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This Panel Is Not Yet Rated

The MPAA casts a long shadow over filmmaking

Reviewed by Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 15, 2013

Scott E. Weinberg and Classification and Rating Administration chair Joan Graves
Scott E. Weinberg and Classification and Rating Administration chair Joan Graves
Photo by Richard Whittaker

SXSW Film Conference Quick Cuts

This Panel Is Not Yet Rated

Sunday, March 10, Austin Convention Center

Few entities make filmmakers grind their teeth more than the Motion Picture Association of America and its grip on distribution through the ratings system. Yet when moderator Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress promised "a free, open and three-dimensional discussion" about the process, it was mostly, almost surprisingly, polite.

SXSW first-timer Joan Graves, chair of the Classification and Rating Administration, called it "a board of parents giving information to parents." She praised longtime MPAA President Jack Valenti for replacing 45 localized ratings bodies with one national standard, and for managing to convince religious groups to sign off on a studio-run appeals system. However, she seemingly undercut the whole idea of national standard when arguing that the complaints about movie ratings were distinct by region: The South is tougher on bad language, while major cities tend to worry more about violence. She said, "We're supposed to reflect standards, not create them."

Probably the most vocal local critic of the MPAA is Scott Weinberg of Twitch and Movies.com. He challenged it on inconsistency, saying: "I see dozens and dozens of PG-13 action films where hundreds and hundreds of people get killed. ... I'd like to see more attention paid to that than, say, a stray nipple." However, Graves quickly rejected his suggestion that the board might add critics, psychologists, and film historians to the parent-run body, saying the idea had been rejected before.

The MPAA is not the world's only rating body. Vincenzo Natali, director of Haunter, recalled growing up under the restrictive Ontario Censor Board. He said, "Every film I wanted to see – Excalibur, Altered States, The Thing – was impossible for me to see." When he handed genetic horror Splice over to the association, he said, "My fear was that we would get an NC-17 because of the concept."

For good or ill, the MPAA will remain a shadow over filmmakers' shoulders. Travis Stevens of Snowfort Pictures put it simply: "I set out to make the best version of a film possible, and if it's an NC-17, we'll deal with it."

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