MPAA Makes Unannounced Change to Trailer Content

Posted on September 4, 2009 at 8:00 am

Copyright MPAA 2009

As I describe in an exclusive story today’s Chicago Sun-Times, The Motion Picture Association of America’s Ratings Board made an unannounced change in April of this year that eliminated almost all restrictions on the content of movie trailers, the brief previews of upcoming films that appear before the feature in theaters and in promotional websites. This was done so quietly that my article is the first public notice of the change.

Whether a film is rated G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned), and R (restricted to ages 17 and up), the “green screen” trailers shown in theaters and online were always preceded by a notice on a green background noting that “the following preview has been approved for all audiences.” A movie could have violence, strong language, nudity, drug use, or other mature content was included in the movie, but the trailer would at most imply it.
That is, until April, when the green screen trailer language quietly switched from “approved for all audiences” to “approved for appropriate audiences.”

“Appropriate?” Even with context, that word has almost no content. Without any context, it is positively Orwellian.
mpaa.jpgThis comes as the MPAA has included increasingly more specific descriptors since 1990 to explain the basis for its movie ratings, after pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, public interest groups, and even the movie-makers like the Directors Guild.

The MPAA does not reveal much about its ratings board, even the names of its members. And its processes and the ratings themselves are still often confusing and inconsistent as demonstrated in the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated.” Material that would get an R in a drama gets a PG-13 in a comedy. The F-word can be used twice in a PG-13 as long as it does not refer to sex. The MPAA has improved its descriptors, especially for tobacco and substance abuse. The raunchy comedy “Land of the Lost” was based on a family-friendly 1970’s television show but it was rated “PG-13 for crude and sexual content, and for language including a drug reference.” “Shorts,” a family film about a wishing stone from Robert Rodriguez is “Rated PG for mild action and some rude humor.”

But those descriptors can often be Delphic. You would need a PhD in semiotics to figure out what the often-used “mild thematic elements” is supposed to mean. Last year’s PG-rated “Marley & Me” was marketed to kids as a cute puppy movie, but its “thematic material” included postpartum depression and the very sad death of the dog in the title. A much more kid-friendly pooch movie, “Hotel for Dogs,” is also rated PG for “brief mild thematic elements, language and some crude humor.” “Brief mild thematic elements” in that film presumably refers to the mean foster parents of the orphan characters and some law-breaking by the children.

It used to be that trailers were all essentially rated G. Until this year, there have been basically two categories of MPAA-approved trailers. The “green band” trailers, with the MPAA’s approval on a green background, were approved for audiences of all ages. “Red band” trailers, to be shown in theaters only before R-rated movies, included R-rated material, thus ensuring, the theory went, that they would be seen only by adults who were by definition interested in movies with mature content.

Since the internet has become a key element of movie marketing, however, it has been impossible to limit red band trailers to adult audiences. On the contrary — teenagers are naturally very interested in seeing red band trailers and very good at using the internet to find them. They are also very good at getting around the wispy “restrictions” that at most ask for a name and birth date in order to be able to access the mature material.

“Green band” trailers disclose what the movie’s rating was, but before April of this year, the clips from the movie in the trailer itself would in theory not include anything inappropriate for general audiences. This has had some absurd, even misleading results. The trailer for the raunchy 2001 comedy “Saving Silverman” (“Rated R for sexual content and language”) put CGI underpants on actor Steve Zahn; in the movie itself, he was nude. Despite the “green band” assurance, the trailers often include material that is hardly G-rated. The trailer for the upcoming comedy “Extract” (“Rated R for language, sexual references and some drug use”), which for some inexplicable and inexcusable reason still carries the original green band “approved for all audiences” language, includes references to a part of the male anatomy and marital sexual frustration, and it depicts the main character smoking marijuana.

Now MPAA will make some effort to ensure “appropriate” audiences by matching the content of the trailer to the film it precedes in the theater. However, a trailer for a film rated PG-13 for violence may appear before a movie rated PG-13 for language, so that might not be an “appropriate” audience. And since most young people watch trailers online, there will be no controls whatsoever.
I asked the MPAA about this change. Elizabeth Kaltman, Vice President for
Corporate Communications, acknowledged in an email that they had not made any public announcement of the change, which was “intended to allow motion picture distributors and exhibitors greater freedom to accurately promote motion pictures to appropriate audiences while honoring our pledge to American parents that stronger advertising material will not reach inappropriate younger audiences. Whether a movie is rated G or PG, the appropriate audience tag still maintains that the trailer is appropriate for the viewing audience.”

There are still some glitches in the system. In addition to the PG-13 “Extract,” the trailer for the R-rated horror film “Sorority Girls” mistakenly has the “all audiences” green band but includes some material that is highly inappropriate for children. And it is available to anyone online.

I understand the frustration of the movie studios in trying to convey an accurate and appealing sense of a PG-13 or R-rated movie within the confines of an essentially G-rated trailer. And I recognize the way that the prevalence of almost-universally available red band trailers online has opened the door for previews that provide a more accurate sense of what is in the film. But it is absurd for the MPAA Ratings Board advertising rules to be so obfuscatory and coy with the “appropriate audiences” language. If the material in the trailer is judged to be at the same level of the feature it precedes, there is no reason not to assign a rating and descriptors to the trailer. The “Extract” trailer should begin with a caution that it is rated PG-13 for crude humor, sexual references, and drug use. That is my definition of appropriate.

To express your concerns about this change and ask that trailers reveal their rating, contact Chairman/CEO Dan Glickman:
1600 Eye St., NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 293-1966 (main)
(202) 296-7410 (fax)

The original article as published in the Chicago Sun-Times:

For trailers, green now means watch carefully
Due to an MPAA policy change, not all promos are age-appropriate
September 4, 2009
Most parents are always careful about checking MPAA ratings before taking their children to the movies. But thanks to an unannounced change, they might find some unpleasant surprises at the cineplex. Since April, movie previews are no longer approved for all audiences.
The Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Board substantially changed its policy earlier this year so that the promotional clips from upcoming films no longer need to be suitable for “general” audiences. The change went into effect without any announcement or opportunity to comment.
For movie trailers, the color green was originally intended to convey safety, and red was an alert — just like a traffic light.
Whether a film is rated G (for general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested), PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned) or R (restricted to ages 17 and older), the “green-band” trailers shown in theaters and online are generally preceded by a notice on a green background explaining that “the following preview has been approved for all audiences.”
“Red-band” trailers, whichcould include R-rated material, could be shown only before R-rated movies.
In general, MPAA rules are so strict that they even govern the language, the typefaces and how long the green-band frame must be visible onscreen.
Before the policy switch in April, a green-band trailer in theory could not include anything inappropriate for general audiences. A green-band trailer could at the most imply that the movie it was promoting had violence, strong language, nudity, drug use or other mature content.
Now the green-band trailer language has been switched from “approved for all audiences” to the much more vague “approved for appropriate audiences.” But there’s no indication of who the appropriate audience might be.
In addition, the MPAA’s new policy is misleading. The trailer for the comedy “Extract” (rated R for “language, sexual references and some drug use”) inexplicably still carries the original green-band “approved for all audiences” language, even though the promo clip includes references to the male anatomy, marital sexual frustration and the smoking of marijuana.
Elizabeth Kaltman, MPAA vice president for corporate communications, acknowledged in an e-mail that the MPAA had not made any public announcement of the change, which was “intended to allow motion picture distributors and exhibitors greater freedom” in promoting their films. “Whether a movie is rated G or PG, the appropriate audience tag still maintains that the trailer is appropriate for the viewing audience.”
Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a frequent critic of studios’ marketing PG-13 films to underage children, is concerned that this change was made without parental input. “This is more evidence that the MPAA is not interested in the welfare of children or helping parents make better decisions about content.”
Because red-band trailers were shown only before R-rated films, in theory they would be seen only by adults. Since the Internet has become a key element of movie marketing, however, it has been impossible to limit red-band trailers to adult audiences. On the contrary — underage teenagers are naturally interested in seeing red-band trailers. They are also skilled at getting around the “restrictions” that at most ask for a name and birthdate in order to gain access.
The MPAA promises to make some effort to ensure “appropriate” audiences by matching the content of the trailer to the film it precedes. However, a trailer for a film rated PG-13 for violence may appear before a movie rated PG-13 for language, so that might not be an “appropriate” audience. Because most young people watch trailers online, there will be no way to make sure that the viewing audience meets the MPAA’s idea of “appropriate.”
“With recent technological advances, the Internet marketing campaign for a motion picture can be broad and still be targeted to the appropriate audience for the film,” the MPAA’s Kaltman said. “For example, mature advertising content may be placed only on specific Web sites with more adult demographics or behind age gates or other devices designed to limit access to younger audiences. Some stronger advertising may be restricted to sites with similar themes and content.”
But Linn points out that many parents will be “falsely reassured” when the word “appropriate” pops up on the familiar green background. “When the trailers turn up on the Internet, without any context, ‘appropriate’ has no meaning,” she said.
The vagueness of the term “appropriate” and the subtle revision of the green-band screen also concerns Kimberly Thompson, adjunct associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who directs the Kids Risk Project and has studied and testified on the movie ratings system.
“The best solution is for just to rate the trailers and require that the rating of the trailer be shown at the beginning of the trailer and that the rating of the movie is shown at the end of the trailer,” she said. “It makes sense to color code the rating of the trailers so that it’s obvious. should not all be green, particularly given the reality that parents have been trained to associate the green-band color with is ‘appropriate for all audiences.'”
Nell Minow is the film critic for the Web site

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20 Replies to “MPAA Makes Unannounced Change to Trailer Content”

  1. You know, this post brings to mind my wife and I going to see Julie/Julia this weekend (great movie by the way!).
    As usual, trailers preceded this moving, largely being attended by more ‘mature’ (ahem!) couples and ladies on a night out. But, though I can’t remember the exact movies, the trailers were for some horror movie, a violent-looking action-type, some lame and raunchy comedy, and Nine. Of all those trailers, only Nine seemed to target this movie’s audience. In fact, some of the trailers actually elicited guffaws, if not to say groans, in the audience. This movie was being shown in the local art house theatre, so I really don’t understand what thought process was involved by the choice of trailers. I suppose the distributor puts them on, but really!
    BTW, all were preceded by the green banner, but most were clearly R movies (with J&J being rated PG13 as you know)!!

  2. Ms. Minow got it wrong. The MPAA’s Advertising Administration has not eliminated restrictions on film advertising; rather, we have further enhanced the process to ensure appropriate content is put in front of the right audiences. To be clear, what this means is that the content of the trailer is appropriate for the audience viewing the trailer with the movie they have chosen to see.
    The intent of the change from “All Audience” tags to “Appropriate Audience” tags is to indicate to the audience that we consider the placement of the advertising material is appropriate for that audience, but that it may not be appropriate for all audiences. This change allows distributors greater freedom to accurately target and promote their movies, while at the same time honoring our pledge to parents that stronger advertising material will not reach younger audiences.
    As Ms. Minow accurately points out, the Advertising Administration goes to great lengths to limit access to content which is intended for mature audiences.
    Over the course of many years we have received feedback from parents that content for some movies in a trailer with an “All Audiences” tag was misleading. This new change reflects the Advertising Administration’s increased vigilance to target advertising to appropriate audiences, in keeping with the purpose of ensuring that advertising content reflects the true spirit of the film.

  3. Whether Mrs. Minnow is correct is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that the MPAA’s Ad Admin is not accomplishing its goal of preventing children from seeing inappropriate trailers. Leaving it in the hands of teh distributors doesn’t seem to be a solution either. This weekend I saw the 6th Harry Potter which is rated PG. The trailers included 2012 (PG-13), Sherlock Holmes (PG-13) and Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (G). Does that make any sense?!?! My recourse is to stop seeing movies at the theater.

  4. I did notice the change, and it appears to be a sneaky way to get titillating material in front of inappropriate (i.e., young) audiences.

  5. To Sheri Rhodes–
    The new Potter film, like the last, was PG-13. I hope you didn’t take a kid who was too young to it–there were some very scary images.

  6. Maybe the same folks are in charge of TV commercials. I was shocked by the latest one from Jack-in-the-Box, where several adults walking down the steet quickly strip down to their underwear in front of him. I think we are supposed to laugh, but it was disgusting for what is supposed to be a family restaurant.

  7. Actually Steve, the latest Harry Potter *did* get a PG rating, at least in our local theater. Perhaps there was a different version released in other venues, but I’m not aware of it. Whether or not it deserved the milder rating is another question entirely.
    I do wish Ms. Kaltman, as she is presenting herself as a spokesperson for the MPAA, had addressed some of the other issues Nell talked about in her post. Specifically, I’m wondering about the appropriateness of showing previews for movies that get a PG rating for violence in front of children who have been allowed to see a particular PG movie only because it’s worst offense was some mild schoolyard language. For my children, Ice Age (rated PG) is age appropriate, but Harry Potter 6 (also rated PG) is not.

  8. Monkie is right, the latest Harry Potter did get a PG. And I will be writing a separate post to respond to Ms. Kaltman and some of the other questions raised here and continue with further updates on the MPAA trailer issue. Thanks very much to all who wrote.

  9. I’d just like to point out that if parenrts take their kida to R rated films or PG-13 rated films, the trailers that are appropiate for the older audiences will be exposed to the younger audiences.
    So, no mater how careful the MPAA may be in thier marketing to aim for the correct audience, it’s ultimately the parents who must choose what kind of film to see.
    It’s vary hard to know how children might respond to films, especially when they are young. Even a PG film might evoke strong reations. When they do happen, the nbest advice is to talk about it. This helps you and your child understand more about what to look out for in the future.

  10. I agree with Andreas. This tag actually makes more sense to me as a parent. When my husband and I went to see an R movie and the preview before it said that it was for all audiences – that really scared me! now I guess they’re placing these trailers according to the films that’s playing. I have not seen any adult trailers while taking my 6 and 8 year olds to see PG movies. And again, parents should know their own children – I still read the previews to decide which movies my kids will see.

  11. Thanks, Melanie. I don’t think Andreas was endorsing this new policy. And I don’t think the “appropriate” language is clear enough, especially as the change was never announced or explained to parents. As noted earlier, a key problem is the accessibility of these trailers via the internet, decoupled from the movies with which they are supposed to be similar in content. I will be writing more about this issue, so stay tuned.

  12. Hello everyone i was just wondering if i could get this whole inncident that happened tonight with me cleared up. I am 16 and me and my girlfriend(which is 17) wanted to see paranormal activity which is rated R. My mom went to buy the tickets in hoping that they wouldn’t ask me for a i.d. when they checked the tickets. We got there tonight and what do you know they asked for i.d. . I understood it was the guys job to ask for i.d. so I decided to sell my ticket and leave. I came home and looked up why this movie is rated R and i found out why. Strong language? I am positive that students that are in public highschools hear alot worse. I am not encouraging the use of such language but i find it a bit odd why the movie rating agency believes that 16 year olds are not mature of enough for strong lanugage. It ruined my night and I wish to know why they couldn’t just cut back on the foul language. The movie would be just as good or bad without it

  13. Thanks for your comment — I really appreciate your sharing this story. I relate to it because I have been turned away from a theater when I was a teenager and because I tried to buy my son a ticket when he was 16 and had the same problem. Paranormal Activity is a very scary movie, so I am sure the theater was being extra careful. I agree with you about language. There is nothing there you haven’t heard and probably said. And there is nothing to stop you from seeing this movie in a couple of months on DVD or cable. But this is just one more way the MPAA system is indefensible.

  14. Hi, everyone. I’m fifteen from Louisiana, and I just wanted to add on that another thing happening is that teenagers are “sneaking” into R rated movies by buying a ticket to different, age appropriate movie, and sneaking into the R rated movie. My friends do this, and I even did it once or twice. But, some of these R rated movies shouldn’t have such a high rating. I’ve seen Pg13 movies that are way raunchier than some restricted movies out there. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are pretty bad. I went to see the movie Jennifer’s Body one night with my friends, and I guess this movie was rated R for such outrageous circumstances that they even had a manager watching those who walked in. Before I stop, I wanna add that teenagers see most of the content in their everyday life. For the whole foul launguage bit, we’ve heard it all before, it’s not like we’re hearing a word for the first time.

  15. Thanks for a very thoughtful comment, Lauren. I can see that you have excellent judgment. What did you think of “Jennifer’s Body?” Did you read my review and do you agree? You are entirely right about the arbitrariness and inconsistency of the rating system, which I have written about as well. My concern here is with avoiding bad surprises and I think the MPAA’s change to the way trailers are handled will result in children and adults being exposed to edgy and inappropriate material they are not expecting. I am continuing to work with the MPAA to see if we can do better. Many thanks and I hope you will visit often and comment about the movies you see as I am very interested in your reaction.

  16. I would like to say that I worry about our country as a whole. This article shows how things have become a NORM for society. We should be more cocerned with protecting people by only giving to their age group. Maybe I missed something on this article and if I am out of content I apologize. However, it is also up to parents to monitor what their young are seeing. Too many times I can go by the theater and see young children dropped off with their friends, to see a movie, are they really going to see what theer parent thinks they are, or even go to the movie at all. Same goes for at home. What are children watching? I recently was watching a Disney show and the main characters were going to steal dressing for a salad because there was a long line and they wanted it now. This dressing was to bring labor on quickly. What was this telling the children? I had to stop the show and explain to my children that it is not approprate to steal no matter what. Morals have gone out the window and it has become acceptable. We must trust what we think we should trust, such as the proper labling of a movie, but then we also have to stay on top of what we think that means. As the years go by, more immorality is accepted. For example, back in the day of Andy Griffith, they did not even show couples as sleepig in the same bed. As the years go on, a normal television show shows couples in bed and not just sleeping. Yes, they may have covers on them but still. I am not a fan of what we are allowing children to see or imagine what is going on on the shows.
    Thank you for allowing me to vent and share my thoughts. Please be cautious of what we trust, especially where our young ones are concerned. Bring them up with morals and set positive examples for them.
    Donna Mitchell

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