LAST Friday just after lunch, a long line formed in front of the Loew's Cheri theater here.
Oliver Stone's new movie, ``Natural Born Killers,'' had thundered into town.
Eager moviegoers - mostly teens and young people - wanted to be first to see this R-rated, controversial, and violent film.
But as each person paid $4.25 (bargain matinee), the * rating might as well have been a C for `Come one, come all.'
The ticket seller made no attempt to verify the ages of very young people buying tickets.
In the movie-rating system, a cooperative but voluntary agreement between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), an * means restricted, no child under 17 can see the movie without a parent or adult guardian.
``The rating system becomes meaningless if it is not complied with,'' says Phuong Huynh, a spokesperson for MPAA in Washington, D.C.
``We've always taken the theater owner's word that they are complying. But we get complaints, and have had calls about `Natural Born Killers.' I'm not sure what NATO is telling its members.''
NATO, representing 65 percent of US theater owners, is telling its members: ``Enforce the voluntary rating system. We feel it is the best method for providing information to parents,'' says Mary Ann Grasso, executive director of NATO in Los Angeles. ``If we are not responsible [in] enforcing the system, we will have another system put in place which [would be] less satisfactory to us.''
Recent congressional warnings to TV networks and moviemakers to reduce violence and explicit sex in films has not led to substantive changes. Some TV shows carry warnings about graphic depictions, but violent movies are still a staple for moviemakers.
The movie ratings are designed to be an informational tool for parents in deciding what movies their children should see. Studies done by MPAA and other organizations verify that those parents who do refer to the system find it useful.
But in a society of increasingly overworked single-parent families and mobile teenagers with values often shaped by movies, TV, and music, enforcing movie ratings is about as effective as stopping teenage smoking.
At the movie box office, where the teenage dollar plays a major part in revenues, turning away underage teens is not necessarily a top priority of owners.
``Part of the problem,'' Ms. Huynh says, ``is that theaters usually employ teenagers to sell tickets, and they tend to be a little lax in who they sell to.''
``I have a solution,'' says Marilyn Droz, vice president of the National Council on TV Violence. ``We went to a theater manager in Detroit and said, `We know you're busy. Would you like us to check the kids' IDs for you?' We'll work for free. Just give us some of those little ushers' jackets and we'll stand by the booth and check IDs.' ''
Ms. Droz says the manager declined, saying that parents dropped the teens off, and he couldn't control what movie they went to in a multitheater complex.
But Droz insists that community groups could offer to assist theaters in enforcing the ratings. ``Managers are receptive to community pressure,'' she says.
Meanwhile, several requests to the regional office of Loew's theaters for comment brought no response, and a second chain of theaters here, General Cinema, refused comment on rating enforcement. An employee told me to call NATO in Los Angeles.
``The notion that theater owners just want to sell tickets,'' Ms. Grasso says , ``is not something we support. Loews is very supportive of the rating system.