Will the MPAA ever get the ratings right?

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Chances are not many teens have been clamoring to see Philomena, a drama opening Nov. 22 about an elderly Irishwoman (Judi Dench) who goes looking for a son she had to give up 50 years ago. But when The Weinstein Co. appealed to the Motion Picture Association of America to change the film’s rating from an R — which it had received for using the F-word twice — to a PG-13, the studio wasn’t just trying to broaden the movie’s audience or score free publicity.

“The argument was important,” says actor Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film and costars with Dench. “The MPAA say they represent middle-American parents. It’s okay to dismember someone—just don’t swear.”

The standoff sparked renewed criticism of what many see as the MPAA’s outdated, arbitrary, and overly subjective guidelines. “To have a ­ratings system whose only articulated rule involves whether the word f— appears once or twice is absurd,” says director Kirby Dick, whose 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated was highly critical of the MPAA. “It’s almost like a comedy routine.”

Indeed, some argue that the MPAA’s ­focus on what it terms “sexually derived words” is wildly out of proportion with more serious things—especially onscreen violence. A study published earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics found that gun violence in PG-13 films has more than tripled since the rating was introduced in 1985 — and that since 2009 the amount of violence in PG-13 films has equaled or exceeded that found in R-rated films. (One example: the violent — and PG-13-­rated — The Dark Knight ­Rises.) “Our ratings system is broken,” says study coauthor Brad J. Bushman, a communication and ­psychology professor at Ohio State University. “We can’t trust the ratings.”

The MPAA counters that the very purpose of the PG-13 rating is to alert parents that there are elements of a film that may not be appropriate for younger viewers. “This is not a namby-pamby rating,” says Joan Graves, the MPAA’s ratings chief. As for the restrictions on foul language, Graves insists the MPAA is reflecting the concerns of parents across the country: “We’ve done a lot of research, and it came back overwhelmingly that parents don’t want even one F-word in PG-13 films.”

One film producer sees Philomena—which follows other recent films, like The Social Network and The Tourist, that were rated PG-13 despite multiple F-bombs — as a sign that the MPAA may be quietly reconsidering some of its criteria. But with parents on one side and filmmakers on the other, he says, “they are f—ed no matter what they do.”

Additional reporting by Nicole Sperling

This story also appears in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now.

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