented. No depictions of childbirth. No criticisms of religion. Forget about `lustful’ kissing or `suggestive’ dancing. If married couples were shown in bed, then typically each actor had to keep one foot on the floor at all times. Under the Hays Code, films were simply approved or disapproved based on whether they were deemed `moral¡’ or `immoral.”’

The Hays Code lasted until the 1960s, when a then-new MPAA president – Jack Valenti – realized it was an outmoded proxy for governmental censorship. In 1968, Valenti devised the voluntary ratings system that is still in place today, though it has been tweaked and modified in the four decades since.

Glickman will say the system retains the sole purpose it has had since its inception: “to give parents clear information about a film’s content to help them decide if a movie is OK for their kids. Ratings do not exist to cast judgment on whether a movie is `good’ or `bad.’ The system is not a gatekeeper of society’s morality and values. It does not require artists to promote behavior and beliefs deemed socially or morally upright.”

The speech implies that film raters have not changed, either. “Raters themselves are parents. They have no prior industry affiliation. Their job is to reflect what they believe would be the majority view of their fellow parents.”

Glickman also noted additions to the system, such as the category PG-13, which didn’t exist until the 1980s, and then descriptors, which provide some detail about a film’s content.

Of the more than 850 movies to which the MPAA assigns a rating each year, “the overwhelming majority are independent films,” according to the speech.

Indie filmmakers in particular have criticized MPAA ratings as overly subjective, inconsistent and sometimes arbitrary. Kirby Dick’s 2006 indie doc “This Film is Not Yet Rated” alleged that MPAA raters are unqualified and that the system is biased against independents.

Glickman said Dick’s doc was “factually inaccurate and did not reflect what really happens in the ratings system. But it also showed us that a lot of people do not know what the ratings process is all about.” MPAA has since tried to make the process “more transparent,” Glickman said, “but not because we agreed with any of the criticisms in the film.”

Glickman said that the MPAA is “working hard to make the system more transparent – to help all filmmakers understand its purpose and value (and) that there is no censorship, just clear information to parents and an essential safeguard for filmmakers’ ability to bring their unique creative visions to life.”

Ultimately, Glickman believes the ratings system is about “information, truth in labeling, allowing diverse voices and visions to be heard and seen, protecting freedom of expression, all while respecting parents’ desire for the information they need to raise their kids according to their beliefs, not those of whoever happens to be in charge at the time in either Washington or Hollywood.”