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Chair Of The Motion Picture Association Of America Ratings Board Prepares To Retire


In Joan Graves' long career, she has watched more than 12,000 movies. She pays close attention to the gore, sex and foul language because Graves chairs the board of parents who determine movie ratings from G to NC-17. Now she is preparing to retire from her role at the Motion Picture Association of America, so we've invited her here into the studio to talk about how she views movies. Welcome.

JOAN GRAVES: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Your background is in commercial real estate and financial services. So how did you get into the movie rating business?

GRAVES: It was accidental. I was at a cocktail party, and I was talking to a publisher from New York and another friend. And he evidently thought I sounded very sensible - and I put that sensible in quotes - and told the then-chairman of the rating system, Richard Hefner, that I would be a good person for his board because we had talked about movies a lot. And he knew I enjoyed going to the movies and taking my family.

SHAPIRO: What makes a good person for a board like this?

GRAVES: Somebody that is sensible and that can reflect standards rather than want to set them. And I know when I look to add people to the board, parents with agendas - if you say, why would you like to join us, why would you'd like to be on the rating board - I remember one lady said 'cause I want to get the F-word out of movies. And I said, wait; that's not what we do.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GRAVES: We give information about what's there. We don't tell filmmakers what they can put there.

SHAPIRO: The difference between a PG-13 rating and an R rating can mean millions of dollars for a filmmaker, as I'm sure you're well aware.


SHAPIRO: How much lobbying goes into the rating of a film?

GRAVES: I saw a trend almost two decades ago of the directors having to sign contracts to deliver a film rated a certain rating or less.


GRAVES: And because of that, we created a position of a filmmaker liaison so that if filmmakers had any questions in the production stage, even the script stage or post stage, they could talk to us if they had to craft their material so that they didn't exceed what they had signed the contract for.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of a film that wanted to be PG or PG-13 that adjusted the way the filmmaker was planning to do things in order to get that rating?

GRAVES: A filmmaker came to me once, and he said he'd been thinking of doing a movie about a known person who was a womanizer and a drug user. And he - the contract could only be for a 13, and he didn't want to sign it if he couldn't portray this man's life in a way that was realistic but also not vaulting the film into R territory. And the way we talked and what you could depict and what you couldn't, he ended up signing the contract and made a very, very effective movie. And...

SHAPIRO: What was the movie?

GRAVES: ...He was happy.

GRAVES: It was "Ray." And it got an Academy Award. I shouldn't name names...

SHAPIRO: About Ray Charles.



JAMIE FOXX: (As Ray Charles) If you want me to do something special, I'm going to need my own band.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK, but you're going to have to make it work, Ray.

FOXX: (As Ray Charles) Yeah, I'm going to make it do what it do, baby. Yeah.

GRAVES: As you remember the movie, you definitely got all the aspects of his life but not in a way that a parent would say, oh, my goodness, you should never have seen that.

SHAPIRO: We hear all the time from listeners who disagree with the editorial choices we've made about what content to put on the air. Do you hear from parents all the time who say, how could you have rated this film this way?

GRAVES: I do. I - when anybody calls in and or emails, I always ask how old their children are, what part of the country they're from and if in fact they've seen the movie because sometimes complaints are an orchestrated campaign with an agenda.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example?

GRAVES: Well, for instance, the South - the Southerners care much more about blasphemy than the rest of the parts of the country.

SHAPIRO: Taking the Lord's name in vain...


SHAPIRO: ...And that sort of thing.

GRAVES: Yes. We've found that Midwesterners care more about nudity and sexuality. And the coasts are more concerned about the violence 'cause they have bigger cities, and there's more violence in big cities. So it's a very interesting situation when we're rating for the whole country and the parents on the board have to think in terms of the whole country 'cause they're reflecting standards, not setting them.

SHAPIRO: That's so interesting. Do you think these ratings take on less importance in an era when there is so much streaming content on so many different platforms?

GRAVES: Seeing a movie is a choice. When you sign up for it at home or to pay-per-view or you go to the theater, you make a choice. And they want to be sure of what they're choosing. So we have very, very high interest in the ratings because of that I think, because they want to know what they're paying their money and devoting their time to going out to see.

SHAPIRO: Joan Graves is the outgoing chair of the Classification and Rating Administration for the Motion Picture Association of America. She'll retire next year. Thanks so much for coming into the studio.

GRAVES: Thank you. I love it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 14, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline incorrectly said the chair of the Motion Picture Association of America was retiring after two decades. In fact, it is the chair of the association's ratings board who is retiring.