MPAA ratings are being ignored by movie theaters -- Young viewers are finding it easier to sneak into R-rated films because the system is voluntary

By Steve Daly
Updated January 17, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

Would you hire Max Cady, the psychopathic rapist played by Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, as a baby-sitter? You could be doing just that the next time you drop your kids off at the movies.

As those bustling 5-, 10-, and 15-screen multiplexes crowd out single-screen movie houses, the odds are increasing that kids who leave home to see G-rated films such as Beauty and the Beast or Fievel Goes West can wind up spying scenes from movies rated R (nobody under 17 without an adult) — overwhelmingly the most frequently assigned MPAA rating. Of 572 movies submitted in 1990, for example, 65 percent were rated R, 18 percent PG-13 (nobody under 13, but that’s just a suggestion), 13 percent PG (no age limit, though parental guidance suggested), 3 percent NC-17 (formerly X, for over 17s only), and a mere 1 percent G (good for everybody).

”A lot of theaters ignore the ratings guidelines,” says National PTA lobbyist Arnold Fege, ”when it should be up to them to monitor kids, like it’s up to the bar owner to make sure the person buying beer is of legal age.” Not quite, says an MPAA spokeswoman: ”The system is voluntary and not enforced by law, whereas there is a legal drinking age.” While managers for the big theater chains say they try to keep patrons from crashing films, it’s easy to slip into the ”wrong” room — especially in these hard times, as theaters cut back on extra ushers. ”Staffing isn’t what it was,” says movie-gross maven and former cinema manager John Krier, ”especially compared to when they had matrons policing the kids’ aisles.”

Protecting kids from harmful movies is easier at home, where you can screen videos and channel-lock pay-cable stations. At video stores, clerks aren’t likely to let a youngster sneak-rent Andrew Dice Clay. But on theater trips, parents should consider sending along a group leader — and definitely check out what the chosen movie’s next-door neighbors are this week.