It’s easy to not like the Motion Picture Association of America, because there are too many times we’re sitting around scratching our heads on how some films are rated the way they are.
You know the MPAA. They are the group of people representing the movie studios, theaters and supposedly the average housewife determining what films are suitable for you, and which are not.
No, they don’t have the actual ability to ban a film like some countries do. But they have the tools to pretty much ban it — like giving it an NC-17 rating, which most theaters in the country won’t even touch. If you decide to bypass the MPAA and release a film without a rating, the MPAA can still get you: Most theaters treat unrated films like NC-17 films, thus once again, most theaters won’t even touch your film.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for parents (and regular people) knowing what’s in a film before setting out to see it, especially with little ones in tow. And instead of forcing us to read through all the questionable content in a particular film, it’s all been simplified in labels like “G,” “PG,” “PG-13,” “R” and “NC-17.” This little committee, led by former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, dictates whether or not particular films will get wide release in theater, and in some cases, whether the releases happen at all.
This is a problem that affects films across genres, including science-fiction and horror. But it really got to me totally fed up this month when the MPAA decided it would give a documentary called “Bully” an R rating. Why? Because some of the bullied kids in the documentary used the F-word.
Oh heavens! (To keep our G rating here). Nah, screw it. Let’s go PG.
The MPAA is nothing more than a subjective body that makes ratings determinations (all of which can affect how a film is distributed, and the kind of revenue it will take in) based on whims. What might get a PG one day, could get a PG-13 the next. What might be a hard R this month, could actually become a PG-13 the next.
Filmmakers are forced to cut down their films so that they can get the desired rating for the studio, and while that might have opened up an amazing market for director’s cuts, why should private enterprise have to negotiate with a non-public outside entity in what should remain in a film, and what shouldn’t.
It’s stupid. And it’s pure power. All enjoyed by this board of unknowns who supposedly have our best interests at heart.
Why does the MPAA exist? Back in the 1920s, filmmakers were distributing pretty much whatever they wanted, completely uncensored. With the threat of government intervention to censor films, the studios at the time banded together and took on the role of censorship itself. And by the time the ratings system was created in the 1960s (to replace the highly restrictive Hays Code that, among other things, banned nudity and profanity), the major studios could pretty much control the market, because they controlled the MPAA.
The MPAA has absolutely no force of law. Legally, the government cannot restrict a non-pornographic film to certain audiences, even if there are issues of age appropriateness. Yet, the MPAA has full control over theaters, because if theaters want the new releases that help fuel their business, then they have to abide by every decision made by the MPAA.
But it is voluntary, right?
Decisions are limited to this one board, and they have all the marbles. Not only do they not share the marbles with us, we don’t even get to see them.
And historically, the MPAA has championed violence and booed nudity or anything have to do with sex. Actions that cause death and maiming are great! Actions that may actually create life, bad. And don’t swear, damn it. We mean it.
The MPAA has run out of gas, and it’s time to either make some major changes to the system (that allow for voices other than the muted ones that currently serve on the MPAA board), or to destroy the system altogether.
But how do we do it? Studios are in control of the MPAA, and they like the control. But while theaters have a representative voice on the MPAA board, they are not in control of the MPAA. In fact, they have to suffer under its rule worse than anyone else.
So theaters … it’s time to strike. Tell the MPAA that you’re no longer following their system. Films with excessive violence and strong sexual content may mean parents have to accompany youngsters to see it, but other than that, the theaters will release to parents and other concerned movie-goers any questionable content that might be in a film, and then let the parents and movie-goers decide.
And if studios want to withhold new releases, let them. The more theaters that get together and oppose this, the more the studios will back off threatening to withhold new releases. I mean, seriously, the studios have more invested in the success of these films than the theaters do.
There has to be a way to convey the kind of content that someone might find in a particular film ahead of time, and some sort of ratings or notification system is necessary. But it must be a system that is open to outside observation, allow for a real appeals process, and treat every film fairly, whether it’s one of the big studios or not.
It’s time of the monopoly to end. It’s time for the MPAA, studios and movie theaters to join the rest of us here in the 21st century. Try it out. You might like it.