When Titanic was released in theaters, I was just a few months shy of 13 and my parents had absolutely no problem allowing me to watch it. They trusted in the movie ratings system (regulated by the Motion Picture Association of America or MPAA) to give them accurate information about the film’s content. What they, and many other parents, don’t realize is that when it comes to films produced or distributed by MPAA member studios, ratings are often decided based on what will make the most money rather than the actual content of the film.
Maybe you’ve never wondered how Titanic, a film that shows Kate Winslet’s bare breasts (as well as horrific deaths by drowning and electrocution), got a PG 13 rating in 1997. Or how indie films, like Besieged (which showed only a glimpse on one breast and has no violent deaths or profanity) receive an R rating just two years later. But this is a major issue within the motion picture industry.
When it was founded in 1922, the MPAA was supposed to protect the industry from government over-regulation. In the 92 years since, the MPAA has assumed as much or more power than the government would ever have been allowed even though it has no legal control. MPAA ratings often dictate the policies of major movie theaters, as well as department stores.
Even today, the MPAA claims that its core mission is: advancing the business and art of filmmaking, protecting the creative and artistic freedoms of filmmakers, and ensuring the satisfaction of our audiences worldwide”. But their actions, at least when it comes to independents, tell a very different story.
They call their ratings system “a symbol of American freedom of expression”, unfortunately in their eyes not all filmmakers are created equal.
A 2010 study by David Waguepack and Olav Sorenson found that independent films were 7 percent more likely to receive an R rating from the MPAA than they were from the site, Kids in Mind, which has no industry affiliation. That may seem like a very small difference but when you consider that PG and PG-13 movies earn on average 76 percent more than those that are R rated. And that doesn’t even touch on the issue of R rated films which are unjustly labelled as NC-17 (what would have at one time been an X rating).
While a director always has the choice to edit any offending scenes and resubmit their film, this is not in keeping with the MPAA’s mission of ensuring creative freedom. If a director does not want to change their film to get a different rating, they have the option of having a hearing but, as director, Adam Green experienced with his film, Hatchet, they are not often prepared to listen to the director’s point of view and may even force the director into actions such as signing a form accepting the rating.
This is the same as agreeing that their films deserve a more restricted rating and therefore a smaller audience. It kills any chance the film had at a wide theatrical release because even in an edited form, it is viewed as pornographic.
And the distribution issues don’t stop when the film leaves theaters. Many stores also have policies restricting the sale of DVDs and blu-rays to anyone under the age of 18.
When I was 22, I was carded at a local Walmart while buying a DVD of the Uncut Edition of Saw. Since I didn’t any ID with me, I had to ask my Mom to pay for it, and then the cashier insisted that I was not to even allowed to touch the bag containing it until we had left the store. Mind you, this wasn’t a fifth of Jack or a carton of Marlboros. I had every legal right to own that DVD even without proof of age but stores choose to create policies based on this rating system that isn’t even accurate!
- The MPAA does not advance the art of filmmaking when it supresses independent voices.
- It does not protect a filmmaker’s freedom when it forces edits to suit its whims.
- It does not ensure audience satisfaction when ratings cannot be relied upon to tell the truth.
The MPAA and its rating system are not “a symbol of American freedom of expression”. They are nothing but a symbol of capitalist greed and lust for power.
Originally posted to Independent Thoughts on APRIL 27, 2014.
What do you think? Should the MPAA have so much power over filmmakers? Are ratings irrelevant? Will studios bend to the will of parents? Let’s discuss it in the comments.