Nestled among the listings of the many, many panels that made up the SXSW Film and Interactive festivals this year was an unexpected name — Joan Graves, the Senior Vice President of the MPAA and Chairman of the Classification and Rating Administration and the only member of the ratings board whose identity is made public. Graves does not do many interviews, and the MPAA itself has always kept its process partially shrouded in secrecy — so much so that the name of the event, This Panel is Not Yet Rated, could serve as a nod to the 2006 Kirby Dick documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” in which a private investigator was hired to figure out who, exactly, the people were who determined what gets a PG-13 versus what gets an R.
Graves appeared on the panel with filmmaker Vincenzo Natali, whose “Haunter” was making its world premiere at the festival; Travis Stevens, whose Snowfort Pictures production company is focused on sometimes boundary-testing genre films like “Cheap Thrills” and “A Horrible Way to Die”; and film critic Scott Weinberg, with ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg moderating. While plenty of members of the film industry have taken issue with the MPAA over the years, the panel was a civil and surprisingly open affair in which Graves presented the reasoning behind her organization’s actions and existence.
Part of what may have made the panel less contentious is that, as Graves herself pointed out, the ratings system is voluntary, and many films that might have run into an NC-17 in the past now are frequently aiming for a VOD and limited theatrical release anyway and are unaffected by the decision to remain unrated. Where an NC-17 used to amount to a kind of indirect censorship for features that would then be unable to book theaters, it’s now far less of an issue in a world in which films reach audiences on many different platforms.
Natali and Graves engaged in an entertaining discussion of “Splice,” with Natali saying “there is interspecial sex in it which could be interpreted as… incestuous” while adding “I tried to do it tastefully!” He noted that while the film received an R rating, he’d been afraid there was no way, because of the very inclusion of that storyline, that it would get anything but an NC-17. Graves told him that “we are never more than PG-13 for anything thematic on any topic you can think of” and that it’s the depictions that can earn a film a higher rating: “we try very hard not to restrict any ideas.”
What Graves repeated, again and again, was that the reason the MPAA exists is to provide information about the content of a film to parents. And this raised what’s become a hot topic once again following the tragedy at Sandy Hook — violence in the media and how we regulate it. Weinberg brought up the ‘inconsistency with violence” in the ratings and the way that bloodless, playful violence gets a pass whereas realistic gore is rated more highly, asking “what is more desensitizing to a child” than “muted violence”? Films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy were brought up as awfully heavy for a PG-13 that doesn’t restrict entry to anyone based on age.
Graves pointed out that stylized action violence was nothing new and went back to the general audiences admitted days of cowboy and Indian movies, but admitted that “there definitely are contradictions” between what parents tell the MPAA they want versus what the country seems to want to watch.
She noted that as an organization, they’ve followed the standards of the time, from the ’70s when portrayals of drug content were looser to the present, when they’ve had to be much stricter. And while violence seems much more free on screen, “this country is afraid of nudity,” she said, adding that parents have told her they they feel their children can distinguish violence and that it’s not something they expect from them, but they do know their children will eventually become sexually active and so find that content more problematic.
The MPAA will never please everyone, but one of the most interesting moments in the panel was when Graves explained how different regions took issues with different aspects of content they felt should be controlled. In the South, she said, “the main target is the language,” while “the Midwest is more concerned about the sexuality. The coasts, on the other hand, are “much more aware of the violence.” When looked at from the point of view of not how content should be classified but what people feel should be kept from their kids, this breakdown reveals how scattered our standards are about what the young should be protected from — especially, as Stevens pointed as, in an age when access to the internet is a norm and can provide children with material that’s far more adult than anything that you’d find in a movie.