Poltergeist, Heather O'Rourke
Credit: Everett Collection

I thought I knew plenty about how the movie ratings board operates, but this interview in the Stanford alumni magazine with ratings board chair Joan Graves featured some admissions about board policy that were news to me, and that do not paint the system in a flattering light. Graves offers the usual disclaimers that the board is not about censorship (though when filmmakers and studios rely on your leniency in order to release and market their movies, that excuse rings hollow), but she does acknowledge for the first time that I’ve seen that there is “ratings creep” (that is, that the board has become more lax over the years about certain content, notably, gross-out humor), and that the board now looks at screenplays and tells filmmakers and studios what will and will not pass muster before even a single frame of film is shot. How does that differ at all from the censorship of the pre-1968 Production Code, when studios had to submit scripts to the Code censors before they could shoot? Graves does not say (and the interviewer* does not ask her).

Graves also implicitly acknowledges the longstanding complaint that the board is friendlier to studio films than to indie films by suggesting that the studios are better at gaming the system because they have full-time liaisons in place to deal with the board. She does say, however, that the board is now more likely to talk directly to the filmmakers than to go through a studio intermediary, so that’s a positive step.

addCredit(“Poltergeist: Everett Collection”)

Another interesting tidbit: Graves notes that people in different parts of the country find different types of content objectionable. Left unasked and unanswered: how, then, are its content recommendations useful to the whole country? And how does a group do justice to the geographic diversity of the nation when all its members presumably come from southern California?

The ratings board, as Graves describes it, is all about the judgment ofthe parents who are its members, and that judgment is sometimesfallible, she implies, citing herself as an example. Her now-growndaughter told her her life had been “ruined” because Graves let herwatch Poltergeist (pictured) as a child. Not sure how this anecdote helps her case: it suggests that either the judgment of the board is questionable, or else that its recommendations to parents are useless if parents disregard them.

Tell us, PopWatchers, how do you think the current ratings system could be improved? Do you know of anyone who was scarred for life by seeing an inappropriate movie as a child?

*Funny side note: Graves is so notoriously press-shy that Los Angeles Times movie columnist Patrick Goldstein was astonished to learn that the Stanford mag reporter who scooped him with the Graves “get” was… his own wife.