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5 ways to fix movie ratings

In the wake of a ridiculous R rating for ”Bully,” are we ready to scrap the antiquated MPAA system?

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Brawling with the MPAA’s ratings board to get publicity for a movie is a stunt almost as old as the ratings system itself. But last month, when Harvey Weinstein — the master of that game, who’s recently tussled with the MPAA over The King’s Speech and Blue Valentine — went to the mat over the R rating for the documentary Bully, something felt different. The board, for the first time, seemed outnumbered — not only did Weinstein marshal the support of dozens of stars including Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Anderson Cooper, and Katy Perry, but for the first time in memory, the raters found themselves at odds with theater owners, traditionally one of their staunchest allies.

Weinstein’s decision to release Lee Hirsch‘s doc as unrated, rather than with an R, was supposed to mean that movie houses would treat it as a de facto NC-17, excluding its most important audience — teens — altogether. Instead, by the time Bully opened in limited release last weekend (with a strong $23,000 per-screen average), three of the country’s four largest theater chains had announced that they’d handle the film with a more open-door policy, rated or not.

Could this mean that we’re finally nearing a consensus among critics, filmmakers, theater owners, and parents that the ratings system needs a complete overhaul? If so, it’s about time. Here are five ways to reboot it:

1. Focus on content advisories, not ratings.
Whenever the MPAA is attacked (which is all the time), its Classification & Rating Administration (CARA) cites polls demonstrating that parents find the system useful. Of course they do, because it’s better than nothing — but letters like PG and R are meaningless without elaboration. And all too often CARA’s content guides are laughably vague: Of what possible value is the disclosure that the Belgian film The Kid With a Bike earned its PG-13 for, among other things, ”thematic elements”?

Granted, scrapping ratings entirely is unlikely, but a more manageable reform might be to follow the lead of Common Sense Media, an organization that customizes appropriate age ranges for each movie, and also provides extensive content guides regarding sex, violence, language, drug use, and, interestingly, ”positive messages” and ”consumerism.” The organization gave Bully a ”13” rating with an additional warning that it’s unsuitable for kids 10 and under and the proviso ”Know your child. Some content may not be right for some kids.” That’s a lot more useful than a take-it-or-leave-it R.

2. Abolish the supervisory role for theaters.
The ratings system was created at a time when American movie houses were single-screen venues with on-site managers, adult ushers, and a ticket saleslady who looked like your homeroom teacher. It was not designed for an era of understaffed multiplexes and automated ticket purchasing. The rule that kids must be accompanied to R-rated movies by a ”parent or adult guardian” has always rested on the fiction that a 15-year-old can be ”protected” from distressing content by the presence of an 18-year-old. In the age of pay cable, online porn, and one-touch downloads, that’s preposterously quaint. The day that CARA stops saying who can see a movie with whom, we can all move past the single most unenforceable bylaw in the history of American culture.

3. End R ratings for the use of one word.
The word — you’ve all heard it — got Bully its R, just like it got The King’s Speech its R. It’s effing ridiculous — and all too representative of CARA’s preference for rigid one-size-fits-all standards over intelligent, contextual judgment.

4. Depoliticize the ratings.
Over the years, CARA’s double standards about nudity versus bloodshed, homosexuality versus heterosexuality, and naughty words versus bad deeds have calcified into ideological stances masquerading as ”parental guidance” — and its position on some issues has become inseparable from the chasm between the right and left on everything from gay rights to gun violence. The board needs to reflect a diversity of opinion rather than hew to a brand of political conservatism that it then fig-leafs as a quasi-universal parental standard.

5. Reform the board itself.
CARA head Joan Graves has been on the board for 24 years and has run it for the last 12. She’s now decades past firsthand experience as a parent of teenagers. While most of her raters have young children, we don’t know who those raters are, ostensibly because that would expose them to pressure or lobbying. But an atmosphere of secrecy is hardly more conducive to propriety. The entire history of Hollywood censorship and content guidance has been marked by people who stayed too long and became invested in their own power. It’s time to break that cycle, with accountability, term limits for all, and regular meetings with input from filmmakers, parents, educators, and perhaps even teens to review and revise CARA’s standards. And transparency would help: After all, if we want an anonymous group of adults determining what teenagers do, we can just see The Hunger Games.

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