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Show Business: Gremlins in the Rating System

6 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Two hit films raise new concerns about protecting children

Ah, summer: that blithe season when the latest Steven Spielberg movies are in full bloom at the nation’s theaters. Fantasy, fun and lighthearted adventure for all, right? Well, this year it depends on one’s idea of fun. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg’s slam-bang sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a man’s heart is ripped out of his chest in a ritual sacrifice, and he is lowered alive into a pit of molten lava. In Gremlins, a fantasy co-produced by Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante, a boy’s cuddly, otherworldly pet spawns a generation of vicious creatures that, in one scene, terrorize the boy’s mother in the kitchen. She retaliates by churning up one gremlin in a food processor and exploding another in a microwave oven.

Grisly scenes like these have not hurt the box-office receipts of either picture. Indiana Jones earned a phenomenal $94.5 million in its first 23 days, and Gremlins grossed $ 12.5 million in its first weekend. But they have incited a torrent of complaints that the PG rating given both movies fails to warn impressionable young children. The outcry has come not just from peevish movie critics but from theater owners and parents as well. Carl Hoffman, a film buyer for the Dubinsky Brothers movie chain in the Midwest, says that 50 people stalked out of a screening of Gremlins because of the violence. Milwaukee Journal Movie Critic Douglas Armstrong, who does a radio call-in show, has been deluged with calls from unhappy parents. Says he: “Their faith in the movie rating system has been shaken.”

Similar sentiments are growing in Hollywood. Last week the Motion Picture Association of America (M.P.A.A.) seemed close to making perhaps the most sweeping change in the rating system since it was established 16 years ago. Ready for unveiling is a new rating, known as PG-13, that would prohibit children under 13 from being admitted unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. The rating would presumably be used in the future for movies like Indiana Jones that are deemed acceptable for teen-agers but potentially harmful to younger children.

The PG-13 proposal has been endorsed by a number of studio chiefs and theater owners and by the chairman of the M.P.A.A. rating board. Even Spielberg, confessing in a TV interview that there were parts of Indiana Jones that he would not want a ten-year-old to see, advocated the creation of the new rating. The proposed change, however, has been opposed by M.P.A.A. President Jack Valenti. He argues that the current system is working well enough and that adding more classifications would cause more confusion. “Who is smart enough to say what is permissible for a 13-year-old and not for a twelve-year-old?”

Valenti asks. “Who can draw that line?”

The rating board has been drawing lines since 1968, when the present classification system was set up. Movies are submitted to a seven-member review board, all of them parents, selected for two-or three-year terms. The board assigns each movie one of four ratings: G (for all audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested), R (restricted: under 17 not admitted unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian), and X (no one under 17 admitted). The rating can be overturned by a 22-member appeals board made up of theater owners, independent distributors and studio representatives.

Except for the so-called automatic language rule, which mandates an R for movies using certain sexually explicit words, the board has no fixed criteria for its ratings. “The rule of reason prevails here, not a bunch of rules,” says Richard Heffner, 58, a Rutgers University professor of communications and public policy who has been chairman of the rating board for the past ten years. “Our function is not to impose ideologies, morality, psychology or aesthetics, but to make an educated estimation of what most parents would think a movie should be rated.”

As audience standards of what is permissible in movies have changed, so have the ratings. For one thing, the X rating has fallen into virtual disuse. Of the 342 films submitted to the board between November 1982 and October 1983, none were released with an X. Since an X rating can have a disastrous effect on the box office, producers almost always prefer to re-edit a movie to gain an R, or release it unrated. Bo and John Derek’s erotic adventure film Bolero, for example, was originally rated X, but will be distributed later this summer without a rating. Unrated films, however, cannot be advertised on TV stations or in many newspapers, and some theater chains refuse to show them.

Heffner and the board have begun taking a harder line on film violence.

They gave an X last fall to Brian De Palma’s bloody gangster epic Scarface, but it was changed to R by the appeals board. Last week that board upheld an X rating given to Terror in the Aisles, a compilation of scenes from past horror films scheduled for release by Universal later this year.

The G rating, which to many viewers implies blandly wholesome family fare, has become nearly as much of a box-office stigma as an X. In the twelve-month period ending in October 1983, only twelve films were rated G. The four-rating system has thus been reduced, for all practical purposes, to two. G is out, and so is X. Indeed, for any movie seeking the widest possible audience, that number is effectively cut to one: even an R can tarnish a film’s commercial prospects.

The PG-13 seems to offer a promising alternative. Says Guy McElwaine, president of Columbia Pictures: “PG-13 would take away the pain of getting an R on a movie that doesn’t deserve one.” It would also recognize, very belatedly, that there is a big difference between what a twelve-year-old should be allowed to see and what a 16-year-old should be permitted to see. As Heffner puts it, “Parents generally don’t treat pre-teen-agers as they do older brothers and sisters, and the rating system shouldn’t either.”

—By RichardZoglin.

Reported by Meg Grant/Los Angeles and Timothy Loughran/New York

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