Jack Valenti is the legendary czar of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the powerful lobby and trade association representing the major players in the motion picture industry.
As MPAA president, Jack is also the architect of the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration - the ratings board. It is Jack who set up the system. It is Jack who personally interviews and hires the people who give films their ratings.My dad taught me I should always start at the top. So when I was invited to write this column, I called Jack to get the "inside scoop" on the board and its operations.
Valenti is a master at managing the world's perception of the motion picture industry. I found him accessible, honest and sincere.
It was quickly clear to Jack that I do not always agree with movie ratings. To my surprise, he told me he doesn't always agree with them either.
His explanation of the movie rating system he created is not complicated. "The rating is a warning to parents that says: `Watch out. There are alligators in there.' "
Rating movies is, of course, not quite that simple. Or at least, to abuse Jack's metaphor, just because the sign doesn't warn you about alligators, you can't be sure there are not other dangerous, deadly creatures in the swamps of Hollywood.
The MPAA was founded in 1922 as the trade association of the American Film Industry. Its board of directors are the chairmen and presidents of the seven major producers and distributors of motion picture and television programs.
The 1960s changed America - and American movies - forever. It was inevitable that the insurrections on college campuses, war protests, women's liberation, the sexual revolution, challenge of authority, abandonment of traditional values and the crumbling of established social traditions would influence the content of films. The language of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and the nudity of Antonioni's "Blow Up" rattled the traditions of the Production Code Administration, a kind of agreed-on self regulation by the major film studios. The code began to crumble.
Valenti explained: "I knew that the mix of new social currents, the irresistible force of creators determined to make their films, and the possible intrusion of government into the movie arena demanded my immediate action." On November 1, 1968, Valenti announced the birth of the new voluntary film rating system. It was a significant turning point in the history of American films.
The responsibility for content was shifted from the shoulders of industry self-restraint to the backs of moviegoers.
Under the old Production Code, it was the producers and distributors who took the responsibility to conform to the rigid list of dos and don'ts outlined by the conservative code. That changed.
The new volunteer rating system, created by Valenti with cooperation of the MPAA and National Association of Theater Owners, was not about restraint or taste or morality. It was an idea to "rate" the films and "provide parents with advance information on films, enabling the parent to make judgments on movies they want or don't want their children to see."
In truth, it was about avoiding government censorship by shifting the responsibility from the people who made the movies to the people who watched the movies - from the people who made the money to the people who paid the money. The promise to warn the public relieved Hollywood from any sense of responsibility. For a while it was as if some took the new freedom as a challenge to see how sordid and shocking they could get and still find an audience. A short study of content in the films produced in the 10 years following 1968, compared to the ten years prior, is a startling confirmation of how the pivotal shift in responsibility from filmmakers to audience polluted the screens of America with a vision of the declining social morality at large.
It is curious to note the "shocking words" that started a furor in 1966 were "screw" and "hump the hostess." Today, either expression would slide by unnoticed in a PG-rated film.
Movies are rated, according to the MPAA official pamphlet, by "parents - men and women just like you." The official statement continues: "They are part of a specially designed committee called the film rating board. The rating board uses the criteria you as a parent use when deciding what is suitable viewing for your child."
The "parents just like us" who rate films are personally selected by Valenti. Most of the positions are full-time jobs for which one may apply by letter and resume. "The only single criterion," Valenti said, "is that they be a parent."
With the exception of senior board members who may remain for years, board members are replaced every 2-5 years. Considering the number of films they must watch and the content of films they must endure, I suspect for most that is long enough.
I asked how much they get paid. "That is something I don't want to discuss," he said, adding only that the pay was sufficient considering "it's a full-time job. They can't do anything else."
The emphasis on "parents - men and women just like you" is curious. Movies are screened at MPAA headquarters in Encino, northwest of Hollywood. Board members live close enough to drive to work.
I asked Jack if he felt the "parents just like us" in a 50-mile circle around Encino were a good cross section of American parents, particularly in the "flyover states" between the entertainment coasts. Jack said, "They are," without apparent reservation. Mr. Valenti has obviously never met the people I know in Branson, Mo.; Norman, Okla.; or my mom in Farmington, Utah.
My request to interview members of the rating board - or even former members of the rating board - was declined. "We never give out names and we never allow interviews," Jack explained. "We are very sensitive to make sure we don't destroy the privileged position of the board."
I wondered out loud how "people just like us" in Encino apply for secret positions for which the pay is never disclosed.
I was given a profile of 12 men and women who are current board members, full- and part-time, without names attached. All are identified as "mother" or "father." There are seven women and five men. The average age is 44. Former occupations are listed as homemakers, cabinetmaker, teacher, postal worker, microbiologist, hairdresser, preschool teacher, Ph.D, scholar and food management worker. Two are foreign born, nine were born in other states and one is a California native. There is no ethnic or religious information, but education backgrounds range from high school to doctorate. Most are college educated. There is no information about marital status. National averages would suggest half would be divorced and at least one of the women would have never married.
Eighteen children, age 4 to 27, belong to this group of parents. None of the board members has more than two children.
Valenti's characterization that board members are "parents just like you" makes it obvious he has never been to Sandy, nor has he met my wife of 34 years and our 8 children.
Producers can appeal a rating to an appeals board. The rating may be overturned by a two-thirds vote. Curiously, the appeals board is made up of representatives of the major studios, distributors and theater chains. Some argue the review by the appeals board is very political, as ratings are clearly an important part of film marketing.
Valenti says politics, pressure or influence by the MPAA is absent in the process.
The assertion raises questions about celebrated rating disputes, but that is a discussion for another time and place.
It is easy to criticize that with which we do not agree. It is easy to bash the MPAA or individual members of the ratings board, or make accusations about ulterior motives, hidden agendas or even political corruption. For a long time I presumed the secrecy surrounding the identity of the men and women who actually rate the films suggested clandestine objectives known only to the "big seven" and discussed in Universal City's black tower behind closed doors.
After talking to Valenti, I accepted board members as solid citizens doing their best. Ultimately, it is not about them.
The best and most reliable advice from the MPAA is: "Parents are urged to learn as much about a film as possible before they permit their children to attend. Reading reviews and feature articles or speaking with your theater manager and friends are good ways to gather information in addition to the ratings."
Valenti explains, "The voluntary rating system is not a surrogate parent, nor should it be. It can not, and should not, insert itself in family decisions that only parents can, and should make. Its purpose is to give pre-screening advance informational warnings, so that parents can form their own judgments. PG-13 is designed to make these parental decisions easier for films between PG and R." It is curious the MPAA assumes that only children are at risk.
The level of our confidence in the rating system should be influenced by the realities of the people and the process. Movies are rated by eight to 13 men and women who are parents of one or two children each. They are well-intended in their responsibilities but cannot help but reflect their individual standards, morals, ethics, values, attitudes and beliefs. Whether they are able to accurately reflect the values of parents across America with the five simple designations - G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 - is the central issue.