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At last, an overhaul for the movie ratings system

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Last year at Sundance, Kirby Dick premiered his polemical documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which took aim at the movie ratings system, arguing that the Motion Picture Association of America’s secrecy-shrouded ratings board lacked accountability, clear rules for what was and wasn’t permissible to show on screen, and a single standard that applied with equal fairness to mega-budget studio films and cash-strapped indies. “Things really need to change,” Dick told EW.

This year at Sundance, the MPAA will try to show that it’s heard the complaints of Dick and other critics of the ratings board. According to Variety, the MPAA has decided to make the first real policy changes in the board’s 39-year history, and MPAA bigwigs will be discussing those changes with filmmakers this weekend at the indie film festival. “The documentary made it clear that we probably haven’t done as much as we can to explain how it all works,” MPAA chief Dan Glickman told the trade paper.

Why is this a big deal? Because for the first time in nearly 40 years, the MPAA is finally acknowledging that the system isn’t working. (Jack Valenti, who created the G/PG/R ratings system, also ran the MPAA until 2004 and staunchly defended the system against all criticism for four decades.) Also signing on to the new policy is the National Organization of Theater Owners, which means that even the people who show movies think the current system doesn’t work — that, contrary to Valenti’s longtime claim that parents generally approve of the ratings system, theater owners are hearing from parents that the ratings aren’t giving them enough information.

The new policy will involve giving parents more detailed information about the possibly not-safe-for-kids content in individual movies. It will also give filmmakers more explicit rules regarding permissible content and the ratings appeals process. There will also be efforts to professionalize the board members (that is, with formal training and more stringent membership requirements). Perhaps most important, filmmakers appealing the board’s decision will now be able to make comparisons to similar scenes in other movies, something Dick did to devastating effect in his documentary in order to illustrate the board’s double standards.

All this transparency seems like a step in the right direction; still, it’s not clear whether these changes are merely cosmetic, or whether they’ll actually result in a more equitable system that doesn’t penalize filmmakers who want to make movies for grownups and doesn’t sneak objectionable content past parents. It’ll be interesting to hear what filmmakers have to say after they talk with MPAA brass at Sundance.

What do you think of the ratings system, PopWatchers? Do these changes seem like enough, or are there additional improvements you think the ratings board should be making?