|Hollywood film industry lobbyist Jack Valenti, who developed the modern US movie and TV ratings system, died on April 26th at age 85 from complications of a stroke.
Valenti led the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for 38 years. Best known as the architect of the movie ratings system (G, PG, R), he was the man who represented the Hollywood industry in Washington. Valenti was a fierce defender of the ratings system and an equally fierce opponent of film piracy, which robs about $8.5 billion dollars a year from industry coffers.
The movie ratings system has generally remained intact, although some changes have been added over the decades. In 1984, the rating PG-13 was added at the insistence of Steven Spielberg who felt that “Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom” was too soft to be R-rated.
Valenti retired in 2004. Earlier in his career, he had been an aide to Presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and in fact was in the motorcade when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
In 1967, the Catholic Legion of Decency and Protestant Film Review Board closed their offices and abandoned their ratings codes, which had for years prohibited explicit violence, sex and profanity on the screen. Congress, concerned that the movie industry was left without a moral imperative, felt that film makers needed government oversight. In a defensive move, Valenti was enlisted by the major studios to head up the MPAA, where he drafted the movie ratings.
Dan Glickman, Valenti’s successor at the MPAA, said, “Jack was a showman, a gentleman, an orator, and a passionate champion of this country, its movies, and the enduring freedoms that made both so important to this world.”
I met with Valenti twice over the years and found him to be quite congenial and approachable. During one meeting, I posed the question of whether a movie that is rated PG-13 today might have received an R-rating a few years earlier. “Of course!” he said. “The MPAA ratings reflect the changing mores of society.” I was struck by his candor and admission that the ratings change from time to time. That’s like saying a pound weighs 16 ounces today, but may weigh 15 ounces tomorrow. Most people believe that the MPAA standards are unwavering.
He always presented himself as an advocate for family values, but was at the same time the highest paid lobbyist in America, protecting the industry that directed and financially supported his agenda.
To his credit, Valenti had to walk a very fine line between both public and corporate interests. I told him once that I didn’t envy him his position and that he was like “the meat in an angry sandwich.” On one hand, many filmmakers criticized his organization for being too tough, especially on sex and violence. At the same time, Dove’s survey of over 7 million people discovered that 76% felt the ratings are too lenient.
The best advice he gave was during a “Decency in Media” Senate hearing in December, 2005 when the MPAA ratings were under attack, Valenti wisely said, “I urge parents to use all the other ratings systems. The more information you have, the more qualified you are to make judgments for your children.”
Now, that’s advice worth taking.
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