June 05, 2015

How Hollywood messed up film ratings: A beginner's guide to the MPAA, part 4

Furious DRebel Blogger

(WARNING: MATURE LANGUAGE) Okay, we've covered the creation of the MPAA, it's evolution, and how it is failing badly as a lobbyist. Today, we'll take a look at the ratings system.

To say that the ratings system is dysfunctional would be making a whopper of an understatement. Filmmakers and producers have tons of horror stories of that special kind of hell that is otherwise known as the film rating process.

Let’s do a little recap of what the ratings are supposed to mean, and then we’ll get into what they have become to mean.

“G” for movies that were made for all audiences including children.

“PG” films that require some “parental guidance” which meant that parents had to pay attention to what’s in the movie and decide whether or not kids could attend.

“PG-13” was introduced in the 1980s and means that parental guidance was suggested for kids under the age of 13.

“R” means that entrance is “Restricted” to those over the age of 17 unless the attendee has a parent or guardian with them to cover their eyes at the naughty bits.

“X” originally meant that the film contained graphic material that no one under the age of 18 could be allowed to see, no way no how.

Those are what they are supposed to mean, but what they have mutated to mean is now totally different.

That change began in the 1980s when the G-Rating came to mean “Movies Made For Babies,” the PG-Rating came to mean “Movies For Kids That Parents Don't Have To Think About,” and the R-Rating became “Movies For Adults.”

But up to the mid-1980s PG movies were allowed certain amounts of violence, gore, and even a little nudity. This started to rankle parents who had come to mistakenly believe that PG meant that it was a babysitter instead of entertainment. Those parents sent little Timmy and little Suzy to see Joe Dante’s Gremlins, or Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, and were horrified to hear about creatures exploding in microwaves, sacrificial victims having their hearts ripped out, and, heaven forbid, a brief glimpse of female nipple.

Before you could say: “Won’t someone please think of the children!” angry letters to the editor were written and people were demanding that films with the PG rating conform to their recently formed misinterpretations. Both Gremlins and Temple Of Doom were connected to Stephen Spielberg, having directed one, and produced the other.

This deeply concerned Spielberg who strives to avoid conflict and confrontation at all costs. To avoid having to argue with people who might raise their voices, he came up with what he thought was a solution. That solution was a new rating called PG-13, which would separate what people thought were for kids into films for teenagers and up.

For the first 20 years is seemed to work pretty well, but the good time was not going to last, and many put the blame on Janet Jackson’s nipple.

In 2004 there was a “wardrobe malfunction” that briefly exposed Janet Jackson’s left boob in the middle of the Super Bowl half-time show. Now most people saw it as an embarrassing moment that was best left laughed about for about a day, then forgotten, but a small band of plucky and extremely pushy people decided that it was a glorious opportunity to reshape American culture in their uptight, intensely repressed image.

While small in number these people were able to make their presence known through mass e-mail campaigns to the broadcaster and to the Federal Communications Commission. This sparked years of legal battles, millions of dollars going to lawyers, and media companies freaking out that they might be next.

A convenient way to help get these new puritans off your back was to make it look like you were taking a stand for “decency” in media. The easiest way to do that was to pick on R-Rated movies. Many big newspaper chains stopped carrying advertising for R-Rated movies, and mainstream broadcast networks refused to air commercials for R-Rated movies in prime time.

This started to affect the bottom line. When the R-Rating first started it was seen as a positive selling point. The R-Rating said: “Hey, it’s a film made for adults that’s not an ‘adult film’ and you can watch it without a bunch of dead eyed kids making noise in the theatre.” Horror and action films deliberately pursued the R-Rating, because they thought that no one would take them seriously if they were rated PG.

That was now dead as the dodo.

While R-Rated movies are far from pornography, when it comes to selling them, they’re treated like pornography.

Then there’s what it takes to get an R-Rating, which isn’t much these days. Back in the day if your film had just a little rough language, and mature subject matter, you might get a PG or a PG-13. Rough language, mature subject matter, violence, and a smattering of nudity, you might get a PG-13 to an R, depending on how much you were dishing out.

Well that ain’t so anymore. Since the Great Nipplegate Moral Panic of 2004 you can get an R-Rating for saying the word “Fuck” more than an arbitrary number set by ever-changing whimsy of the ratings board. A classic example is The King’s Speech, a sincere bit of Oscar bait about King George VI battling a speech impediment with the help of an eccentric Australian speech therapist against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II. In a logical world the film would have been given a PG rating and that would be that.

But Hollywood is not a logical place, and The King’s Speech had two strikes against it. First strike: it had the misfortune of having the King drops some “F-Bombs” as part of his speech therapy, and the Second Strike: it was released by The Weinstein Company, which is not a member of the MPAA.

The MPAA figured the slim chance of a teenager buying a ticket to a historical costume drama and seeing a middle-aged monarch unleash a fleeting flurry of furious “fucks” would bring down civilization, and slapped the film with an R-Rating. Harvey Weinstein, the film’s producer/distributor appealed, but to no avail.

Why didn’t the MPAA change its mind, since the decision was made on a platform of ridiculous thinking?

Because despite its pretensions, The Weinstein Company is not a major studio and not a paid up member of the MPAA. Only the major studios are members of the MPAA and only major studios are compelled to follow the dictates of the ratings system.

So why did Weinstein put up such a fight over The King’s Speech getting an R-Rating if he didn’t have to follow them?

Because unless you have a rating from the MPAA you’re going to have a hard time selling your movie. Without the MPAA assuring media outlets that you’re film isn’t pornography they won’t run your ads at all, let alone put the limitations on them that are put on R-Rated movies. That’s because they live in terror of the angry parent who can write outraged e-mails and Facebook posts.

That means that independent producers have to go to the MPAA for a rating, and since they aren’t a dues paying major studio, their films are given R-Ratings much easier than films from major studios. The MPAA will deny it, but it’s pretty much accepted as fact by anyone who has done any business with them over ratings for independent films.

The studios won’t fix this dysfunctional system for two reasons. The first is that they think it’s keeping their indie competition down, and the second reason is that they think they can profit from the dysfunction.

The second reason is going to need a bit of explaining, so here we go:

Basically the studios are convinced that they’ve found a way to make films more profitable through the dysfunctional ratings system. They take a movie that would normally be rated R, like an action film or a horror movie, cut out all the blood, cuss words, suspense, and sexiness for a PG/PG-13 theatrical release. They expect that teens and kids will then flock to such sanitized movies in droves, making them heaps of money. Then, a little while after they released the DVD/Blu-Ray, they will put out a “special unrated edition” with all the blood, cuss words, suspense and sexiness slapped back in, and expect folks who wanted to see an R-Rated movie will buy them by the bushel.

It doesn’t really work.

A classic example is the death of the Expendables franchise. If you’re not familiar with it, the franchise features aged '80s action star Sylvester Stallone leading a gang of other aged '80s action stars engaging in over the top '80s style action. Stallone fought to make sure the first two stuck to their R-Rated roots, and they made decent money. However, the distributor thought that if the third installment was PG-13 then the kids would all rush to see it and it would equal the big comic book blockbusters that currently dominated the box office. Then they would sell an unrated Blu-Ray with all the blood restored, and watch the money roll in.

Turns out they were wrong.

The teens with disposable income that they were expecting to fly to the theatres, didn’t come. Why? Because 2014 teenagers had probably never even heard of the movie’s 1980s stars and probably had even less interest in seeing them battle each other and arthritis.

But not only that, the older moviegoers who grew up on the '80s action movies and made the first two installments profitable also avoided Expendables 3. Why? Because they remembered the '80s action movies in all their bloody glory, and they figured the bloodless PG-13 version was going to be tepid and tedious. The film crashed and burned at the box office, and that failure will probably hurt it in home video sales as well.

So let’s sum up the ratings system:

It’s misunderstood.

It’s abused.

It’s wildly erratic and unfair.

It hurts the bottom line.

And Hollywood seems to have no interest in fixing it.

Which means it’s a typical Hollywood problem.


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commented 2015-06-07 19:06:27 -0400
Warnings in front of a TV show, MPAA rating system — discontinuity — Sex ed.