Raters to offer full disclosure

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In an effort to make the workings of the ratings system more transparent, MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman and Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification and Rating Administration, plan to meet with filmmakers, producers and directors at a breakfast Sunday in Park City.

A number of pending changes to the ratings system, operated by the MPAA and the National Association of Theatre Owners, are on the agenda for discussion. For example, for the first time in its 38-year history, CARA plans to make its ratings rules and regulations public. It will describe the standards for each rating as well as the appeal process in a posting on the MPAA's Web site, so it will be easily accessible to filmmakers.

In addition, CARA also plans to post demographic information about the parents who serve on the ratings board and reveal the identities of its senior raters. Also, the size of the appeals board will increase later this year, with both the MPAA and NATO appointing new members. And while filmmakers have not been allowed to cite precedents in other films when appealing a rating, that also is about to change.

Although Glickman and Graves don't plan to unveil anything as dramatic as a new letter rating, at Sundance they will outline the anticipated alterations to the system, which will be formally announced before theater exhibitors at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas in March.

It will be Glickman's second visit to the Sundance Film Festival and Graves' first foray into the indie-focused gathering in Park City. When Glickman took over as MPAA chief in September 2004, he faced an indie film community that viewed the industry trade association with suspicion as a result of the MPAA's unsuccessful attempt to outlaw awards-season screeners the previous year.

At the same time, the ratings board, which rates about 900 films a year, has plenty of contact with indie filmmakers because about 65% of the films it rates are indies — produced by companies outside the major studios, which are MPAA signatories, and their subsidiaries. (On average, about nine ratings are appealed each year, and about one-third of the appeals result in the original rating being overturned.)

But among indie filmmakers, a lot of distrust also is focused on the ratings system, which director Kirby Dick attacked in his documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," which, coincidentally, debuted at last year's Sundance. Dick argued that the ratings board favored the MPAA's member studios at the expense of independent filmmakers, an opinion widely held in the indie world. "I don't think that was true, but the perception was there," Glickman said.

As part of a systematic review of the MPAA's operations, Glickman already had begun a look at the system, created by his predecessor Jack Valenti to ward off local ratings boards that threatened the film industry in the 1960s.

For her part, Graves had begun outreach of her own, explaining the system and inviting suggestions. "Joan's work with our members has been extremely helpful," NATO president John Fithian said. "We have a group of ratings-compliance officers, and Joan meets with them twice a year. Joan and her team has a good understanding of what a rating represents. Part of the process is actually articulating the definition of each rating."

The ratings board is made up of 10 members — it's budgeted for as many as 13 — who are chosen to offer a representative sampling of parents' views. Their identities traditionally haven't been revealed, to protect them from outside influences.

That will still be the rule, but the MPAA plans to release more information about the demographic makeup of the group. It will reveal the identities of the senior raters, who interact with filmmakers and distributors. And it will formalize its rules so that raters whose children are grown don't remain on the board. Board members also will undergo formal training.

It also will increase its efforts to explain the ratings to filmmakers and the public. The ratings in movie ads have been carrying brief explanations of the content that triggered a given rating since the late '90s. More recently, the MPAA has begun offering a weekly e-mail summary, called Red Carpet Ratings Service, that lists current films, their ratings and the reasons for the ratings. New posters and a video promoting the service are being developed.

Fithian said that one issue of concern for theater owners is parents who bring very small children to R-rated movies. While R-rated films are not off-limits to underage children as long as they are accompanied by a parent, stiffer advisories warning when it is inappropriate to bring small children are under consideration.

One revision in the appeals process also will affect filmmakers who have been frustrated that they are not allowed to cite precedents in other films when challenging a rating. Under the new approach, they will be allowed to cite precedents — though a similar word or scene, whether it concerns sex or violence, in another movie won't guarantee that another film will earn a similar rating.

"Sometimes, filmmakers don't understand that we rate entirely in context. They'll see something in one movie and think they can include it in their movie," Graves said. "Now, at the appeals board, they can refer to other films, which before they couldn't do, although we'll still make a judgment within the context of the film."

Glickman explained: "Generally speaking, the ratings system works very well, and the public is quite supportive of it. But our goal is to make the system more understandable to the people who use it."

The upcoming changes, he added, aren't intended as a response to the Dick documentary. Glickman said he began reaching out to the independents as soon as he stepped into his new job. "There was a feeling of detachment and alienation, and I wanted to open a dialogue with them," he admitted.

During the past year, Glickman has had a number of informal meetings with indie power-brokers on both coasts, paving the way for the Sundance powwow.

"My sense is that through all of these meetings, there's been a genuine interest in extending an olive branch to the independent community," said Michelle Byrd, executive director of the New York-based IFP, who has taken part in several of the discussions. "We've been open to that. I think that change comes through dialogue and hearing each other's views, and I'm pleased that there will be a breakfast at Sundance."

Said Graves: "We've been working on some of these changes for eight years, truly. What we really needed was a redesign and a ratification of a set of rules that was originally written in 1968."

One myth that Graves said she will be happy to dispel: "I keep hearing about how many 'thrusts' you can have in a film. We've never had a rule about the number of 'thrusts,' " she said, laughing.
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