The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 3, 2013

Benji Tunnell: Parents, theater workers share ratings apathy

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — CinemaCon, the annual movie theater exhibition conference, has come and gone, and once again someone has put forward another pointless idea.

Last year we had representatives from major theater chains espousing the thought of allowing, or even encouraging, texting during a film. It was such an asinine concept that I even received an email from a representative of the IMAX company distancing themselves from statements originally attributed to their president.

This year is no different, only this time it is National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) president John Fithian and MPAA chairman and CEO Christopher Dodd who are pushing something illogical.

After a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in a knee-jerk reaction to the Newtown, Conn., shootings, the duo announced that they will be tweaking the current movie ratings system, adding what they call "Check the Box," which will give more detail as to why a movie received a certain rating. In addition, each trailer will be tagged with its approval to play in front of a film.

According to Fithian, "These changes make the rating and advertising process more transparent and user-friendly for parents, and we are happy to support that endeavor." The problem with this logic is that it is giving way too much credit to some parents, assuming that they actually care what their kids are watching.

I don't want to make this a broad, blanket statement, because I know that I and many other parents carefully research films before letting our kids watch them. But I also know many who do not.

In my time managing movie theaters, the biggest hassle I had was enforcing the R-rating policy. It wasn't the kids trying to sneak in who were the biggest problem (although there were plenty of those), it was the parents who would call or email to complain that I refused to allow their 12- or 13-year-old child to purchase a ticket to some blood- or nudity-filled film.

For many parents, the movie theater became a de facto baby sitter, allowing them to shuttle their children off unsupervised while they shopped, slept or generally decompressed. The burden for watching over and controlling their children shifted to low-paid and often frustrated theater workers, many of whom long ago stopped caring about their job. If we kept these kids from watching whatever happened to be playing, that burden shifted back.

The idea that adding a slight bit of information on the bottom of a rating (something that has already been done once, with the information regarding the content of a given film that contributed to its rating) will somehow make for more informed choices is acting under the far-too-broad assumption that all parents care what their kids are putting into their developing minds.

In my years reviewing movies, I've seen hundreds of children -- some with parents and many unattended -- in R-rated films. There was an obvious indifference by those moms and dads who couldn't bear the thought of missing the latest "Rambo" or "Expendables" on the big screen, and rather than wait for Blu-ray or arrange for a babysitter, they just drag Junior along.

In addition, there is the obvious lack of care in the enforcement of the ratings system at theaters. It takes very little effort for someone under 17 to get into a movie that they theoretically should not be watching. If they fail at the box office (I've not seen this often), they simply hop theaters while the indifferent staff pays little attention.

A parent will let their 8-year-old watch a movie such as "Red Dawn," a violent PG-13 film, because they can't be bothered to care, just as a bored usher will let a 14-year-old sneak into "The Hangover 3" because he can't be bothered to care. Changing the rating system and adding more detail will do nothing to combat the overwhelming apathy that is at the center of the current system.

It is presumed by many that the current ratings system is a legally enforceable code, when, in fact, it is purely voluntary in most jurisdictions.

But the important thing to remember from all of this posturing is that the MPAA and NATO were able to garner good press. Biden finds a little more validation for his gun violence task force, Dodd and Fithian were able to land their names in the papers, and the status quo has been maintained.

Bay gets bit

I don't want to be completely negative about events at CinemaCon, because it tends to be an interesting and enlightening time for owners.

One of the highlights of each year is the special screenings and film reels put together for the attendees, and this year was no different. However, not all studios use the most prudent judgment in what they show, and that was reflected as Paramount Pictures presented Michael Bay's pet project, "Pain & Gain."

The screening can only be considered a disaster, as a report from an attendee recounted more than a hundred people walking out on the film. But the kicker is that this is apparently a show that Bay himself was present for.

It is a bad sign for a film when those you are asking to show it can't even stomach it long enough to make it to the credits; it is even worse when the man responsible is present and even that can't keep them in their seats.

Fortunately for the movie, it screened so close to its opening that it had already been booked into theaters, but I'm always for hack directors receiving a bit of comeuppance.