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SURVEY SAYS MOVIEGOERS SEEK OUT THE `R' RATING

Would you choose an R-rated movie over a PG-rated movie - just because of the rating?

This may surprise you but, according to the Hollywood trade paper Variety, most moviegoers do just that.In fact, Variety contends that most moviegoers are "lured" by the R rating, which, if true, would seem to belie the intent of the motion picture rating system.

In its latest issue, Variety's lead story is about the results of a Gallup poll that surveyed 1,800 moviegoers across the country and was commissioned by the weekly entertainment magazine to determine the effectiveness of the rating system.

This is apparently meant to blow a raspberry at the Motion Picture Association of America and its president, Jack Valenti, who has long claimed that 75 percent of all parents approve of the rating system.

Regular readers know I'm not a big fan of movie ratings, primarily because they are arbitrary at best. But since the G, PG, PG-13 and R are the only hints we have about how rough a movie may be, they're not without value as a guide for parents.

And Valenti has always said that the ratings are intended as a guide for parents, to help them determine what movies they want their children to see - or what movies they want to steer them away from.

Despite my disdain for the rating system in general, I find myself in the awkward position of defending it, since this Variety poll has come up with some results that are, to say the least, questionable. And, ironically, some of the conclusions fly in the face of Variety's most highly publicized feature - its own compiled list of the top moneymaking movies, which the magazine has long held is the ultimate proof of a film's popularity.

"A growing number of filmgoers prefer to see R-rated pictures over films with tamer ratings because they're convinced that R movies are more honest and credible," Variety writer Adam Sandler crows in his lead paragraph.

He suggests that instead of "protecting" the "tender sensibilities" of moviegoers, "the net effect (of ratings) may ultimately be to increase the output of R pix."

Say what?

"According to the poll," the story continues, "if a film were available in the five ratings versions (G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17), 39 percent of filmgoers - by far the largest segment of the public - said they'd prefer to see the R version. The wholesome G appealed to only 6 percent of respondents, meaning that category came in last, a fraction behind NC-17 (7 percent)."

And among "frequent moviegoers," those who have seen four or more films in the past two months, 42 percent prefer the R, and the G preference is down to 3 percent.

Now, if that's true, how is it that the vast majority of the biggest moneymaking movies of all time are not rated R? And how is it that six of this year's eight "blockbusters" (movies that earned more than $100 million), are G, PG or PG-13 films, while only two ("True Lies" and "Speed") are rated R? And, how is it that "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," two G-rated movies, have been so incredibly successful? And can anyone out there name even one blockbuster rated NC-17? Or, for that matter, even one moderately successful NC-17 movie?

What this poll doesn't take into consideration, of course, is that moviegoers do not generally choose the films they see on the basis of ratings. They choose movies on the basis of stars, story, hype and the recommendations of people who have already seen the film.

The Variety article also includes a snide comment from Bob Nielsen, senior vice president for Gallup, who says, "People who are most concerned about the rating tend to be Jack Valenti's age."

The 73-year-old Valenti is, of course, the man who created the rating system. And he will no doubt be answering Variety's article very soon - because he knows the truth. He knows that the people most concerned about movie ratings are parents - parents who are concerned about what their children see.

And that is precisely Valenti's target audience for the rating system.

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Elizabeth Stone, the former wife of filmmaker Oliver Stone, commenting on his latest effort, "Natural Born Killers":

"As a movie, I abhor it. I think it's awful and ugly and a complete waste of talent. Why doesn't he make a movie that would uplift kids and teach them something? All this sex and violence, sex and violence. He's like a dog chasing his tail."