Doug Wright had to wonder why his friend would see a movie that contained sex, underage drinking, nudity and debauchery, but wouldn't see "The King's Speech."
The KSL radio host had been asked for his opinion on two highly acclaimed films — "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network." Wright, a movie critic who also hosts the KSL Movie Show, explained that the R-rating for "The King's Speech" stemmed from a scene in which a therapist discovers that saying a string of emotional expletives helps the Duke of York speak without stammering.
Wright then asked his friend which movie he planned to see. His answer? The PG-13-rated "Social Network."
"So you won't see 'The King's Speech,' which is a beautiful, amazing motion picture, because of expletives in a very contained, purposeful segment, but you will go see sex, nudity, violence, drug use, underage drinking, debauchery and frat house parties?" Wright clarified.
The Motion Picture Association of America's rating system is a hot button issue for Wright.
"Anybody who uses them for more than a guideline is delusional," he said. "Other than that, I have no strong feelings about it."
While some critics argue that the system is unsystematic, the MPAA says its ratings are "for parents by parents.
"Our singular job is to provide information about a movie so parents can decide what is appropriate for their children," said Elizabeth Kaltman, MPAA vice president of corporate communication.
More than 40 years ago, former MPAA chief Jack Valenti established a system in which movies were submitted by studios to the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) of MPAA, where they received a rating.
According to the organization's web site (www.mpaa.org/ratings), the MPAA exists to provide advance information for parents about the content of films. The rating system does not determine whether a film is "good" or "bad." It only reveals the level of various elements in the film such as sex, violence and language, so filmmakers can express themselves freely and parents can make informed decisions, according to the MPAA.
Films are rated by an independent board of parents. The board members' job, according to the MPAA website, is to rate each film as they believe a majority of their fellow parents would rate it. Detailed criteria for each rating can be found at filmratings.com.
Still, Wright says the system is "random and subjective."
"Who knows?" he said. "Is the most conservative member home with a cold that day? Did the most liberal member have a fight with his spouse?"
Ratings in the early days were essentially G, PG and R, meaning that a G-rated film was suitable for everyone, PG should be scrutinized for kids and an R-rated film was for adults only.
At some point, moviemakers began appealing ratings for certain films through compelling argument or by deleting a few seconds of a questionable scene. It's rare a filmmaker can't earn a desired rating, says Chris Hicks, former movie critic and features editor for the Deseret News.
"Statistics suggest that R-rated movies in general (with a few exceptions) do not fare as well as PG-13s at the box office," Hicks wrote in an article last year.
Kaltman said media, filmmakers, producers and distributors like to stir up criticism against the ratings, but not the target audience.
"Very rarely do we hear from a parent that a movie has been rated too severely or that a movie should have a lesser rating so it can be more accessible to their children," she said. "The media buzz and criticism of this system is more often than not generated by distributors and clever marketers who want to generate buzz for their films, and it works every time."
One of the challenges of the system, Kaltman said, is to evolve as society evolves.
"In the 1970s parents weren't so concerned about viewing drug use in movies," she said. "Films were given non-restrictive ratings if there was gratuitous drug use. Over the years as society has evolved and people have become more aware of addiction problems, drug use is now rated in a more restrictive way. The challenge is to evolve as society evolves."
"The King's Speech" is an example of the complexities of rating movies. An alternate PG-13 version of the Academy Award winner for Best Picture has been released and will begin showing in Utah theaters today.
The Motion Picture Association of America changed the rating when the Weinstein Company, which produced the film, agreed to mute some of the profanity.
"We expect many Utahns who did not see the film during its original release to be drawn to the alternate version of the film," said Blake Andersen, senior vice president and general manager of Megaplex Theatres, which will show the new version at several of its locations.
The MPAA said the rating change was justified.
"The movie rating system has endured for more than 40 years because it was designed to evolve not only with societal values, but with the growth and evolution of the motion picture industry itself," said Bob Pisano, president and interim CEO of the MPAA, in a news release.
So do the ratings and their accompanying terminology convey enough specific information for a parent to make an educated decision about a movie? Do they take into account the purpose, message or moral of the film?
Not really, Wright says.
"Here is how you use the MPAA — ask the additional questions like 'Why is it rated-R?' 'Is that cumulative?' Or is it just one category, half a tick, one nudge, three seconds more of violence that tipped it into (R-rating), one more swear word that tipped it into (R), while the rest of the movie is absolutely benign, compared to the PG-13 that nearly tips the scale on every single issue," he said.
"I admire people who set a standard for themselves (absolutely no R-rated movies). I get that, but please know how subjective this is. Please know how flawed it is. Please know it is best used as a guideline, and to use our brains, common sense and judgment on what we see based on a myriad of things, not just the MPAA."