Hollywood directors push for rating-system overhaul
Hollywood directors are urging the Motion Picture Association of America to craft a “simple, clean and detailed rating” system that can be applied to all entertainment media.
Last week's call came on the heels of congressional testimony on a Federal Trade Commission report that said the movie, video game and music industries aggressively market violent products that carry adult ratings to children.
“We advocate a system or systems that would give parents and other consumers the most detailed information possible regarding the true nature and content of a film or other media and the reason for its rating, so that they can make informed decisions for themselves and their children,” the Directors Guild of America wrote in a statement.
The directors said they've been meeting with MPAA chief Jack Valenti, urging him to make considerable changes to the rating system he crafted more than 30 years ago.
Valenti, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the DGA's statement.
But in testimony before Congress last week, Valenti said the MPAA rating system enjoys its highest approval from parents ever. He told senators that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to create a single rating system to gauge the suitability of movies, television programs and the like.
“What some account to be unwholesome and unworthy, others may judge to be innovative and inventive,” Valenti said. “There is no all-seeing, elite, self-designated authority in art, movies, music, literature, TV programs, etc., who can, with Olympian clarity, say, 'This is suitable, this is not, this is all right, this is not.'”
The directors' statement came less than a week after the release of the FTC report. The commission said that even movies rated R — which require an adult to accompany children under 17 to the theater — and video games that carry an M rating for 17 and over are routinely targeted toward younger people.
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, in particular, embraced the issue, demanding a voluntary ceasefire from the entertainment industry in marketing inappropriate material to children. He also threatened federal action if the industry failed to do so.
Gore and running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman have since softened their tone, with the Associated Press reporting that Lieberman told leaders of the entertainment industry: “I promise you this, that we will never, never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will nudge you but we will never become censors.” The AP reported that the assurance was delivered to applause at a Beverly Hills fund-raiser last night.
Republicans charge Gore and Lieberman with hypocrisy, according to the AP, saying they criticized the entertainment industry's conduct and then accepted campaign funds from Hollywood.
Meanwhile, the directors union statement said its efforts are hardly a reaction to threats, noting that the group formed a 25-member Task Force on Violence and Social Responsibility in June 1999. The task force includes such filmmakers as Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack, Michael Mann, Wes Craven and John Carpenter.
“We believe in freedom of speech and expression as social values of the highest order,” the directors said. “At the same time, as responsible members of the community, we believe that there are steps we as an industry can take to ensure that our movies are seen only by the audiences for whom they are intended.”
The DGA also urged theater owners to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy against selling tickets for adult movies to underage moviegoers. The directors suggested, too, that the industry adopt a code of conduct governing the marketing of mature movies as soon as possible.
“Such a system will allow us filmmakers to tell our stories to the audience for which they are intended,” the statement said.
The guild attacked the MPAA's NC-17 rating specifically, tagging the adults-only rating as an “abject failure.” It said that many films that should not be seen by minors are re-cut so they become “hard” R's instead. “This has the effect of not only compromising filmmakers' visions but also greatly increasing the likelihood that adult-oriented movies are seen by the very groups for which they are not intended,” the guild said.
Free-speech groups critical of the FTC report found it curious that the DGA should make such an announcement so soon after the report and the subsequent congressional hearing.
But David Horowitz of the Media Coalition compared the guild's statement to executives at Wal-Mart having the right to refuse to stock record albums with warning labels on them.
“And I would say that if this is indeed voluntarily then that's the prerogative of the directors and that's a private business decision,” Horowitz said.
The directors insisted that their efforts are geared toward self-regulation and are not supportive of efforts to enforce a rating system through civil penalties or criminal prosecution.
“We believe that it is ultimately the obligation of parents and legal guardians to protect their children from exposure to material they deem inappropriate,” they said.
The First Amendment Center is an educational organization and cannot provide legal advice.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also the former editor-in-chief of USA Today.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, also is senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, a center of the institute. He is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.
John Seigenthaler founded the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.
David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues and a regular contributor to the First Amendment Center's website. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.