Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Spotlight: The MPAA Rating System

The MPAA rating system has been controversial pretty much since it started.  A few recent news stories have caught my eye that has brought the way the rating system works into the forefront of my mind.  The two stories are that the Evil Dead remake and Don Jon’s Addiction will both be edited to get an R rating.  Evil Dead Remake Slapped with NC-17 Rating

History of the MPAA

The ratings are issued by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA was started in 1922 by the major motion picture studios as a way of self regulation to avoid government censorship. The first head of the MPAA was former Postmaster General Will Hays. He developed what is called the Hay’s Code which had a specific list of things that could not be said or shown. The basic idea was that there could be no immoral behavior portrayed in a movie. If any movie violated something in the Hay’s Code the movie was banned from being released in the United States. Then in the late 60’s filmmakers started pushing the envelope with movies like The Pawnbroker and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff. This led new head of the MPAA Jack Valenti to try and come up with a different way of rating movies without making the filmmaker edit the movie to be released. So with the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) he developed the modern ratings system.

The new rating system was started on November 1, 1968. Originally the ratings for a movie were G, M, R, and X. M was changed to PG in 1972.  Then due to parents uproar over the violence in The Temple of Doom and Gremlins Steven Spielberg suggested to add another rating to bridge the gap between PG and R and the PG-13 rating was added. In 1990 the X rating was changed to NC-17 since the MPAA did not copyright the X rating became associated with porn. The NC-17 was supposed to be more tasteful.

To summarize a G is General Admittance, PG is Parental Guidance, PG-13 is Parental Guidance for those under 13. The difference between R and NC-17 is one that many people get confused. An R rating means that 17 and under need to be accompanied by and adult and a NC-17 rating means no one 17 and under can see the movie even if with a parent. 

In theory it seems to make sense. Give parents a guide so they can make informed decisions about what their kids watch. I am all for that. There are certain movies children should not be allowed to see and it is up to the parents to decide what is appropriate. But there are a number of problems with the system.

Problem 1: NC-17 Rating a form of Censorship?

First is the how NATO handles movies that are rated NC-17.  There is an unwritten rule that members of NATO (almost every national theatre chain) will not show any movie that is NC-17 or unrated by the MPAA.  So, while the NC-17 rating is supposed to be a guide to parents it is in effect a form of censorship blocking people from seeing it.  Two movies have recently tried to legitimize the NC-17 rating Shame in 2011 and Killer Joe in 2012 both got released with a NC-17 rating.  Both movies were small independent movies that probably were not going to make much money to begin with.  But it is still a significant move forward. 

When Shame was released Fox Searchlight president Steve Gilula said, "I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner".  At the time Shame had amassed lots of critical praise from the festival circuit and had lots of Oscar talk which would have raised it profile even more.  Even John Fithian the president of NATO thought Shame could change things.  He said Shame “is potentially an important step in the legitimate use of the NC-17 there just aren't very many movies released in the NC-17 rating anymore. We get maybe one or two a year. Filmmakers and movie studios are inappropriately afraid of the rating." Unfortunately it did not get any Oscar nominations and ended its theatrical run with a box office gross of $17.6 million.

Last year Killer Joe tried again to legitimize the NC-17 rating and had some high pedigree people involved.  Directed by Academy Award winner William Friedkin and staring Matthew McConaughey Killer Joe was rated NC-17 for “graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality." Friedkin refused to edit the movie and it was released uncut.  The movie only played in 75 theatres and grossed only about $2 million.  Proving that despite what NATO says there is still a large reluctance to show these movies. 

Problem 2: System is Vague and Arbitrary

The other problem with the rating system is how vague and arbitrary it is.  Unlike the Hays Code there is no specific criterion for what each rating means. The biggest difference in NC-17 and R is usually sex. Very rarely does a movie get a NC-17 rating strictly for violence or language. According to some reports there are 4 times as many films receive NC-17 ratings for sex then for violence. Also there is a disparity in studio movies and independent movies.  Independent movies are more likely to get NC-17 rating for similar content as a studio movie. 

The difference between a PG-13 and R rating is just as fuzzy.  Recent movies like Bully and have highlighted the issue.  The documentary Bully examined the effects of bullying has on children in school.  Showing the realities of bullying the movie has some strong language and ended up getting an R rating.  Basically the kids featured in the movie swearing couldn't see the movie because of their swearing. The Weinstein Company pushed hard to get the movie lowered to a PG-13 rating because of the social importance of the movie.  I asked one of my teacher friends who took her middle school class to see the movie what her thoughts were. This is what she had to say.

The movie is absolutely valuable for middle school students to see. Yes there is some strong language, but most of it is stuff they hear/say daily anyways. I had no hesitation in taking a group of middle schoolers to see it and would take another group in a heart beat. What they gained from seeing the movie far outweighs the cons of the profanity. Also, I think that when the kids saw the language being used in that way, it made them think about how they use their words and how maybe they need to re-evaluate their own words towards others.

How are kids going to see the evils of bullying if they are not allowed to see the movie?  Eventually the movie was edited to get the PG-13 rating after the appeal process did not work.

Compare that to the PG-13 rating that The Hunger Games and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 got.  The Hunger Games is a movie about kids killing kids while Breaking Dawn has numerous decapitations and a sex scene.   Neither movie has cursing, nudity, or a whole lot of blood but the subject matter is more disturbing and adult.  Should the context of violence or cursing be considered when giving a rating?  The MPAA sometimes takes it into consideration but other times it seems to ignore it.  

Some people have suggested that there need to be additional ratings, something to distinguish the difference from a “hard” R and a “soft” R. I think people are confused with the ratings as it is. I think that the current ratings system is helpful to a point. It helps parents to see which movies might be age appropriate but I don’t think it really helps parents see what kind of content is in a movie. R ratings can be for any number of things and for some reason things that can be R in one movie will be NC-17 in another or PG-13 in a different one. The website I find very helpful and recommend to my friends is Kids in Mind . They rate movies based on 3 different categories violence, sexuality and language. So a movie that has 1-1-6 you know has very little violence, very little sex but some cursing. That website also goes into very detailed descriptions of why each movie is rated what it is (Almost too detailed for me as it can give away some spoilers).

This Film Not Yet Rated

This Film Not Yet Rated is a great movie that really shows a lot of the hypocrisy in the ratings system. The 2006 movie is sort a tale about censorship and a spy drama. Because the identities of the people on the board are kept private no one knows anything about the members. So to try and find out who are these people giving the ratings the director Kirby Dick hires a private investigator to find out who they are and to hold them accountable. The board is supposed to be made of parents of kids aged 5-17 but during his investigation he found out that is not true of all of them. Also he found out that during the appeals process there is always clergy present. It is not real clear why that is. The best quote form the movie is by Darren Aronofsky. “It seems backwards that to show human sexuality in pretty much any form is getting to R territory while you can shoot as many bodies as long as there is no blood and its PG-13…It should be flipped where if there is violence without blood its fantasy and should be for adults… but if you show violence with blood it should be PG-13 because you can see the consequences.” Since 2006 the MPAA has made some changes but the movie still highlights a lot of the problems it still faces.

Conclusions: Money vs. Artistic Vision

After all that lets look at what got me started on this rant.  The willingness of studios and directors edit their movies to get the R rating.  It occurred to me as much as the rating system is flawed the studios and directors are all to willing to go along with it and not challenge it.  

The hype for Evil Dead is pretty high and I think it has the potential to make money.  It could be a movie that puts NATO to the test and see if they are willing to show it.  But studios are afraid.  It is all about the money for them and not about the artistic vision.  It is the reason why so many horror movies now are being released as PG-13 to make more money.  There is nothing inherently wrong with making a PG-13 movie knowing it will make more money but to purposefully edit a move after it gets a rating to get a different rating seems wrong.    

It’s one thing for studios to push for lower ratings to make more money that’s what they do. But for a director to change it before it is even rated is more bothersome. Which is why the news about Don Jon’s Addiction is even more troubling.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is getting great reviews out of the festival circuit for his directorial debut.  Can it make money in theatres? It’s not very likely given its theme. So why is Levitt so willing to edit?  That’s the question that bothers me.  You hope directors put on screen their vision of a movie.  That’s one of the advantages of being an independent filmmaker no studio interference with your vision.  If the movie in its current form is his vision I hope he pushes to get it released that way.  Similar to what Steve McQueen did for Shame and William Friedkin did for Killer Joe.   I want to see a movie as the director originally intended me to see it. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially parents. What do you look for in ratings? Are there any other sites you use?  As a new parent this is something that will be of even more importance to me in the near future.  Is there any good solution to this problem or to paraphrase Argo “it’s the best bad idea we have”. 

1 comment:

  1. My kids are in their early 20s, now. When they were younger, I based our movie viewing decisions on reviews rather than ratings. My younger son, in particular, has pretty sophisticated taste in films. His favorites were movies like Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men. I go to movies because they challenge my sense of the world and my place in it, and because I'm interested in experiencing someone else's vision...the vision of the director and the writers as well as the capacity of the actors to make that vision come alive and to move me. I want my kids to have their own experiences with movies, of course. The basis for their appreciation may be very different from mine. At this point, they can watch what they want to watch. When they were young, and I was the one making the decisions, I chose movies for qualities that were not reflected in the ratings...authenticity, coherence, beauty, compelling story, message, great performances.