Under 17 not admitted without R-card

Jordan Delgadillo adores the "Matrix" trilogy. But the 16-year-old sophomore in Peoria, Ill. - who one day hopes to be a filmmaker - had to wait until the last two movies were out on video before he got to see them. It's not that his grandmother - his legal guardian - has a problem with the films. She just didn't want to sit through them herself, and the movies are rated R.

But these days, Jordan can watch any R-rated film at the local theater thanks to a ready-made permission slip he carries with him.

The R-card, a controversial new offering from GKC Theatres, gives his grandmother's approval in the form of her signature, and his days of getting shut out of films like "Dreamcatcher" are over.

"He's a good kid, and we communicate beautifully," says Joyce Needham, Jordan's grandmother. If he were going to see sex-filled movies, she might not have agreed to the card, she says. "But it's the action he loves.... They've done me a huge favor by allowing us to do this."

But not everyone looks favorably upon the card. Since its debut in a Washington, Ill., theater last October, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which issues movie ratings, has spoken out against the card, as have other groups.

The purpose of that system - voluntarily enforced by theaters - is to give parents warnings about specific films so that they can discuss them and make informed judgments about a film's suitability for their child, says Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA. That process is circumvented because the card lumps all R-rated films together.

"To give a blanket card to a child to see any R film they want intrudes on what the rating system is about, which is parental approval of individual films," says Mr. Valenti. "It's not in the long-term best interest of parents unless they have a very casual regard for what movies their children are seeing."

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, agrees. The R rating, he notes, is broad enough to include relatively family-friendly fare such as "Billy Elliot" and "Erin Brockovich" (both rated R for language) along with movies that push the extremes of violence, including "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill."

In addition, Mr. Fithian says, theater guidelines specifically mandate accompaniment by a parent or guardian - something the R-card does not fulfill. "In the best case, the parent goes in with the kid. But it at least means the parent comes to the box office and makes a decision about a particular film," he says.

GKC Theatres dismisses such criticisms. If parents want to let their children see some R movies and not others, they can hold onto the card themselves and dole it out only for certain films, says Hiede Cravens, Illinois marketing manager for the Springfield chain that operates theaters in five Midwestern states.

Parents, she says, can also simply choose to not get the card.

"What we wanted to do was put the decision back in the hands of the parents," Ms. Cravens says. "Nobody at the movie rental places questions whether you're 17 or older. You can go into any store and purchase an R-rated film. Our program involves the parents and the teens and lets them decide the movies their kids should see."

So far, 422 teens have signed up for the card, at nine different theaters. By the end of the year, GKC hopes to offer it in all of its 29 theaters. There's no age limit, but kids must come to the box office with their parents to apply for the card, to eliminate the risk of a forged signature.

Jordan, for one, is thrilled. He was able to see "Terminator 3" and "Troy" without a hitch - though he had to see them alone. His friends' parents didn't agree to the card. In a few months, he'll turn 17 and leave what he considers an irrelevant rating system behind forever. "There's a lot of good movies out there I can't see just because of violence," he says. "But I still see it on TV."

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