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How "The Dark Knight" Opened the Ratings Gates


After screening The Dark Knight a couple of months ago, the first thing on my mind was, "How did this movie qualify for a PG-13 rating?" For many months, I've watched more and more violence slip into the PG-13 rating category, but this film pushed the limit up yet another notch.


Obviously, if one movie can get away with earning a more lenient rating, others will expect similar treatment from the movie ratings board. So it comes as no surprise to me that John Moore, director of an upcoming action movie based on a violent video game called Max Payne, was livid when his work of art was deemed to receive an R-rating. Not willing to take his lumps and have his film lose dollars at the box office, he went in just like his movie's vengeful character... fighting mad.


I can't repeat word-for-word Moore's crude sexual suggestion about how Warner Brothers achieved the lenient rating for the Batman outing, and as much as I don't appreciate his intent, I do understand his logic. He feels he has created a film that has no more violence or language content than The Dark Knight and he wants equal treatment. Quoting Moore on September 5, 2008 from the web site Dasgamer.com: "[The MPAA] really hung themselves with The Dark Knight. Every other filmmaker in town is knocking on their door saying, 'Please sir, may I have my PG-13 rating and be as fair to my movie as you were to The Dark Knight."


Having not seen Max Payne at the time of writing this article, I cannot comment on whether Moore's assessment of his efforts is accurate. He also gets some of his facts mixed up (as do many directors when they are angry about ratings) in that he states his movie can't be advertised in front of a PG-13 film if it's R-rated. (It can -- but R-rated films cannot be promoted in front of PG and G rated movies.) Finally, there is a background contradiction in that his movie is based on an M-rated video game that (using the video game ESRB's description) has "content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older." The video-game M-rating is really equivalent to the MPAA's R-rating, so gunning for a PG-13 (which is more closely aligned with the ESRB's T-rating) is somewhat suspect.


Moore's journey toward leniency from the ratings board is on a well-trod path. Over the past year I have noticed a definite trend toward increased violence in the PG-13 rating. Beowulf, Hancock, X-Files: I Want to Believe, Babylon A.D., and Traitor are all recent examples of the growing amount of blood, gore and carnage that are in movies where theater owners have absolutely no obligation to deny admission to anyone, no matter how young they are. The Dark Knight tops them all.


In January 2007, I wrote about how Dan Glickman spoke to filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival and encouraged them to create more NC-17 films. At the time I suggested this counsel might result in an increase of content in the R-rating. Could it be that Glickman's desire for increased titles with edgier content is creating a trickling down effect, pushing more violence into the PG-13 category?


Once again we have a situation at the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration where it appears studios, distributors and directors are getting a higher priority than the parents for whom the rating system was originally intended.


It's safe to say most directors of action films aren't worried about how they can help parents manage their children's media choices. These requests for more lenient ratings -- especially in the R-rating to PG-13 area -- have little to do with limited advertising opportunities and everything to do with box office profits. In this case, a restricted rating would have made it difficult for a huge portion of Max Payne's potential audience to see the film. (Oh, I forgot... it's based on an M-rated game, so few teens will have little idea who Max Payne is...)


I'm using past tense because just a couple of weeks after he bashed the MPAA in every media outlet that was willing to repeat his words, Moore got his wish, and Max Payne will release on October 17, 2008 with a PG-13 rating. Sounding like a lucky contestant on a game show, even he is mystified at his good fortune.


Quoting a later interview on September 25, 2008 on Gamedaily.com, the director gushes, "I must say, and that's what's a little bewildering about this, I didn't have to change much. We trimmed some frames more for the sake of trimming frames than anything, but we got the rating without any major changes at all. I'm a little surprised that we changed their minds, effectively, but I'm happy about it... I'm surprised we eventually did get away with what we did get away with."


As a parent, I can only hope we may see the day when the movie ratings will be as responsive to the needs of parents, as they are to the desires of filmmakers and studios.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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