MPAA movie ratings: New initiative to assist parents gets mixed reviews

Dubbed Check the Box, the movie ratings campaign is designed to give parents more and faster information about how a film got its rating. The White House had requested action along these lines.

With concerns over real-life violence at a high pitch, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) says it wants to help, at least when it comes to the moviegoing experience.

On Tuesday, the MPAA unveiled a new ratings initiative: Dubbed Check the Box, the campaign is designed to give parents more and faster information about how a film got its rating of PG or higher. All the various specifics about violence, language, or sexual content will now be prominently displayed alongside the letter rating in large type.

The newest changes to the letter system, which has been in place since 1990, were presented by the MPAA head, former Sen. Christopher Dodd. The changes are for parents, "so they can make the best choices about what movies are right for their children to watch," he said at CinemaCon, an annual trade gathering of some 5,000 theater owners in Las Vegas.

The updates to the ratings display come on the heels of specific request from the White House for stricter appraisals of movie and TV violence, as well as for help as parents try to monitor the violence children consume.

But the announcement is getting mixed reviews, at best.

“I am not sure that more specific MPAA ratings about violence will actually do anything, but I think it is a good idea,” writes Paul Schneider, chairman of the film and television department at Boston University, in an e-mail.

“The ratings have always concentrated on sexuality and language and have been very, very soft on violence,” he adds.

“Any information that is accurate is good for parents,” says Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council (PTC), a national advocacy group pushing for what he calls “transparency, consistency, and accountability” from the entertainment industry.

However, he dubs the changes “a distinction without a difference.” Mr. Winter suggests that the MPAA move is a public-relations effort to deflect scrutiny while “continuing to pour toxic levels of violence into PG-13 films.”

It is a step, says Nell Minow, film critic for Movie Mom, a website for family entertainment guidance. “But a very small one,” she says, adding that what parents really want is reliable and consistent information about films. The arbitrariness of a ratings system that allocates a PG-13 to a comedy and then an R rating to a drama with essentially the same content “leaves parents not knowing what to trust,” she says.

Nashville, Tenn., resident Claudia Wadzinski is mother of three boys – ages 11, 18, and 21. She says the lack of consistency has made the ratings system as a whole “not very reliable.” A PTC member, she says she does her own research and doesn’t count on what the MPAA ratings offer.

The decisions on what is acceptable for family audiences, Ms. Wadzinski says, are often inexplicable. “When I was growing up, they were more reliable, but not anymore,” she adds.

Winter calls this gradual shift to more adult content in PG and PG-13 films “ratings creep.”

MPAA spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield points out that the ratings system is intended to be “dynamic,” meaning that it was designed to adjust to changing societal values and customs. “Things that were not necessarily acceptable 20 years ago might be seen differently today,” she says.

In response to a common criticism that the ratings often do not reflect the values of most parents, she notes that the ratings are made by a board of 12 parents – six men and six women – all of whom are hired for seven years and must have children between the ages of 5 and 15 when hired. They also come from all over the country, she says.

Winter suggests that movie economics, not changing social values, drives ratings decisions. He points to the fact that not a single one of the Top 10 grossing films of the past 15 years had an R rating.

“The industry knows that family-friendly moviegoing is where the profits are,” Winter says. This inherent conflict of interest between giving movie studios the ratings they want and what parents need makes the ratings unreliable, at best, he says.

Indeed, underlining this point was John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, in his speech on the state of the industry at CinemaCon. First-quarter box-office attendance fell 12 percent from a year earlier, mainly because of a lack of family movies, he told his audience Tuesday.

He called PG-13-rated movies the "blockbuster sweet spot," adding that in 2012, the combined box office of PG-13 movies was nearly double that of R-rated films – despite the fact that almost 50 percent more R-rated movies came out last year.

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