Film Fund-amentals: Audience Discretion Advised

Harvey Weinstein having a fight with the Motion Picture Association of America about a movie’s rating is not exactly an uncommon event. Heck, it wasn’t that long ago that he was duking it out with them over their bizarre R rating for The King’s Speech. Sure, there are several scenes in the film where Bertie can only talk without a stutter by getting angry and cursing a blue steak. But hey, many of us have dealt with eight-year-olds who operate in much the same manner. So none of this is particularly shocking.

Likewise, Weinstein is in a good position to take a stand against the MPAA over the R rating for the documentary Bully. A no-holds-barred documentary on bullying among American youths already has a built-in audience, and lots of young people will, presumably, be primed for the movie (which is part of the reason why the AMC theater chain wants to show it). The language issue that invoked an R from the MPAA has no relevancy to the intended audience (most of whom have either said or heard much worse). If anything, the MPAA has simply built a nice little bully pulpit for Harvey, and he has the courtesy to use it. As the ancient master once said, it’s all publicity.

But it does bring us back to the perpetual question: What the heck is the point of these ratings? I mean, aside from making money for the MPAA. Since the MPAA charges film companies anywhere from $2,500 to $25,000 to slap a rating on a movie, this process is a pretty neat cash cow. Likewise, most commercial theaters will not show a movie without an MPAA rating. So the whole process feels a bit like a protection racket.

It’s no wonder that many filmmakers privately resent the process. Some will even mention that there is no constitutional authority for the ratings. Basically, it’s a form of voluntary coercion (though if you want a wide release for the film, you are stuck with it). The MPAA will tell you that it’s designed to inform parents and protect artistic freedom. In my own experience, most parents are still half confused about the ratings. As for artistic freedom, are they serious? It’s more like a passive-aggressive approach to censorship. I don’t know who writes the copy for the MPAA website, but they might want to spin the material in a slightly more convincing manner.

But that’s OK. A bigger hoot can be found on the website for The Classification and Rating Administration, home to the largely mysterious panel of folks who are used to determine the ratings. There you will find a message from Joan Graves, the MPAA Ratings Chief, which explains that they are right, you are wrong, and what they are doing is for your own good so shut your fat trap you little ingrate. OK, she’s more polite than I am, but it pretty much comes off that way.

She even explains the basis for the ratings. Sort of. Actually, she doesn’t really explain much of anything, but then that is the mystery of the system. In truth, it doesn’t have to explain itself. As Weinstein demonstrated when he appealed the R originally imposed on Bully, the MPAA doesn’t need to say anything more than note that the movie has a lot of rough language (as if R stood for rough and not restricted). By the way, whenever a filmmaker appeals a decision to the MPAA, that is another fee for their services. The panel is supposed to be made up of folks from a diverse range of American society, but the billing practice suggests that they are all lawyers.

Several years ago, I outlined some of the thinking behind rating decisions by the MPAA (A Filmmaker’s Guide to the Ratings). I was only being half-satirical in that piece. The rating system has long been notorious for its bean-counter methodology. One F word will get you a PG-13. More than three F words will get you an R. It’s a small wonder that The King’s Speech didn’t get slapped with an NC-17. By the way, Ms. Graves does point out that NC-17 is not the same as saying “adults can’t and shouldn’t see these films.” Maybe it’s just me, but her tone seems to suggest that you might consider going to confession right afterwards.

The long-standing argument for having the MPAA rating system is that an industry-imposed approach must be in place in order to prevent the government (local, state or federal) from legislating some type of system on movies. In reality, it would be difficult (at best) for any such laws to be created that could pass constitutional muster. The MPAA ratings have no actual legal authority (except in some communities where there are laws requiring enforcement — though it is not clear if any of these laws have been tested in court), and most theaters comply with the ratings as a voluntary service (better known as “cover-your-butt” strategy). Likewise, the ratings primarily affect minors, and it is unlikely (though by no means impossible) that a concerned parent will sue on behalf of their little darling’s rights to see an NC-17 flick.

It also doesn’t help that the most consistent amount of noise about the ratings often comes from so-called “family” groups who argue that the MPAA is too lenient. Of course, this takes us back to the MPAA’s argument that we need their system in order to prevent other, possibly more repressive approaches, from being created. The whole thing quickly turns into a political Catch 22.

Which is why the rating system will not go away anytime soon. At best, it is the unbearable used as a buffer against the unthinkable. But the system is long overdue for major reform. For example, the charge for the ratings desperately needs to be revamped in order to make it more accessible to low-budget filmmakers. Likewise, a more objective and rational set of standards needs to be used by the ratings board with some type of variable structure related to the obvious differences between films. After all, The King’s Speech is not the same as The Hangover (which worked a lot harder at earning its R rating). The current system is mostly composed of the panel’s sense of pique and whimsy. Sure, the MPAA insists that it is merely representing current “community standards.” But what “community?” Whose “standards?” There is simply no level of agreement on that issue.

What the rating system really does is to both impose and enforce the MPAA’s own notion of community standards. So maybe they should be more upfront about this process. Better still, they might be advised to move out of their secretive shell and start having more of a dialog with the affected “communities.”

Who knows — it might be an educational experience for all involved.