However one thing I think they do right is the rating system. It is popular among indie types to accuse the MPAA of censorship, but the MPAA does not censor. Anybody can release a movie in the U.S. without an MPAA rating–the government will not stand in the way, and neither will the MPAA. In fact, part of the reason we don’t have government censorship in the U.S. (as other countries do) is the rating system the MPAA devised, which has worked quite impressively for decades.
The ratings are guides for parents. That’s it. If you are under 17, or you have kids who are under 17, you probably pay attention to the ratings. If you’re like me, and you have no kids, you probably don’t pay attention. My young nephew can tell me in a heartbeat what any movie in current release is rated–the rating is one of the first things he looks for. On the other hand, I almost never know what a movie is rated.
I get annoyed with filmmakers and fans who blame the MPAA ratings administration for the fact that most films in wide release must be appropriate for minors. I too am frustrated with the dumbing-down of mainstream filmmaking that results from this stubborn fact–but it’s not the MPAA’s fault. Most of the horrible things going on in the world of film are the fault of the MPAA, but not this one.
Here’s a stab at predicting what would happen if the MPAA stopped rating films, or relaxed its standards:
1. The MPAA abolishes the entire rating system. Result: Parents around the nation revolt (because they value the ratings system), organize and create a new rating system. And we’re back to where we started–or worse.
2. The MPAA relaxes standards for the “R” rating. Result: The “R” rating ceases to be meaningful to the target audience (parents), which demands or creates a replacement.
Still, the following situation exists: Good films with mature subject matter are not getting made in the U.S. because the NC-17 rating is the kiss of death.
But who is at fault here?
When I worked in the development department of New Line Cinema, there was a script going around that we all loved. It was witty, fearless, provocative–and definitely NC-17 material. The script was so good we thought it was a lock that New Line would pick it up and make it. But then the script was reviewed by the distribution department, whose chief said, in my presence, “New Line will never release an NC-17 film.”
Why? Because the numbers didn’t make sense. New Line, one of the most frugal studios in existence, would have loved to distribute a controversial, free-publicity-generating NC-17 film. But theater owners across the nation (except in a few markets) refuse to book NC-17 films, just like they refuse to book X-rated films. Why? Because newspapers and TV stations around the nation (except in a few markets) refuse to run ads for NC-17 films. Why? This is where my personal knowledge runs out, but I assume it’s because they’re scared that their audiences will protest.
I don’t blame exhibitors for not programming a movie that they can’t advertise. And I don’t blame studios for not producing films that exhibitors won’t show. And I don’t blame the MPAA ratings board for providing descriptive ratings for parents who want them.
When MPAA head Jack Valenti was being pressured to create the NC-17 rating, he said, We already have this rating–it’s called X. But that rating had become associated with porn (it was the one rating that anyone could self-apply, without submitting to the ratings board for review). So people demanded a new rating that would be for films that aren’t porn but also aren’t for kids. But NC-17 will just come to mean the same thing as X, said Jack. Valenti has been laughably wrong in the past (he predicted that the VCR would destroy the movie industry), but this was one of the few times in his life that he was right. Name the last NC-17 film you saw in a theater. (Truth be told, the story is more complicated than my summary.)
I started thinking about the ratings system because we are putting together the DVD packaging right now for my feature film, Nothing So Strange. Like many indie films, Nothing So Strange will not be submitted to the MPAA for a rating–it costs too much. However, the box designer has asked me if I think we should put one of the made-up ratings on there–”NR–Not rated” or the like.
And that got me to thinking… What if we take the approach of a lot of bands, who proudly display warning stickers on their CDs as a marketing tool, and we give ourselves that dreaded X rating? We could use a graphic like this:
This proposal is currently being batted around by various folks who have input on the box art. On the one hand, branding our DVD “X” might mean we won’t slip through the radar of some mainstream retail stores (who usually don’t carry non-MPAA-rated titles, but who sometimes just look the other way). On the other hand, an X rating might add marketing value.
The job of the DVD box is to entice a prospective buyer to pick it up, and then to persuade the person to buy the DVD. My feeling is that an X rating might add an element of danger and excitement to the DVD (and the grisly shots of Bill Gates getting his head blown off more than justify such a rating) that could help convince someone to buy it.
What would your impression be of a video with the X-rating graphic above?