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Thoughts on the MPAA rating system

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The Motion Picture Association of America is, by and large, a malignant force in our culture, truly an enemy of freedom.

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?

[“Thoughts on the MPAA rating system” cross-posted to Brian Flemming’s Weblog.]

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About Brian Flemming

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    You exhibit a thoughtful and mature outlook on the MPAA ratings system. You’re looking at it from other people’s points of view, and thinking through their legitimate considerations.

    I’d go just a step further and think about it from the point of view of parents, not that you were being actively inconsiderate. Moms and dads legitimately need some tool to give them an idea what kind of thing they’re getting the chillen into. They don’t want to be mistaking Bad Santa for The Grinch when they’re picking out a movie for their 8 year old.

    Purposely assuming the X Rating for your own movie sounds like definitely a bad idea to me, though I certainly defer to your superior knowledge of the exact issues involved.

    On the face of it, there seems to be exactly one benefit: The X might pique some people’s interest as they’re browsing through the video sections of stores. The ultimate question though, is how many more people will actually BUY the video because the X on the box in the rack caught their eye that wouldn’t have considered it otherwise.

    That is versus how many people who would have bought it anyway won’t because they’ll never see it in the rack in the first place because only select stores would carry a video that is rated X.

    Plus, most likely some people even who do see it with the X will be actively turned away. I suspect that it would likely be widely taken to imply porno, no matter what else you say. Not porno enough to appeal to an actual porn market, but just enough to turn off the straights.

    Also, how would this impact you online? Would Amazon balk at carrying an X rated title? You sure don’t want to be getting yourself screwed unnecessarily in that critical marketplace.

    Another possibility, since we’re basically talking about self-applied ratings: You might label it X for “X-treme” like some of the video games. That’s nothing to do with MPAA ratings, and it probably more accurately reflects the tenor of your product than the porno associations of the MPAA X rating.

  • Eric Olsen

    I believe I agree with Al that the “X” is more a net turn off than turn on – some kind of warning of your own might be exactly the way to go. You can pique the interest with specific warnings.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Much as Frank Zappa had his own famous custom warning label certifying that his records were “GUARANTEED NOT TO CAUSE ETERNAL TORMENT IN THE PLACE WHERE THE GUY WITH THE HORNS AND THE POINTED STICK CONDUCTS HIS BUSINESS.”

    Besides being a political/philosophical statement that he wanted to make, that little essay on his records was a significant marketing point in itself.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    i was in a small record store once not long after the whole PMRC fiasco…every single record & CD in the store had a red sticker on it:

    “Warning: This recording may contain lyrical content and thus may not be appropriate for listeners over the age of 16″

  • http://www.ubersportingpundit.com/hotbuttereddeath/ James Russell

    the MPAA does not censor

    Sorry, Brian, I don’t entirely buy this. I know the situation in the US is not like the situation in Australia and that Americans have the option that we don’t, to release films without ratings. How much freedom does that really give you, though? It probably doesn’t make much difference to DVD sales, but I’ve always been under the impression that releasing a film to cinemas without a rating is about as bad as releasing it with an NC-17. In other words, if you want to maximise your potential coverage and audience, as I see it the safest way to do that is go with a rating from the MPAA, who will likely demand some changes or other before they’ll actually give you the rating. And when an external organisation demands you alter your product to their liking before they’ll rate it, that’s tantamount to censorship in my book.

    As for putting an X rating on Nothing So Strange, I suspect Al and Eric are right and it could just wind up being counterproductive. It might entice someone to buy it, but probably not as many as it would discourage. Probably releasing it unrated, albeit with a content warning on the front, might be the best way to do it.

  • http://ari.typepad.com Steve Rhodes

    X is too associated with porn.

    So unless you have a explicity sex scene with Bill & Melinda (or any of his previous girlfriends) it would backfire. Even if there was a sex scene, it would backfire.

    You should put not rated instead of X and keep the rest of it.

  • http://www.slumdance.com/blogs/brian_flemming/ Brian Flemming

    You should put not rated instead of X and keep the rest of it.

    This seems to be the consensus among the others involved with Nothing So Strange, too.

    Which is to say, not a single other person agreed with me that we should single-handedly revive the X rating for non-porn movies.

    So it’ll be an “NR” with the other text.

    Thanks to all for the feedback.

  • http://www.makeyougohmm.com/ TDavid

    I don’t know who else here besides you (obviously) Brian, has actually seen Nothing So Strange but I’d say PG, maybe PG-13. It certainly doesn’t contain any X-rated material.

    Maybe you can release an X-rated version with some extraneous hardcore or softcore porn added if you truly want things that way, but in the condition I saw the movie, it would not get an R rating, much less an X.

  • http://www.slumdance.com/blogs/brian_flemming/ Brian Flemming

    TDavid,

    Hey, thanks for the nice review!

    You’re right–the film itself would probably not be X. But among the bonus features on the DVD are slow motion versions of the assassination that are pretty graphic, especially at DVD (rather than Web download) resolution.

  • http://notendur.mi.is/steinnin Steingrimur

    If I would see rated X I would think it’s a porn film. But if I would see NC-17 or Unrated somewhere I would be temted to pick it up and read the back cover.
    I don’t like the way MPAA rating system has evolved into film makers cuting theyr movies for a rating. And directors signing on a rating. Here in Iceland movies are shown as is. The filmmakers don’t get a chanse to cut anything away. This I like. But then again, the american way is freedom. In america there is freedom for the filmmaker, and here in Iceland there is, so to speak, freedom to the viewer.

  • Bailey Carrell

    I don’t quite understand what the author thinks people are accusing the MPAA of… Is he saying that the MPAA censors movies too much, or is that just the “indie types?” What is he saying with this article? Simply that there is nothing wrong with the rating system? Personally, I think the rating system gets more and more lax every day. It’s not that it censors. It allows too much. More and more mature content and language is being allowed in all movies from ratings G to R.