The Story of R

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Digital Coast Reporter

Sean Gullette on the MPAA's Ratings Board, with a conversation with Matt Stone and Jack Valenti

(Digital Coast Reporter)

From post-war local movie censorship boards to 'bots which search the web for naughty words, we've gone to great lengths to protect kids from troubling images and ideas. Sometimes we elbow around the First Amendment in the process. Are we succeeding?


In 1966, looking out from his office at the Motion Picture Association of America, freshly installed President Jack Valenti surveyed "a national scene marked by insurrection on the campus, riots in the streets, rise in women's liberation... and the crumbling of social traditions."

"It would have been foolish to believe that movies, that most creative of art forms," said Valenti 30 years later, "could have remained unaffected by the change and torment in our society." Sure enough, within weeks a controversy worthy of the moment came across his desk: Warner Bros. film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf," which included the word "screw" and the immortal phrase "hump the hostess." Close behind came MGM, with Antonioni's "Blow Up," and the first glimpse of nudity in a film released by a major studio. Valenti and the studio execs sat down to discuss how the films should be altered.

Up to then, movies needed the seal of approval of the Production Code Organization or Hays Code, founded by Valenti's predecessor Will Hays. Valenti writes in his 1996 Ratings System pamphlet, "there was about this stern, forbidding catalogue of 'Dos and Don'ts' the odious smell of censorship. I determined to junk it at the first opportune moment." And he decided that self-censorship by the Studios wouldn't be a long term solution.

With the support of the eight major Studios the MPAA represented, as well as the Hollywood unions and the National Association of Theater Owners, Valenti created a trademarked ratings system: G (all audiences), M (mature content, parental guidance suggested, soon to be named PG), and R. Valenti says he intended to stop there, but NATO, having recently lost lawsuits filed under regional obscenity statutes, insisted on the creation of an "adults-only" category for their protection, and X was born.

To apply the systems ratings to individual films, Valenti created the Ratings Board, a group of 8-13 Los Angeles parents who work full time, for terms of varying length, for the Classification and Ratings Organization. In MPAA materials, one rater's bio reads: "Father, 44. Born in Ohio. Two sons, ages 18 and 15. Cabinetmaker. High school graduate. Wife's occupation: massage therapist." The Board screens and discusses each film and delivers its rating to the producer or distributor, who have the "right under the rules to inquire as to the 'why' of the rating applied," and can then re-edit and re-submit the film to the Board, or appeal to the industry-staffed Appeals Board.

Films are not required by law to carry any rating, and no-one accuses the Ratings Board of what Valenti charmingly calls "playing it cute around the curves." Yet for decades filmmakers have argued that the Ratings system has acquired the force of law and the arbitrariness of a central committee, and has become a de facto censorship body.

The cutting edge of the Board's controversial power lies in the space between R and NC-17. In a tight theatrical climate, increasingly dominated by large chains, the NC-17 rating--the name was changed in 1990 when Valenti felt X had taken on a "surly" meaning--is widely described by producers and distributors as a commercial kiss of death. There is no disputing that, whether voluntary or compelled, ratings re-editing leaves pieces of the original film up on the floor, although they are sometimes resurrected on VHS or DVD.

First and Fifth Amendment values might be expected to knee-jerk at the notion of limiting public communication to avoid offending a minority. The impetus, of course, is the defense of children; in the 60s the Supreme Court upheld the theater owner's right to exclude kids accompanied by parents from certain films, effectively endorsing the ratings system. In the following decades, many dozens of films made changes to secure R ratings, from William Friedkin's "Cruising," to Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," in which figures were digitally added to obscure parts of the orgy scenes.

Filmmakers, of course, have complained volubly of the violation of their creative sanctity by this powerful body. Among this year's spring releases, several films have recreated the historical battle with the MPAA. The kinks of a sexual threesome contributed to director Mary Harron's provisional NC-17 rating for her adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel "American Psycho." In the offending scene, serial killing yuppie Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is having narcissistic sex with two prostitutes (Cara Seymour & Krista Sutton) while looking at himself in several mirrors. The expression of psychotic self-love which creeps across his face apparently made MPAA raters squirm.

"His expression sums up his frighteningly detached relationship to the world around him. To me it's one of the most significant scenes in the film and to cut it would cause serious damage," said Harron in a statement in January. The MPAA stood firm, and on March 1, Lions Gate--determined to release the film with an R rating--confirmed the scene was cut to move the focus "above the belt" and to make it less rhythmic.

"They felt that the entire sequence was too much, and they made reference to that shot as being particularly nasty," said Mark Urman of Lion's Gate. "But the film is called 'American Psycho.' It is about a nasty man. The only response you can have to that is, "duh." Harron managed to keep some of the mirror shots in the recut, but was told to change the word "asshole" to "ass" in a sequence of dialogue that preceded it. "We thought it was extraordinary that it would come down to a half a word," said Urman. "We conceded, and we got the "R" but I think it indicated that in some instances when a film is good and achieves its desired affect, it's penalized more than mediocre films, because you feel the language more keenly."

Matt Stone, co-creator of Comedy Central's South Park, has made a mission of exposing what he calls the "ridiculous, hypocritical star chamber" of the MPAA's ratings function, and made sure the Paramount feature "South Park The Movie, Bigger Longer, Uncut" spared the Association no embarrassment. Stone and his partner Trey Parker (whose independent feature, Orgazmo, had a financially disappointing release as NC-17) claim their cheerfully over-the-top film--in which potty-mouthed 3rd graders repeatedly sneak into R rated films--was one of the only rated R movies for which the theater owners have ever enforced the rating by carding kids.

Stone's litany of complaints about the MPAA is lengthy and comprehensive. He says NC-17 ratings are issued "arbitrarily, with no accountability;" that the Association provides the 8 major studio who fund it with detailed "notes" about required changes, while non-MPAA signatories have to make expensive changes without knowing exactly what offended the Board; that by marginalizing NC films, "the studios, read 'the MPAA"" allow themselves to release all manner of sleaze and violence under the allegedly "responsible" R umbrella--while still selling tickets to millions of kids for those same movies because there is no enforcement in theaters. Stone says that "if the R rating were enforced, NC-17 would be redundant. It's a structural hypocrisy" and argues that parents should be able to bring their children to whatever films they see fit.

But for worried parents in this day and age, theatrically released movies are the least of their concerns, which might be said to grow in inverse correlation to distance from the kid's face to the screen. The space between the screen and the kid, after all, is where parental involvement takes place.

When you take your kid to a drive-in movie (250 feet) you have ample opportunity to involve yourself in the youngsters experience of the film, though they may tell you to shut up. In the pre-Internet model, parents mediated their kids consumption of theatrical movies (say, 100 feet) via a more-or-less successful and relatively organic filtering system:

1. Kid asks "Mom, can I go see 'The Blue Lagoon." 2. Mom says, no, you're too young. 3. Kid, curiosity aroused, sneaks into movie with friends. 4. Mom finds out, realizes its time for a frank discussion of sex.

Even video rental involved cash cost, a physical cassette to be snuck into the house, and hardware, usually kept in a common area (15 feet). The big shift came with the advent of cable television (8 feet), as parents got their first taste of the Internet model: a large universe of irregularly scheduled programs available to curious kids without cost or consent. Video games (5 feet) presented a new model: on-demand software which could be repeated indefinitely. An MPAA-style ratings system has been adopted or adapted by each industry, but every step has led parents into a more mechanistic, less organic form of filtering and intervention, as the censorship function moves downstream.

In the past six years, we've had the opportunity to see the cycle reenacted on the bad old Internet (18 inches). An anonymous electronic network built on pornography and packed with information on how to cook up GHB or build homemade guns is some parents' nightmare. With a few exceptions--police actions in which servers were shut down--the Internet has not yet been censored by any central authority in the United States.

Parents--to the delight of Home Censorship Kit entrepreneurs--face the deluge alone. There are no ticket windows nor do any studios or networks exist to self-censor large blocks of content. Soon dozens of stand-alone filtering systems fought for market share under brand names like CleanScreen, NetNanny, and Surf Watch. The "stand-alones" often do not reveal the lists of sites they block (considering them proprietary information) to the outrage of free-speech activists and hackers.

The first generation of blocking software let users restrict their kids access to a list of sites handselected by human raters or identified by string- recognition 'bots as containing forbidden words. In 1996, the Supreme Court struck down a censorious section of the 1996 Telecommunications Act known as the "Communication Decency Act" as unconstitutional, and the Home Kit industry charged on.

At the next level of sophistication, the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) working group has tried to develop a common descriptive language for use by content providers, third party filter systems, and potentially, by government censors creating national firewalls. Moving beyond the go/no-go binary, the PICS systems could rate for variables like violence, sex, nudity, and adult language, evaluating each on a 1-10 scale, so that parents could customize blocking software to reflect their "values."

The PICS systems is now the most popular ratings vocabulary among filtering companies, while competing systems like SafeSurf, RSACi, and CyberPatrol are designed to rate sites along axes which variously include profanity, gambling, alcohol & tobacco, alternative lifestyles, politics, religion, and gross depiction. Family values might now be expressed as a sequence of these alphanumeric codes.

Kids, nonetheless, are still ingenious, and relish the challenge of hacking into filtering software as they did deadpanning the ticket clerk at the multiplex. Inevitably too, Internet "content providers" began to grouse about the ratings their sites had received. Just as rapidly, many troubling absurdities, errors, and biases emerged in the filters: AOL's blocked users from the British city of Scunthorpe; various third-party filters blocked references to gay rights efforts, important historical research, and political organizations along with pornographic sites that shared forbidden key words. Even when the systems work well, we should make no mistake: all censorship, whether carried out by one dictator or ten million people, chills free expression to some extent.

New filtering technologies will soon be more subtle and powerful. But even with the good computers besting the bad ones, the Internet--and impending delivery platforms like broadband and virtual reality (2 inches)--may soon force responsible parents to consider a revised approach. Ultimately, the only system that can help kids make sense of our big, impure world is the oldest one of all.

Note: Valenti and Stone spoke with Sean Gullette in separate conversations.

What is the basic purpose of MPAA Ratings Board?

Valenti: Ratings are meant for parents, no one else. The basic mission of the Ratings Board is simple: to offer to parents some advance information so they can decide what movies they want their children to see or not to see. The Ratings Board does not rate movies on their quality or lack of quality. What parents do with those advance cautionary warnings is their business. Not ours. I'm not the moral guardian standing guard at the temple of morality.

Stone: The real deal is that the MPAA is the Studios' lobby. The MPAA technically is made up of the Studios, the 8 signatories. It's there to keep government off the Studios' backs. They've has done a pretty good job snowing people into thinking that they work for the public good, that Jack Valenti and the MPAA are, like, holding back the sludge of Hollywood from infiltrating good American families. And they don't work for the public good. They work for the Studios' good.

Don't kids get in to R rated movies every night despite the rating?

Valenti: Well, I think the theater owners might give a vigorous rebuttal. I can't answer that question because I only take what theater owners tell me through their association. They have told me that their reports are that 85 percent of the theaters in the county are enforcing the rules.

Stone: Any kid can get into any R rated movie. The vast majority of theaters in the country will sell rated R movie tickets to kids under 17. That's the conventional wisdom; I mean, everybody knows that. 53% or 54% of Studio movies the last few years are rated R. The Studios need kids under 17 to get into those movies. They need that dollar. So, of course they don't enforce shit. It's like having Coors be in charge of ID-ing kids for beer. Kids are getting in to see these rated R movies because of the MPAA.

Is the system fair to filmmakers?

Valenti: Stanley Kubrick signed a contract with Warner Brothers. He said "I pledge you, Bob Daley, I'll bring in an r rated picture." I didn't tell Mr. Kubrick, an acknowledged genius, to do that. Did you ask Mr. Stone that? Did he have final cut over South Park, or Bigger Longer Wider, whatever the name of that thing was--which was very funny movie, and I liked it. I didn't tell him to sign that contract.

You've ceded to the financial unit some of your authority. You can't blame the Ratings system for that. That's the law of the movie landscape.

Stone: In this town it's well known: when you're not an MPAA signatory, they won't call you back. When you're a signatory they give you a list of notes. We did an indy film called "Orgamzo" that was rated NC-17. When we got the MPAA on the phone they would not give us notes. They just said, "you got NC-17 because of the general sexual content of the picture." W e wanted it to be rated R, we didn't even mind compromising certain things on it. And they wouldn't tell us.

Now when we did a Studio movie, the South Park movie, they came with a 7 page list--cut out this thing, cut out this word, and then you go into this negotiation.

Any kid can go see any rated R movie. Except the South Park movie--cause (in the movie) we fucking called them out on (the Ratings system)--it became one of the only rated R movies that has ever carded kids in the last 25 to 30 years on a mass scale, around the country. I mean, kids were walking into The General's Daughter, kids were walking in to all these movies, but because we called them out on it, they punished us, basically.

Is NC-17 effectively a censorship rating?

Valenti: You refuse to believe that this is a voluntary system. You refuse to believe the director has an absolute right to say, "l'm not signing a contract with any of these damn companies that's going to limit my right to market my film."

Now, Showgirls had almost 3000 playdates. They advertised all over this country. But the fact that you're an NC-17 film and you release it doesn't mean people are going to go see it. I have a right to make a film but as a customer you have a right not to go see it. Showgirls did not work. Now you tell me why it did not work. I don't think it had to do with an NC-17 rating, to be honest with you.

Stone: The NC-17 rating is the kiss of death for a movie. No distributor will release it and very few theaters will screen it. So you have to change the film. We thought Watergate and the Vietnam war put an end to that kind of government--this secret star chamber thing. And they say, hey trust us, we doing good job. They're good people but it's just structurally set up to invite suspicion. If the MPAA was a government entity it would be unconstitutional in a half a second.

Is the NC-17 rating un-America? Shouldn't parents be free to take their 17-year old kids to whatever movie the parents want?

Valenti: I can only tell you this: under the Supreme Court decision the law says (theater owners) can do that (exclude kids). One father insisted that we had no right to bar his child. And the court said the theater owner had a right to impose any rules he chose. You can't force a theater owner to do anything he doesn't want to do. The rights of one man end where the rights of another man begin.

Because whether it's rated or not, the DA can file on it. If somebody says, I saw this film in the Bijou theater last night, Mr. District Attorney, and it is absolutely terrible, and I think that movie is breaking the law. Suppose you took your son in with you and told the druggist, let's sell him a packet of cigarettes?

Stone: I should be able to (take my kid.) And I would also like to live in a country where you know your kid could not walk down the street and get into a rated R movie without you. It's all bullshit. It's the biggest load of bullshit.

The 8 Studios--in other words, the MPAA; same thing--make up the rules that everybody has to live by. So it's like a fair trade issue, it's a monopoly issue. It's like the big gas stations getting together, setting the rules that even the small gas stations have to play by. And that's against the law.

What alternatives are there?

Valenti: I count myself to be-- Mr. Stone may not agree--the greatest staunch supporter of the 1st Amendment. Those 45 words are the 45 words on which the rest of the constitution depends. Nobody is more implacable in supporting it than me.

This voluntary system, under the current architecture of the law, and the stern enforcement of the constitution, is pretty good. Most of all, it guarantees freedom to directors.

What Mr. Stone--fine gifted artist that he is--and Roger Ebert and the rest of them don't understand is, if we obliterated the Ratings System today: politics, movies and nature abhor vacuums. All of these cities and counties, under the canopy of the law, would rush in to get their own boards set up.

Stone: Everybody says, well, you don't want government doing it. I don't have a problem with government stepping in to do it. The track record of our government in other media--records or books--is pretty good. People can do whatever the fuck they want.

And at least I could vote somebody out. I really think the MPAA is good people trying to do their jobs. But the whole point about organizations is accountability, being able to vote people out. Being able to have forums where people meet and discuss how to make the system better.

I'm in a position now where I'm a slave to this Star Chamber thing, and I don't know what the hell's going on. And there's something really freaky about that. It just makes my blood boil. People could come over to my house and get a few beers in me, and I will not shut up about the MPAA for hours. I hate them. It's my mission in life to bring them down.