Blunt unconvinced by MPAA

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and a handful of fellow lawmakers are still not satisfied after meeting with officials from the film industry this week about its movie-ratings system.

Prompted by an outcry from conservatives about a Christian-themed movie receiving a PG, or “parental guidance suggested,” rating, Blunt and his colleagues questioned whether the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is applying standards that are out of line with the public’s views.

“It comes from where you set your worldview. Hollywood has one; Nashville, Tenn., has another one,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who was at the Tuesday-afternoon meeting in Blunt’s whip office in the Capitol.

Attendees described the gathering, which was intended to center on how the ratings process works, as positive. But Blunt continues to believe that the MPAA has lowered its standards over the years, a phenomenon that critics refer to as “ratings creep,” according to Burson Taylor, his communications director.

“Congressman Blunt is still very concerned about this issue of ratings creep. There wasn’t much he heard [Tuesday] that assuaged his concerns” that the MPAA has become more tolerant of graphic violence and sex but is wary of religious themes, she said.

The MPAA offered the meeting in an effort to quell a simmering controversy. The makers of the film “Facing the Giants” said that the ratings board told them their film was not suitable for a G, or “general audience,” rating because of its religious content.

Blunt wrote MPAA President and CEO Dan Glickman two weeks ago questioning the rating for “Facing the Giants” and criticizing the ratings system.

The MPAA’s objective of ending the controversy does not seem to have been met. Blunt “stands by the concerns he raised in his letter,” Taylor said.

The movie tells the story of a football coach and his team at a Christian high school. Its producers, Provident Films, say they were told at first that the religious themes necessitated the PG rating. After the filmmakers complained, they were further told that adult subjects such as pregnancy were bigger factors than the ratings board’s concern that the film “proselytizes” Christianity.

Filmmakers of all stripes regularly criticize the ratings, said MPAA Executive Vice President of External Affairs John Feehery, a former spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). In contrast to the controversy about ratings creep, “we’re under attack constantly from independent producers who think that our ratings are too harsh,” he said.

In addition to Blunt and Blackburn, Reps. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.) attended the meeting. Feehery and Joan Graves, who heads the ratings board, represented the movie industry.

But the meeting reached beyond “Facing the Giants” or ratings creep, as the MPAA representatives were drawn into the politically ripe issue of violent video games.

“That seemed to be on the minds of most of the members,” Feehery said.

Some lawmakers have pushed the MPAA and the video-game industry to collaborate on a joint, universal ratings system that would apply to both of their products. The MPAA and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) have resisted the idea.

The imbroglio over “Facing the Giants” is “very unfortunate at a time when we are needing a unified rating system,” Blackburn said. “Maybe it’s time for us to do that.”

The movie-ratings system is not perfect, Feehery acknowledged, but is “probably the best we’re ever going to get” and is “better than government censorship.”

Blackburn emphasized her preference for a voluntary system but suggested the Energy and Commerce Committee, on which she sits, might hold hearings on the issue this year. An Energy and Commerce subcommittee held a heated hearing on video-game violence earlier this month.

“Games and movies are apples and oranges,” Feehery said. The MPAA is also concerned that a joint venture with the game makers would dilute the reputation of the film industry’s decades-old voluntary ratings system. “Our ratings system has really stood the test of time,” he said. The ESA, which would not comment for this story, has its own voluntary ratings system.

The content of video games has become a potent political issue — especially but not exclusively for conservatives — as the games grow more popular, more realistic and, critics say, more violent.

Blackburn said that the dispute between Provident Films and the MPAA illustrates why a new ratings system is necessary.

The MPAA has characterized Provident’s lingering discontent as the byproduct of a miscommunication between Graves and the company’s representatives. Blackburn, for one, accepts that explanation but said the subjective nature of the ratings system creates such problems.

“The lack of clarity for the MPAA process [is] to blame for the confusion,” said Blackburn, whose district is home to Provident Films.

Feehery said that the MPAA will try to facilitate a screening of “Facing the Giants” when it comes out in September. A unit of Sony Pictures will distribute the film.