Meet Joan Graves, the Most Powerful Censor in the Film Industry

Believe it or not, half-ass blogging neophyte Patrick Goldstein has kind of a genuine scoop today at The Big Picture: A heads-up to an interview with CARA (Classifcation And Ratings Administration) board head Joan Graves, arguably the most notorious (and notoriously private) movie censor of the last 50 years. Of course, it's not Goldstein's interview, but rather his wife's, banished to the relatively innocuous comfort of Graves's alumni magazine at Stanford. But that doesn't make it an any-less-terrifying glimpse behind the scenes of the ratings board's "parent-friendly" tyranny:

Nowadays Graves' office even accepts scripts to review for a ratings opinion. "We don't guarantee the film made from a script will get a certain rating, but we can give them an idea. We can say, well, you've got two 'fucks' in the script, or the violence on Page X sounds brutal. One of our senior raters is very good at assessing scripts. Another is the filmmaker liaison, to answer production questions like: 'How much nudity can we show in this scene?' " Graves says the liaison issues are "the most interesting part of the job for me, and growing larger." ...
Another problem, though, is that studios may embroider on the feedback they receive from the ratings board and request editing changes as if they were demands by the ratings board. Graves says, "We don't make editing suggestions. So if a director complains, 'The ratings board said we have to change the whole first half of the film,' they're clearly being lied to." She predicts, however, that such scapegoating has peaked: directors, who are "wising up" to the studio trick, insist on speaking directly with the ratings person.

Of course, as author Sonja Bolle notes, only 28 percent of the more than 800 movies submitted annually to the ratings board come from MPAA members, meaning that the lion's share of the remaining 72 percent — mostly American independents already facing limited distribution options — are accountable only to Graves and company for the rating that can single-handedly make or break its profit potential.

The results of that arrangement are evident to anyone who's seen Kirby Dick's ratings board documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which itself exposed the board's anonymous raters (just average parents — except their kids are mostly over 30), studio-vs.-indie hypocrisy and received an NC-17 when producers at IFC submitted it in 2005. But there she is, Stanford's pride of 1963, still seething about the time Bertolucci's PG-13 epic The Last Emperor apparently forced her to explain shrimping to her young daughters. Everyone knew she'd go far.