Saturday, August 03, 2013

Rating the Ratings

The popcorn was hot and the soda was cold. We found seats, and only had to switch one time for my wife to get a better view of the screen when the inevitable tall person sat down in front of her. We timed our pre-show rest room breaks in our usual alternating manner to enable us to defend our seats from the encroaching hordes (though to be fair, it was 530PM on a Friday night, so the hordes were at a minimum). We watched the preshow slide show, checked our phones for any last minute emails before going off the grid, and scanned the other incoming viewers for those to avoid. Finally, the lights dipped and it was showtime.

Of course, the film we came to see was a ways away. First came the feast of what they used to call coming attractions, but now go by the name of trailers. A mini-art form in and of themselves, they capsulize the story, actors, twists and turns, key sequences, groundbreaking special effects, quotable lines and not-to-be-missed moments of a 2 hour show in 2 minutes or less, usually doing it so effectively that when you finally see the movie you know the story, actors, twists and turns, key sequences, groundbreaking special effects, quotable lines and not-to-be-missed moments so well that the film itself is a letdown.

Stapled to the front of each trailer was the usual title card announcing the rating as bestowed on the film by the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA. Since being instituted in 1968 under the legendary Jack Valenti, the letter codes of "G" for General, "M" for Mature (later replaced by "PG" for Parental Guidance), "R" for Restricted and "X" for Adult have provided parents with a handy guide as to what they would let their kids see, while providing kids with a handy guide as to what films they should sneak into that their parents wouldn't want them to see.

Over time the ratings have been tweaked a bit, with 1984 introducing PG-13 as bridge between PG and R, and 1990 seeing the sunsetting of X in favor of NC-17 for No Children under 17 (kind of a reverse version of "No Child Left Behind"). While a voluntary system for film makers, in practice they have become so widely accepted that that the last independent censor board, the Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board, shut its doors in 1993, leaving it up to Texans to make up their own minds. About movies, anyways.

Along the way, the MPAA has toyed with the design of the ratings notifications, as well as the information they contain. This spring saw yet another upgrade under the campaign name "Check the Box." As we sat there in the theatre we saw the results in the new green card that started each trailer. In addition to the rating for the movie itself, it also showed the reason for that rating ("Rated R for violence and gore, pervasive language and drug use." Hmm. Maybe I'll skip "Self Storage"). And it tweaks the introductory language from "The following preview has been approved for appropriate audiences" to "The following feature has been approved to accompany this feature."

In short, they are matching trailers to movies. Not just in content, which is what the studios have always done. That is, if you go to see an action movie, odds are you will see trailers for other shoot-em-ups. Go see a sensitive family drama, and you will likely see previews for other angsty films. But now the MPAA is assuring that the trailers match the feature in tone as well as rating. So when you go to see "Care Bears 7: The Great Cotton Candy Caper" you won't be hit with a sanitized trailer for "Hatchet Wars," even if they have removed all the bad words and shots of its signature "Merry-Go-Round-of-Death" sequence.

And our Friday evening out? I counted 6 trailers, though I couldn't remember any of them now. About half looked good, about half I'll pass on. As always, I think I saw the best parts of each, as well as enough to allow me to fake my way through any water cooler talk should I miss the breakout hit of the summer. And oh, yeah: we saw a movie, too.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes going to the 530 show, the dinner after. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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