The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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What's up with the MPAA's secret 'green band' trailer change?

September 9, 2009 | 10:57 am

I was away over Labor Day weekend, so I'm just catching up with this fascinating story from Nell Minow, who writes the sharp-eyed Movie Mom blog that offers a parent-oriented view of media consumption and cultural values. Minow is a great story in herself. Mother of two children, daughter of fabled FCC commissioner Newton Minow (who famously declared TV a "vast wasteland") and a self-acknowleged "sci-fi fan girl geek," she is also one of the country's leading experts on corporate governance.

But what caught my eye was a story Minow just wrote that got very little coverage in the mainstream press. As someone who keeps a close eye on the MPAA's largely unfathomable rating system, Minow discovered that the MPAA has, as she describes it, "eliminated almost all restrictions on the content of movie trailers" while never bothering to tell anyone about it!

Until earlier this year, the green band trailers shown in theaters and online were always preceded by a notice explaining that "the following trailer has been approved for all audiences," which in essence meant you could safely assume the trailer you saw in front of a PG-rated movie wouldn't have any inappropriate material that would scare the bejesus out of your kid.

But no more, says Minow. At some point this April, the green screen trailer language quietly switched from ''approved for all audiences" to "approved for appropriate audiences." And what does Minow think of that? "'Appropriate?' " she writes. "Even with context that word has almost no content. Without any context, it is positively Orwellian." Minow offers a lengthy treatise on the often bizarre descriptive language the MPAA uses for its ratings, noting that "you would need a PhD in semiotics to figure out what the often-used 'mild thematic elements' [descriptor often cited in MPAA ratings] is supposed to mean." It is the MPAA ratings system that, for example, allows the F-word to be used twice in a PG-13 films -- as long as it doesn't refer to sex -- and often gives the same material an R-rating if it is in a compelling drama but a PG-13 if it is in a raunchy comedy.

Now the MPAA has introduced a whole new level of unintelligibility with its "approved for appropriate audiences" trailer language. When Minow contacted the MPAA, its corporate communications VP, Elizabeth Kaltman, said the change 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."

In other words, studios have even more freedom than ever to game the ratings system. As Minow pointedly writes: "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 proceeds, there is no reason not to assign a rating and desciptors to the trailer."