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Joan Graves Interview on the MPAA Movie Rating Process

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Joan Graves
Photo courtesy MPAA

Joan Graves has a tough job. As head of the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) division of the MPAA, she is responsible for choosing board members and ensuring that all submitted films receive an appropriate content rating from the ratings board. She's the only board member whose identity is known publicly, and as such, she's the one who has to deal with the backlash when filmmakers, or parents, or special interest groups, or whoever gets upset about a film's rating.

Joan discusses some of the ins and outs of CARA and the inherent difficulties of the rating system in an exclusive telephone interview:

You have stated, "The ratings system exists for one purpose: to inform parents about the content of films. Our ratings reflect how we believe a majority of American parents, not just from large cities on the coasts but everywhere in between, would rate a film." How do you keep your finger on the pulse of American parents all across the United States?

Well, there are a number of ways we try to do it. We do run surveys from time to time and focus groups in areas across the country. We ask objectively how parents feel about certain things, including language, so we know we’re not just hearing from the complainers. I do hear from a lot of parents via email and on the phone, sometimes letters. And what I want to do is make sure that I’m getting the right information, not just hearing from the people who are overly conservative. So, we do try to keep on top of it with surveys and focus groups.

How do you choose the actual people who sit on the CARA board and rate the movies?

They are chosen from across the country. We try to have representation from people that have grown up in small towns across the country, as well as cities and different areas. They have to live in Los Angeles while they’re on the board, because we all screen at the same time together, so it’s really important to get parents from different places with different backgrounds.

Sometimes we go to schools, PTAs, doctors or nurses who know of good parents. Our best recommendations, frankly, are from teachers who are aware of different parents and their sensibilities. What we want is someone who can keep the quote “most American parents” in mind, who doesn’t have an agenda themselves and think they have to rate the film the way they want it rated.

Usually people that call, I have found, that want to be on the rating board, sometimes it’s very clear in the interview that they have an agenda. They don’t want certain things on the screen, and really that’s not our job. Our job is to let filmmakers put whatever they want on the screen, and then we just tell parents what’s there so they can make their decisions.

Although the board rates movies according to the guidelines stated on the CARA website, there is a lot of subjectivity involved. How do you ensure that the ratings board is consistent in rating the content of different movies?

Well, that’s one of the hardest things, because every movie is different, and the context wrapped around certain things are different. But, what we do is we rate the film as a board, screening it together. Immediately after the film, each rater fills out a written ballet that’s simple and says, “in my opinion most American parents would think the rating is...," and then we collect the ballots and discuss it. And it’s out of that discussion that we find out how strongly each rater felt about the rating, whether they were weak in a certain category or feel very strongly about it.

If the submitter gets the rating and doesn’t want it, we can guide them a bit in adjusting the film to get the rating they want. I mean, we’re not here to prevent the film from getting to market in any way. If they want a certain rating, we’re happy to guide them to get it. But, we stay away from doing anything that sounds like censorship. Because all we’re really doing is putting a rating to indicate the content. If we rated the same content differently according to whether we liked the movie or not, we would be censors, because we’d be censoring what we didn’t like.

In a statement regarding the "R" rating due to language for the documentary Bully, Michael Moore stated of the MPAA, "Their strict guidelines are outdated and rigid and I don’t understand why they don’t see that." (as reported by EW.com). How do you respond to the criticism that the MPAA ratings are outdated?

I think it’s easy for an adult in the media to think that harsh language doesn’t matter to parents. And it may not matter to parents once their kids are 30, and 40, and maybe in their 20s [laughs], but we know from really direct questions in our surveys that they do care. They want to be the arbiter of what their kids are exposed to. So, what they want us to do is give them the information and then they’ll act on it.

...I’m a mother of two girls, and I know that my girls were very different and still are. One was more fearful than the other. The older one was more fearful, actually, and I would choose movies differently for each one of them, and I think that’s one of the things that our system allows parents to do...to take into consideration each child’s sensibilities and make decisions according to what they know.

If there was a need for another adjustment or tweak in the ratings system, could that happen?

We’re always looking at that. Always. It involves quite a bit of education and quite a bit of vetting with not only filmmakers but parents, and don’t forget the national association of theater owners. They voluntarily pledge to enforce our ratings. So, for us to make a sudden move is never wise, because it all involves enforcement, and that involves identification. And, films are made so far in advance that the filmmakers need lead time. If they want to produce a movie of a certain rating, and then all of a sudden we change the rules when they’re in mid-production, it’s awkward. So, we’re not opposed to change, but it doesn’t happen over night.

How many of the movies do you actually have watch?

It depends on how strong they are. Sometimes filmmakers who are submitting a film know they’re going to have a problem...and they call and say we may have trouble with this, would you make sure you see it so we can talk to you, in which case I will. I read synopses of films, and anything that looks especially violent or horror-like or troublesome, I make sure I see. I’ll put it this way: I see a lot of films I wouldn’t choose to see in real life [laughs].

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