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MPAA Follows Interest Rates and Cuts Movie Ratings

 

The feds have pounded interest rates to record lows with the hopes of convincing you and I to spend, spend, spend. It appears Hollywood is using a similar tactic with movie ratings, as they have quietly allowed more content to slip into the PG rating with the obvious hopes of pulling more patrons across a wider age range into theaters. Thus far, it looks like this is one economic plan that is paying off quickly, but are parents prepared for the "new" PG rating?

 

The division of the Motion Pictures Association of America that handles film ratings, the Classification And Ratings Administration, has made "tweaks" to movie ratings in the past without telling the public -- but in this case it's a big change that has just happened over the past few months and appears to be targeting only the PG rating, which has been a somewhat unpopular label ever since the introduction of PG-13 in the late 1980s.

 

Typically, PG-rated movies have been targeting young audiences -- usually early teens and older children (the group marketers refer to as "'tweens"). Bathroom humor, flatulence jokes, and slapstick violence were the usual reasons these films didn't fit the G-rating. At the same time, there was a prevailing sense that teens were more drawn to the implied "maturity" of the PG-13 rating, leaving the PG arena an unpopular stopping point.

 

Almost exactly two years ago, MPAA head Dan Glickman told filmmakers that he wanted them to make more NC-17 movies (NC-17 is the MPAA's most restrictive rating) and implied that other changes would be happening to the rating system -- which he referred to as a "gem" in need of polishing. It seems the buffing has begun...

 

In November, I sat down to watch Marley & Me with great curiosity. It appeared to be a romantic comedy, and was rated PG -- a very unusual occurrence. Viewing the film, I was surprised to see the happily married couple engaging in pre-sexual activities, swimming naked (no overt nudity was seen) in their backyard pool, and engaging in fairly frank discussions about getting pregnant, having a miscarriage and other "mature" topics. Another scene shows a teen character who has been stabbed by her date.

 

Relative to what I've seen in previous PG movies over the past two decades, this was an unusual amount of content. Granted, the film would have been a "low" PG-13 rating, but there was a definite change that had happened at the MPAA to allow this movie to gain a PG rating. We can only speculate that the main motivation for providing it a lower rating was quickly realized when Marely & Me shot over $100 million in box office receipts shortly after it opened, making it one of the most successful holiday films of 2008.

 

A few weeks later Bride Wars graced the screen, with characters that drink and use prescription medications to overcome stress. Other "relaxation" activities for these women include a party with male strippers. What we politely call "moderate sexual expletives" were also included in the language. Again, this film was rated PG with an official warning about "suggestive content, language and some rude behavior." And, again, the movie has gone on to gross close to $50 million in its first three weeks -- not bad considering its reported $30 million budget.

 

Yet another PG surprise opened the next week when Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions released what I'm certain must be their first movie in this rating category. Paul Blart: Mall Cop is a somewhat endearing tale of a hapless mall security guard, and while it has lower levels of content than the previous noted titles, there are still scenes with gunplay, a seriously portrayed hostage situation, some veiled sexual references and an intoxicated man shown in a comedic context. But what's interesting is the obvious decision for this company to explore the PG rating. Again, the experiment paid off royally when this $26 million film returned its investment by more than double within two weeks of its release.

 

Finally, this week yet another strange occurrence in ratings politics took place. New In Town is a romance that was ready for screens back in November when the MPAA gave it a PG-13 rating. Then it disappeared, only to turn up again this week with a "new" PG rating. Heralding the change, Lionsgate and Gold Circle Films -- the movie's production and distribution companies -- sent a media release stating they "jointly decided to delete strong language from the film, making New In Town more accessible and acceptable to the entire family."

 

The release continues, stating the film "received strong early word-of-mouth from family-friendly audiences." We can only assume that when it was shown to people in November of 2008, many appreciated the heartwarming story, but weren't happy with the language. Yet even with the edits, the film still contains over thirty mild profanities, an implied clothed sexual encounter between unmarried adults, and an extended joke regarding a woman's protruding nipples. Again, it would be a "low level" PG-13, but this type of content has not appeared in PG movies for the past 20 years.

 

While I suspect many parents won't appreciate seeing more content within PG movies, there are a couple of consolations to keep in mind. First, none of the movies I describe here are anywhere close to the content found in PG-13 films. Perhaps if studios can begin making high profits from PG-rated movies, we may see a trend toward films with less objectionable content -- assuming they don't continue to relax the PG rating's specifications. (Interestingly, during the Great Depression, Hollywood was financially forced to drop edgier movies in favor of ones that would appeal to a wider portion of the population.)

 

The other fact is that prior to the introduction of the PG-13 rating, it was not uncommon to see full frontal female nudity in PG-rated films. If you are too young to remember, go rent some 1970s releases -- but be warned: Your father's PG rating was very different from the one we have now.

 

Probably what concerns me the most about these recent changes is the lack of information formally released by the MPAA to warn parents. I have received letters and comments from readers who were caught off guard by the content within Marley & Me, and I won't be surprised to see more correspondence in this regard. If you feel that these changes aren't helping parents select appropriate movies for their children, feel free to write the ratings board at the address below. A little "interest" from the public wouldn't hurt, and perhaps the MPAA will reconsider before lowering the "rates" any further.

 

Rod Gustafson

 

The department of the MPAA responsible for movies ratings can be reached at the address below:

The Classification and Rating Administration

15503 Ventura Boulevard

Encino, CA  91436

 


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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