The Future of the MPAA Ratings System

There seems to be a lot of talk nowadays about the ratings system and its effect on movies. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my thoughts on the matter. One of the primary complaints I hear and read from critics of the current ratings system is that it prevents NC-17 (X-rated) movies from being shown in most theaters and decreases advertising venues for such films. It is for this reason that, when filmmakers claim they are being forced to edit/censor their movies, what they’re actually complaining about is that their movies will receive a higher rating in its original form and, thus, be less likely to rake in significant revenues.

As a rather unfortunate result of this, general social pressure from the media at large seems to have influenced raters to frequently be less conservative than they should be so that more semi-pornographic and grotesquely violent films are allowed to have the lower ratings that gives them entrée to larger advertising campaigns and to a greater number of theaters.

A solution to this problem suggested to me by my brother is to have more theaters show movies that are rated as being unsuitable for young people and allow the distributors of such films to advertise the more prominently. In concept, this probably seems like a difficult, or even unfeasible, idea to implement. However, since much of the media shown in theaters and on television is already unsuitable for young people, and probably some adult viewers (due to inaccurate ratings), this idea might be made more palatable to resistant media makers/distributors if it was presented more as a shift in semantics then anything else. Could this make the prevalence of distasteful media increase? Maybe it would, maybe not. Eventually, after enough media outlets had expanded their offerings, pressure from mass media could decline enough to allow film raters to rate films more realistically. This would at least allow viewers some degree of certainty about what they were in for when they went to see a movie. And, of course, this would be particularly useful to parents. After all, aren’t these things the whole point of having a ratings system in the first place?

I should mention, however, that another frequent complaint by critics of the current ratings system is that movies are rated the same way court cases are decided – by a jury of individuals supposedly composed of members of the public who use their own social mores to make decisions instead of a set of written specifications. Although this system has the flaw of allowing decisions made about the rating of films change from one group of raters to the next, as films from different eras end up being judged almost on a case-by-case basis, having films rated by a specialized group of panelists using a set list of criteria would result in the same complaints that were lodged against the Hayes Code after 1934.

Perhaps, then, a solution to this might be a combination of the two systems. This is basically just off the top of my head, but the MPAA could write up a set of absolute minimum standards (changeable by vote of the members of the MPAA) for use as a reference by film raters –  who would still be regular people selected to represent the viewing public. Some critics further complain that they are not allowed to know the identities of the MPAA raters. As with juries in court cases, I feel this is as it should be. People chosen to use their own personal judgment should not be directly influenced through pressure, bribery, or other means by fervent filmmakers to make decisions they would not otherwise make.

As with any system involving judgments of morality or personal taste, it is likely impossible to come up with a perfect system that will please everyone. Especially when one considers that the mores and values of people from different communities and belonging to different eras can vary quite drastically from one another. As is also the case with any social/media regulatory system, the current film ratings system will continue to evolve over time –  whether for worse or better.

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