Rating the Ratings

When the Public Debates the MPAA's Letter Grades, It's Bad for Movies and Marketing

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Chris Thilk
Chris Thilk
Almost every consumer product -- at least anything you're going to find on the shelves of the local grocery store -- carries detailed information. We can look at two bags of sour-cream-and-onion-flavored potato chips that might seem identical but when we read the labels on the back, we find one has more high fructose corn syrup. Or maybe one of the bags is certified BPA-free. Regulations and best practices in competitive industries mean we have more detailed differentiators presented to us than we often know what to do with, so much that the choices can sometimes become paralyzing.

Movie ratings are meant to provide just that sort of information for the film industry. The system that assigns these ratings , run by the Classification and Ratings Administration, is always under fire, particularly by commentators who discover a movie they're championing is assigned a rating they're not happy with, something that's happened twice in the last couple months.

'Blue Valentine'
'Blue Valentine'
First "Blue Valentine," which follows a relationship from the first blooms of love through its complete disintegration, was given an NC-17 rating. This surprised those who had seen the movie at film festivals and didn't think there was anything that pushed any boundaries in terms of graphic sexual content. The rating, if it sticks, pretty much assures that no advertising will be done for the film and that it will have a hard time finding exhibition as it's now been labeled as essentially untouchable.

More recently, the British drama "The King's Speech," about how King George VI overcame his stuttering problem in order to speak to his subjects during the worst of World War II, was given an R rating, apparently because the "F word" is muttered more than twice. Many people pointed out how this, from a ratings standpoint, puts the movie on the same level as "Saw 3D" and other horror movies that feature decapitations and shocking scenes of graphic torture.

Each time these sorts of conversations come up, it serves to draw more attention to the ratings system as a whole but there's usually very little that results from those conversations. All that happens is the public seems to further mistrust Hollywood, and legislators have a slightly stronger hand the next time they want to talk about federal regulation, outcomes that are far from ideal.

'The King's Speech'
'The King's Speech'
If you live in an area where 1) there's still a daily newspaper published and 2) that newspaper is still getting some money from movie advertising (OK, I'm exaggerating a little ... but only a little), you'll see in those ads that not only is the rating displayed but there's a small bit of copy explaining why it has that rating. So an ad for the recent "Secretariat" explains that it's PG for "Some brief mild language." That information is also available at CARA's official website, where we can learn that "The King's Speech" is rated R for "Some language."

Unfortunately, that same one-sentence explanation as to why a film received its rating is all moviegoers will find online. Certainly, what the difference is between "some mild language" and "some language" could be cleared up substantially on the website. Much of the blowback directed at the MPAA as in the examples mentioned here could be alleviated by increasing the level of transparency in the ratings process. When the public looks at those two bags of potato chips, there's the assurance that the labels are based on objective measures. A serving either contains this amount or that amount. But there's no such objective measure -- at least not one that's publicly known outside of the "two F word" rule -- in the ratings process.

If the organization were to share more details online, I imagine quite a bit of the criticism that's leveled against it not only from industry pundits but also average moviegoers could be minimized. Apart from that, though, studios also have an opportunity here to more clearly lay out what sort of content their movies have through each movie's website. A studio could list not only the rating but also an overview of just what sort of material might have garnered it that rating. Even if the studio isn't sure why its film received the rating it did, a bit of work or a best guess would likely go a long way and provide a resource for moviegoers making more informed decisions.

What's interesting to note here is that while "ratings creep" has been felt significantly in action movies, where dozens of people can now be killed graphically in a PG-13 film, the prohibition against the aforementioned multiple intonations of "fudge" remains as immovable as the '85 Bears defensive line. That means that the audience -- parents in particular who are concerned about whether a given movie is going to be appropriate for their family -- aren't able to fully embrace the ratings since what was PG-13 a couple years ago might be drastically different from what is considered to be PG-13 today.

Because of the role ratings play in a film's marketing -- they determine what sort of channels commercials can appear on, what time of day the movie can run and even determine what theaters will agree to book it -- they need to be as informational and objective as possible so that the audience can make decisions that are as informed as possible. And because of the film industry's strong desire to remain free of government regulation, which is responsible for those detailed ingredient lists on food packaging, it's something they should look to do themselves. Quickly.

Chris Thilk writes and publishes and is a supervisor at PR and marketing agency Voce Communications.
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