Sunday, June 27, 2010

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This is a fascinating documentary about the American movie ratings process that anyone interested in either film or censorship should watch.

As a European, I have to admit I found several aspects of the movie completely baffling.

Let’s get this one out of the way first. It’s a well-known issue that Europeans are reasonably tolerant of sex in movies, but tend to shy away from extreme violence, whereas Americans will accept almost any degree of violence, but are comparatively puritanical when it comes to sex or bad language (despite having the world’s largest porn industry). As a result, the criteria by which films are rated are completely different to what I’m used to. Movies I think of as suitable only for adults are kids’ movies here, and movies I’ve watched with my kids are deemed shocking and unacceptable because there’s a hint of boobage or some bad language. However, that’s not what struck me this time.

The whole basis of US ratings seems to me to be useless. When we watch movies at home, we usually end up looking at the European ratings to find out whether they’re suitable for our 12 and 15 year old kids.

For the benefit of my fellow non-Americans, the US ratings system goes like this:

  • G: kids of any age can watch this movie
  • PG: kids of any age can watch this movie (but it may contain material some parents may consider inappropriate for pre-teens)
  • PG-13: kids of any age can watch this movie (but some parents may think it’s inappropriate for pre-teens)
  • R: kids of any age can watch this movie (but the cinema may require them to have their parents with them)
  • NC-17: for over-18s only (and probably won’t actually get released or broadcast because the studios and distributors won’t touch it)

In other words, anyone can watch anything unless it’s NC-17. The PG-13 category is so broad that some movies are fine for 10-year olds, others – in my opinion – aren’t really suitable for a 15 year old, and would probably be classified 18 in the UK. Kids change hugely between 11 and 18 as they go from pre-puberty to adulthood, and there’s absolutely no indication in the rating of where on that scale a PG-13 fits.

The thing that feels truly weird is that Americans simply don’t have mass market movies for grown-ups or older kids. In the UK, we’re quite comfortable with the idea of having major movies that you have be to 15 or 18 to see. In America, if the theaters can’t get the 14-16 year olds into the cinema and sell them popcorn, they simply won’t show the movie. As a result, an NC-17 rating is basically the kiss of death for a movie. It relegates it to the status of a porn flick.

The strange side-effect of this is that when film directors are arguing for an R rating rather than an NC-17 rating, what they’re actually demanding is that scenes that we would think are suitable only for adults are actually fine for teenagers or even younger kids. In other words, they’re saying that young kids should be able to watch people being tortured and dismembered in graphic close-up, anally raped, having a drug-fuelled orgy with crucifix-shaped dildos, screwing donkeys, or whatever else they want to include in their story.

They’re not actually saying that, of course. They’re just trying to work with this broken ratings system.

What they’re actually asking for is two different things. First, they want the artistic freedom to make the movie they want to make. Well, they already have that freedom. They can make the movie any way they want, and they have the option of releasing it as NC-17 or unrated. Nobody's stopping them making the movie, as long as they can get the funding for it. That puts them in the exact same position as every other artist.

More importantly, though, they’re fighting for a commercial opportunity for that movie, and that’s where they have the problem. There is no commercial market for NC-17 movies in the US. That’s down to the decision by the studios, distributors and exhibitors not to show NC-17s. Wal-Mart and Blockbuster won’t touch them either. As a result, they have to get that R rating from the MPAA one way or another, or the movie is pretty much dead. So either they have to cut the adult scenes the MPAA doesn't like, or they have to argue that the adult scenes are acceptable to kids.

What the US needs, as far as I can see, is to accept that some movies really aren’t suitable for kids, and that there is a place for adults-only movie entertainment that isn’t porn. It’s perfectly accepted in other areas of the entertainment business. Nobody has a problem with putting on a burlesque show and saying over 18s only. Some art exhibitions, theatrical performances, variety acts and gigs don’t allow minors in. Kids can’t get into bars. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and most Americans are quite comfortable with that policy.

So why do the distributors and exhibitors have such a problem with movies that are unsuitable for minors? An NC-17 movie should be no different to any other form of 18+ entertainment. If they were happy to show NC-17s, there would be less pressure to include increasingly hardcore adult material in R-rated movies, and that, surely, would be more in keeping with their mission to protect kids from unwholesome movies.


cas said...

The problem with everything you wrote, Matt, is that it makes perfect sense. And sense - common, perfect or otherwise - is something Hollywood and the industries that rely on Hollywood lack... as well as creativity, imagination and originality. Having been in distribution, exhibition and production of the American film industry I can tell you it is one totally screwed-up industry. And it will likely get worse. That is one reason we are seeing such an onslaught of remakes, re-imaginings, retellings, etc. The ratings system of the MPAA is such a pillar of the industry that it is unlikely to be overhauled any time soon. To do so would require courage, an understanding of the various demographics NOT being served by the current system, a desire to change that and some sense... again, common or perfect. In Hollywood? Today? Ain't gonna happen.

You were spot on with your assessment... unfortunately, "they" don't see it.

Matt Kelland said...

You mention " an understanding of the various demographics NOT being served by the current system". I didn't even touch on the fact that the MPAA's ratings appeals board includes two members of the clergy. In order to ensure fairness, there's one Methodist and one Catholic. Which begs the obvious question as to why Jews, Hindus, and Muslims aren't represented, let alone Buddhists, Mormons, pagans, or other minority groups.

I seem to recall only one of the MPAA ratings board being anything other than white: one Asian lady, but no Hispanics or African-Americans.

In other words, the MPAA's rating board only represents the views of white middle-class Christian America. I think American audiences would be intrigued to see the different cuts of American movies that appear in Europe, which are often much closer to the director's original cut.

John Molloy said...

This would also explain why there is a sudden plethora of "unrated" versions appearing on DVDs - they are simply putting back the things they took out before they didn't get the rating they desire.

There are some other echos here too Matt, such as Apple's curation of their app store making Americans feel "safer" as opposed to the wild, wild west of the Android store where Google seem quite happy to let people profit from other people's copyright material, because it is freedom.