Why the MPAA Keeps the Identities of Their Raters Secret

Posted 5:05 PM November 22nd, 2011 by Senh Duong

I watched “This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated” on Netflix Instant a couple weeks ago. It’s a revealing documentary about the inner workings of the MPAA, and why some filmmakers don’t like them. In case you don’t know, the MPAA is the company that assigns the G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17 rating to films. The dreaded rating is NC-17 because most theaters in the US won't show films with that rating, thus severely limiting their commercial prospects. If your film is rated R, then you try to get it to PG-13 because it's a wider audience. The MPAA keeps the identities of the raters secret, so they won’t be “pressured” or influenced by people involved with the films they’re rating, mostly filmmakers and studio execs. And that’s what Kirby Dick, the director of the film, has a problem with. He thinks the process should be more transparent, and that the raters' identities should be known.

Having ran a ratings site (Rotten Tomatoes) for a decade, I disagree with Dick. There was a time when we would allow a person from a film studio to correspond with our editors directly regarding incorrect assignments of ratings from movie reviews. With the four star rating system, the problem is the 2.5 stars rating. That’s the rating critics give to a film when they think it’s better than mediocre, but not good enough to be good. If you ask the critics directly to pick a side, which we did and kept track of, some will tell you it’s a Rotten rating (thumbs down) and others will tell you it’s a Fresh (thumbs up). Then there are those who said they’ll leave it up to us to decide.

Of course, when the studio guys come to us, they always say it should be Fresh (they never inform us when we incorrectly picked a Fresh rating). Our editors would tell them that it’s a Rotten because that specific critic rates a 2.5 star review as a thumbs down. It’s on our tracking list. Nonetheless, they would insist that it’s more Fresh than Rotten. We would then contact the critic directly, and he/she would confirm that it’s indeed Rotten. The studio guys would double check with the critic, and after getting the same answer we got, they would tell our editors to use a more positive quote that they had personally grabbed. We tell them that quote culling is up to our editors, who pick quotes that best represent the review and the rating. More disagreements ensue.

It’s a laborious and unpleasant process for just one review. Now imagine going through the rest of every middle-of-road review for every movie.

To top it off, you would think these studio guys were trying to push a 59% movie into the 60% mark, which is the minimum for a Fresh rating. It’s not. One of them came to us trying to push up a movie that already has a Tomatometer of over 90%. We tried explaining to this guy that it’s very rare for a film to reach 90% on the Tomatometer, and that he should be proud and appreciative. Nope, he decided to contest every single Rotten review.

After one of these incidents, we decided to put a wall between our editors and anyone affiliated with a film or studio - separation of church and state. We don’t want our editors to have to deal with this kind of stuff. It can get really nasty and the studio guys can be unreasonable.

I have a feeling if the MPAA makes their raters known and allow filmmakers to have direct access to them, they would go through a similar experience. Atom Egoyan would try to convince these raters that “Where the Truth Lies,” which contains a threesome involving a man on top of another man on top of a woman, should be rated G.

The MPAA isn’t perfect - their rating system is too generalized - but they should definitely not allow anyone who’s involved with the production, distribution, or marketing of a film access to their raters. It will compromise their system.

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