With school out for summer, Kirsten Larson and Sydni Norris of Bloomington, Illinois, often head with their friends to the Parkway Cinemas. But they do not always pick the same movie to see.
Kirsten, 16, and Sydni, 15, can get into R-rated movies that their friends cannot view without an adult along. They each have an "R-card," a parent-permission slip issued by the GKC Theaters chain, which has theaters in 24 cities, including Bloomington, in five Midwestern states.
The R-card costs US$2 and allows youths to attend R-rated films unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, as would otherwise be the case for anyone 17 or younger.
So far the chain has sold about 700 R-cards at 10 of its theaters, said James Whitman, vice president for theater operations and marketing at GKC, who dreamed up the card. The company's theater in Elkhart, Ind., began offering it on Friday, and its theater in Traverse City, Michigan, a popular family resort area, will make it available next month.
But critics are denouncing the R-card as both a maneuver around the movie rating system -- which was set up to help parents sort out which movies were appropriate for their children -- and an abdication of parental responsibilities.
"It distorts it and disfigures" the rating system, said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, which administers the ratings program. In a telephone interview from his Washington office, Valenti continued: "Not all R movies are alike. There are some R movies that children should not see."
Yet as long as the ratings have been administered, young people have found ways to get around them, like the generations-old practice of buying tickets for one movie and sneaking in to another. Ticket sellers and takers at many theaters are barely old enough to see R-rated movies themselves and occasionally encounter peer pressure not to bar their friends.
Ratings themselves manage to remain in dispute: Michael Moore loudly complained when his new picture, Fahrenheit 9/11 received an R rating, which means it will be seen only by an adult audience or young people accompanied by parents or guardians.
And also by the relatively modest number of youngsters who have R-cards.
The R-card came about this spring. Whitman said he was simply trying to serve a customer need: parents who were tired of sitting through ear-splitting pictures with their action-film-loving teenagers. "It was parents who were coming to the box office and saying, `You're forcing me to see a movie that I don't want to see,'" Whitman said.
He added, "You can't say it's a parental guideline and then say the parents have no choice."
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