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'The Hunger Games,' 'Bully' prompt MPAA ratings fight

WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential primary has painted bright ideological lines on a number of culture war issues. But liberals and conservatives are finding surprising common ground on one charged topic: the need to overhaul the nation's movie rating system.

Ratings of two upcoming films — "Bully," a documentary on bullying that received an R (and will instead be released as an "unrated" film, and "The Hunger Games," about teenagers in a group death match that received a PG-13 — have revived debate over the system put into place in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade group comprising the six largest Hollywood studios.

Lawmakers, parents' advocates, filmmakers and teenagers are complaining that language and sex are scrutinized while violence gets a pass ("Bully" received an R because it contains scenes of teens hurling profanities). Critics also say that the system of five alpha and alphanumeric characters are blunt tools rather than nuanced instruments and that the overall process is too secretive and rigid.

"The hypocrisy is that the very movies that contribute to violence can be seen by teenagers because they get a PG-13," Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., said, referring to "The Hunger Games." "And the one film ('Bully') that actually teaches them to respect others is given an R."

Dan Isett, public policy director at the conservative Parents Television Council, agrees a rethinking is necessary. Like Clarke, he believes movies such as "The Hunger Games" — and a lot of other films that are approved for teen viewing — merit R ratings. (R means moviegoers younger than 17 must be accompanied by an adult. PG-13 means some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13, but it does not restrict entry.)

"Certain movies will never get an R no matter what's in them. That's the problem when the ones policing the system have an economic incentive to give films a certain rating," Isett said.

A full-fledged movement to overhaul the rating system hasn't coalesced. But the chorus is growing louder. More than 300,000 people, including Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, have signed an online petition protesting the "Bully" rating.

The question is whether the new criticism will effect change; previous efforts have died on the vine.

Implemented by longtime MPAA chief Jack Valenti largely to avoid government censorship, the rating process is a well-worn, if murky, system. A group of modestly salaried employees watch dozens of movies every month and offer an initial rating. The MPAA does not reveal the identities of these individuals, or their qualifications, other than to say they are parents who are not affiliated with the film industry.

If producers are not happy with the rating that panel gives a film, they can take it to an appeals board of at least nine people. The MPAA does not say who is on the appeals board, though it is believed to be composed mainly of a rotating group of studio and theater executives — and representatives of religious groups are sometimes present. (The MPAA itself gets one vote.) A maximum of two people are allowed to argue on behalf of the film at an appeals session, which is closed to the public. Records of such sessions are sealed.

To win an appeal, a filmmaker must receive the support of two-thirds of the appeals panel. The ratings are overseen by the MPAA's Los Angeles-based Classification and Ratings Administration, headed by Joan Graves.

The MPAA says film ratings "do not assess the value or social worth of a movie or censor any aspect of a film. They simply provide clear information to parents (and all interested moviegoers) about a film's content."

Yet some legislators, such as Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., say the rating panels are thinking too narrowly by counting swear words and body parts while ignoring the larger context.

"It seems like the MPAA missed an opportunity here," she said of "Bully," arguing that raters should have taken into account the movie's message.

The MPAA says that making its system more flexible would require raters who can offer value judgments. And that, the group's chief, former U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, says, takes it into a messy thicket.

"Who am I going to hire to do that? Writers? Critics?" Dodd said in his office last week as the "Bully" controversy was building. "That's not a business we want to be in."

Dodd cited a study commissioned by the MPAA and conducted in 2005 by a company called the Opinion Research Corp. that found 76 percent of parents with children younger than 13 believed the ratings were "useful" or "very useful."

He also noted that few ratings are appealed. "We had something like six appeals out of more than 400 cases last year," he said. "That says that we're doing something right."

Groups including the PTC, however, counter that only producers, not the public, can appeal ratings, and there is no incentive for filmmakers to argue for a stricter rating for their own films. And even film companies say the system can be tilted against them.

"They'll never bite the hand that feeds," said Harvey Weinstein, the "Bully" distributor, about studio films that manage to avoid the R. (As an independent company; Weinstein is not a member of the MPAA. Neither, for that matter is Lionsgate, the studio releasing "The Hunger Games." A Lionsgate representative had no comment.)

Lee Hirsch, who directed "Bully," was even more direct. "This case has brought to light the hypocrisy of the rating system," he said.