G, PG, PG-13, Q&A
by Ryan Stern
Ratings Awareness Month, and we mark the occasion by checking in with Joan Graves,
who has chaired or co-chaired the Classification and Rating
Administration since 1997.
IN FOCUS: As we celebrate Ratings
Awareness Month, what aspect or aspects of the movie ratings
system do you think needs to be publicized most?
I would like more pointed out about the Internet availability
so that parents can go and
get not only the rating for films, but the rating reason.
And I think they should know that we update it every week,
as more films are rated, so it’s fresh. As more and
more families have Internet, and the statistics are quite
impressive these days, I think that’s our best avenue
How are the parents who vote on the ratings recruited?
Well, we want to have a balanced board that reflects various
demographics. And by that I mean big city, small town,
West, East, Midwest, South, etc. We look for parents who
have children between the ages of five and 17, and of different
What criteria do you use when looking for a voting parent?
We’re looking for good judgment. That’s the most
important thing. Since we’re asking them to put themselves
in the eyes of most parents, and rate the film the way most
parents would, we don’t want them to have a private
agenda, or to come in with a cause. We’re looking for
somebody who has some familiarity with film, who likes film,
and already uses the system or pays some attention in choosing
[films] for their children. We don’t want somebody
who is just clueless about it; we want somebody that cares
about what their children see, and can put themselves in
the place of other parents who care. An ideal rater is one
who likes the movies, already uses [the rating system] for
their own children, and who has exposure to other families
in the community – whether it’s through religion
or sports or school. In other words we want someone to be
fairly aware of how other parents think, or have some access
to opinions of others.
Does CARA offer its new voting parents any standardized
guidelines that can be used toward rating a movie?
Our guidelines, as you know, are fairly generic. They’re
listed on the website, and they describe boundaries of each
rating, rather than ‘you can’t have this, you
can’t have that.’ So it’s more subjective
in many ways, and they certainly see those parameters of
each rating. And usually they do sit in with us for several
sessions and we listen to what they have to say to see if
they are absorbing the way a parent would absorb. So it’s
a training kind of experience.
What are the most common comments and feedback you receive
from the public regarding the rating system?
Well, you know, it just depends. Many times I get feedback
from the public about the system when they’ve read
an article in the press, not necessarily because they’ve
seen a film, but something in the press has caught their
eye about the system or about a certain film. So when someone
calls in and starts to talk, whether it’s negatively
or positively, I ask two questions. I ask if they’ve
seen the film, and if they are a parent. That doesn’t
mean, by the way, I won’t listen to them if they’re
not a parent, but that’s really what the system is
for, to give information to the parents. Many times, the
people that call in do have a cause, and they want to be
heard according to that cause. And it actually doesn’t
have anything to do with the rating, it turns out, it has
to do with the material in the film. It’s not that
they think it’s mis-rated, it’s that they think
it shouldn’t be there at all. I get more calls from
the public of that nature than I do in connection with a
real rating. The people that call in with specific films,
it’s very interesting. I’ve noticed that different
comments come in from different parts of the country. The
South seems to care more about language, the urban areas
care more about violence, the Midwest cares more about sexuality.
It’s very interesting.
What suggestions toward changing the rating system do you
get most often?
Well, the reason the rating system works as well as it does,
and has such high approval ratings, is that it’s relatively
simple. The process is pretty straightforward and the information
we give is pretty straightforward. When I myself have thought
of ideas to change it, it has so many ramifications because
we don’t operate in a vacuum. We’ve got the theatre
owners, the filmmakers, the parents and the public – the
parents, of course, being our first concern. And there’s
the education process involved in any kind of a change. So
this is not a system that you tinker with lightly, because
there are so many ramifications and so many unforeseen circumstances.
I really can’t think of a change right now that I would
make that would have a better result than we have right now.
When a non-MPAA distributor releases a movie unrated, with
no rating, what does that do to the integrity of the CARA
Well, one of the components of our system is that it’s
a voluntary system. So it actually fits within the integrity
of our system. What I have noticed from my experience and
from what independents have said to me directly, is that
if they are hoping for a wide distribution, they definitely
want to carry our rating because they think it helps them
with the community and the consumers to have a rating. If
they are just going to be released in a couple of cities,
or have one theatre in several cities, they’re not
as apt to feel they need it. Although many times they do
come back with that same film for a video rating.
Does CARA have a position
on the information provided by non-CARA sources like newspapers,
Go.Movies.Com’s Parents Preview and MovieMom.com?
We’ve always encouraged parents to find out as much
as they can about films. Some parents are going to choose
one over the other because they like the way they give the
information. I’m familiar with most of them and they
have very different criteria and very different ways of reporting.
We encourage parents to find out as much as possible, so
definitely we like them to coexist.
How can the industry get parents to become more involved
in the decision-making process their kids use when choosing
I think it should start in the pediatrician’s office
with [informational] posters. I really do. In the PTA. In
the schools. When kids are first starting to go to the movies,
I think the parents need to start making choices with their
kids, and discussing it. I think putting posters in the pediatrician’s
office where parents are waiting with their kids is an ideal
place to start it.
There was probably more adult
language in the documentary “Gunner
Palace” than in any other PG-13-rated movie. Did CARA
get a lot of feedback from parents?
Well, initially I got a lot of feedback from parents reacting,
again, to the press release or all the press on the overturn
[“Gunner” originally received an “R” rating].
There was one comment, “I was glad they did that; all
people should know what men go through in combat.” But
none of these people who commented at this point had seen
the film. Again, it was reacting to a press comment. The
other parents who commented were very upset about the fact
that the criteria was changed according to an individual
film. They were very upset about that and they said, “Well,
we can’t trust you in the future.” Out of these
conversations came an understanding on my part that very
few people know that the appeals board is a different board,
so they thought we had just capitulated and said, “Oh,
OK, we’ll just change your rating.”
Once I explained it was part of the process,
I told them that this didn’t mean we were going to treat language
differently or change our criteria. We were going to continue
to rate the same way. And then, of course, [NATO president]
John Fithian and [former Motion Picture Association of America
president] Jack Valenti put out the joint press release explaining
to parents, giving out the information that the film did
contain language that wasn’t usually in PG-13. I think
all of that helped to assure parents that we were being transparent
about it, we weren’t flip-flopping and that they could
count on us observing our criteria in the future.
There seem to be more movies going out with NC-17 ratings.
Is this a good thing?
Well, the NC-17 is definitely one of our ratings, and it
signifies most parents would consider the film out-of-bounds
for 17 and under. It doesn’t mean that the film is
good or bad, or not worth attending. It just signifies the
level of the depiction of the theme, or the violence, drug
use, sexuality or whatever. Therefore, I am very encouraged
by the fact that they are distributing the films with the
adult rating, because I think that there are many fine films
made for adults. And they have dispelled the myth that you
can’t get advertising, and that you can’t get
theatre space. It seems to be done film by film just like
it is done for all the other rated films.
What’s your favorite
movie of all time?
Well, I don’t really have an absolute favorite, but
when I think of films that I remember very fondly, and I
remember where I was when I saw them, I tend to remember
smaller films that involved families that treated each other
with dignity. [laughing] And I really do! I think of “The
Man in the Moon” from a few years ago … Films
like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” And
it’s those that resonate the most.