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How the MPAA really works. (Read this article!!)

 
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TheAngryJew
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 05, 2002 2:11 am    Post subject: How the MPAA really works. (Read this article!!) Reply with quote

I was directed to this article by the fine folks at Dark Horizons.

It starts out describing the troubles that Roger Avary has had with the MPAA regarding his latest flick The Rules of Attraction, and covers a whole LOT of fascinating MPAA stuff.

It's one of the best articles I've read in a while. Have a look:

http://www.calendarlive.com/printed...l=cl%2Dcalendar

Good stuff!
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 05, 2002 10:00 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I can't get the link to work.

-c
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 05, 2002 10:14 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

me either
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 05, 2002 12:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ratings Board, Studios Need Separate Beds

By PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Roger Avary, the 37-year-old director of the upcoming film "The Rules of Attraction," has spent a lot of time in the editing room lately, thanks to the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings board. Avary, best known as the co-writer of "Pulp Fiction," has submitted his film four times to the board. Each time it has come back rated NC-17--the kiss of death for a major release.

Avary sees "Rules," which is based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel and features such hot young actors as James Van Der Beek and Shannyn Sossamon, as a scabrous social satire about upper-crust college students who indulge in a veritable orgy of sex, drugs, drinking, suicide attempts and--did we mention sex already? In one deadpan sequence, one of the characters, played by Kip Pardue, narrates a home-video-style account of his summer vacation in Europe, where he recounts his sexual encounters with the same blase intonation that he uses to describe his visits to various fabled art museums.

Avary says the MPAA board was not amused. "They objected to his tone about sex being just as mundane as it was about the art museums. They've been trying to get me to cut out more and more of the sex, saying it was demeaning to women. It's gotten to the point where I would prefer outright censorship. It would be more fair than what I'm going through now."

With the MPAA, sex is always Topic A. On the surface, the MPAA's ratings system seems easy to understand, with its clearly marked R, PG-13, PG and G ratings for movies. But in reality, the MPAA operates a shadow rating system that can only be decoded by knowing Hollywood insiders. If your movie is full of gross-out jokes about flatulence and penis size--and is made by a major studio with scores of promotional partners--it can get a PG-13 rating. If your movie deals with sex from the point of view of smirky teenagers or sultry movie stars--and is made by a powerful studio with big marketing dollars--it can get an R rating.

But if your movie deals with sex in a frank or unsettling manner, as if it were actually close to reality--and it's being released by a tiny independent distributor--it is almost guaranteed to get an NC-17 rating, a rating that virtually kills any hope of your film being accepted by major theater chains and advertising buyers. That's what has happened to "The Rules of Attraction," which is distributed by Lions Gate, the company known for both its prestige films "Monster's Ball" and "Amores Perros" and such controversial pictures as "American Psycho" and "Dogma."

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, says the company plans to release "Rules" in October on as many as 1,500 screens. But to reach that many screens, the film will need an R rating. Movies that go out unrated, as "Y Tu Mama Tambien" did earlier this year, have difficulty being booked in more than about 400 theaters.

What rankles the indie film companies isn't just the MPAA ratings board's inscrutable judgment calls about sex, but what they see as a double standard in dealing with major studios and independents. The MPAA is an entity created and controlled by the major movie studios. The independent companies are not members; they pay a fee to participate in CARA, the MPAA-affiliated Classification and Ratings Administration organization that rates films and advertising material. When a company disputes a ruling by the ratings board, it goes before an appeals board made up almost exclusively of representatives from the major studios and theater chains.

"The MPAA is clearly stacked against us," says Ortenberg. "It's just laughable what they put us through. There's a wholly subjective set of rules and they are not equally applied."

Historically, studios have used their clout to get their way. In 1966, in the waning days of the Production Code, Warner Bros. avoided censorship of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" by arguing that the studio had "a lot of money invested" in the picture.

In 1970, two years after MPAA chief Jack Valenti essentially created the current ratings system, the steamy "Ryan's Daughter" got a PG after MGM chief James Aubrey argued that the studio needed the more lenient rating to survive. Testifying in 1977 before a congressional subcommittee (holding hearings on--surprise--the disparity in movie ratings between studios and independents), Valenti called the "Ryan's Daughter" ruling "one of the tarnishing marks of the rating system."

The MPAA is always under intense pressure from member studios to give films a PG-13 rating, which can mean untold millions in extra box-office revenues; the PG-13 rating itself came about as a way to deal with the violence in Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" without giving the movie a more restrictive R rating. The system's inherent inconsistency can be infuriating. Many parents were appalled that this summer's "Austin Powers" sequel had been rated PG-13, despite a nonstop barrage of toilet humor. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss described the rating as "sleazy," excoriating Hollywood for its "infectious greed," saying "the only thing dirtier than the gags in 'Goldmember' is the money that's made from them."

Valenti adamantly denies the charges that the ratings board favors studio releases. "That's patently a canard," he said phoning Friday from the Venice Film Festival.

"We've heard complaints from the independents for nearly 34 years, but everyone complains equally. It all depends on whose ox is gored. When it comes to the rating of movies, Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch and Michael Eisner have no more power than the lowest intern at Lions Gate."

Valenti insists that CARA operates independently from the MPAA, although he acts as spokesman for both entities and was responsible for hiring Joan Graves, who heads the board. He also says that independents are welcome to join the MPAA and have been members in the past, though he acknowledged that member dues, which can run in the millions, could limit membership to deep-pocketed studio conglomerates

The rating system was started to fend off church-related organizations from rating films themselves, which often led to community bans. But the ratings board has become the worst kind of censor itself, exercising its own subjective, often maddeningly capricious opinions. This is especially true of the board's decisions involving sexual content.

"Femme Fatale," a stylish Brian De Palma thriller that's being released in November by Warners, has received an R rating, despite the presence of female frontal nudity and an explicit sex scene between stars Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. Yet when tiny IFC Films took "Y Tu Mama Tambien" before the ratings board, it got an NC-17 because of a similarly explicit sex scene. Because its masturbation scene was played for laughs, "American Pie" got an R, while "Rules" got an NC-17 for a more realistic masturbation scene.

"The MPAA absolutely has different standards for comic sexual suggestiveness and realistic sexuality," says Bob Berney, who headed IFC's distribution wing when the company released "Y Tu Mama Tambien." "It's always about the tone. With 'Y Tu Mama,' they basically said, 'You can have sex in the movie, but we don't like you having it for a long time.' "

Avary's biggest beef with the ratings board isn't just its inconsistency but the way its demands for trims distort the theme of his film. "This is a film about moral decadence, but if you take out the bad behavior, you rob the film of its message," he says. "I made the film because Hollywood teen movies lie about what it's like to be a teenager. What really disturbs the MPAA is that this film shows the truth."

The MPAA will never come out and say it, especially since their deliberations are as closely guarded as Dick Cheney's meetings with energy company lobbyists, but my guess is the ratings board (who are all parents) found many of the kids in "Rules" creepy and repellent. The horny boys in "American Pie" were so much more ... likable.

I guess it shouldn't come as a shock that members of the ratings board, like many Americans, are squeamish about sex unless it's played for laughs, as in "American Pie," or given a sleek, titillating sheen, as in thrillers like "Unfaithful" or "Femme Fatale." But it's time the board stopped punishing filmmakers for thinking seriously about sex.

If we can celebrate movies that deal frankly--and often graphically--with the horror of war or slavery or mental illness, then we should provide the same respect to artists who grapple with sex. If not, then the board should be honest enough to admit they'd really be happier if American movies were all as infantile as a Mike Myers or Adam Sandler comedy. At least then we'd have a refreshing dose of candor, not the corrosive kind of hypocrisy that has given today's rating system the moral heft of a feather boa.
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Alex Paquin
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 05, 2002 2:41 pm    Post subject: The MPAA Reply with quote

"Valenti insists that CARA operates independently from the MPAA"

Baloney. Valenti "invented" the film ratings system (in fact just plagiarizing what was done in England and elsewhere), and Valenti is head of the MPAA. The Classification and Rating Administration was the former Production Code Administration, and even under the Production Code, the MPAA would have always stuck by it, no matter what, until it was demonstrated the the Production Code was becoming derelict. As long as Valenti is there, the ratings system will be the law, until a new head of the MPAA has the clout (but none will have) to change the system.

Strange how some things never change. The MPAA is not a government agency, it is not a law-enforcing authority. But its ratings system is the last stronghold of its former power, the last justification of its raison d'etre. Otherwise, the MPAA would only be another industry-specific representative which would be limited to lobbying politicians behind closed doors and going to court whenever the interests of its members would be threatened. Over the years, the MPAA has maintained that the ratings system is the last bulwark against the return of censorship. Strange, however, that during the Production Code days, which amounted to a complete censorship of films, it used the same reasons to prevent city, state, or federal censorship -- city or state censorship would be costly to the MPPDA (as the MPAA was known until 1945) because of its varying criteria for censorship, and any kind of censorship by the government would be beyond the control of the industry itself except through the measures mentioned above. As a matter of fact, I can't avoid noticing how the MPAA is continually bending over backwards to prove to the government that the ratings system really works. Apparently, the MPAA still fears censorship, or a ratings mechanism it cannot control, even though any possible censorship mechanism has apparently been declawed by the courts since the 1950's, and that any ratings system, no matter by whom it is controlled, will still be met by the same criticism, or at least scepticism, as now.

Furthermore, the MPAA ratings system benefits from a disturbing unofficial, unacknowledged, extraterritorial recognition; take Canada, for instance. Of course, some provinces will pride themselves on having government ratings boards, but their decision is usually a rubberstamping affair; except with a few conservative boards (Ontario, for instance) what the MPAA already did is adapted without so much as raising a question over its validity. Furthermore, the advertising of films remains the same (i.e. with the MPAA rating) regardless of the rating of provincial boards.

Too many people tend to forget that the MPAA is an industry organization, a lobby group, nothing more, and should NOT be anything more (what if gun control was left to the NRA?). When the MPAA uses the argument that it maintains the ratings system in the interest of the public, it amounts to Richard Nixon saying he is not a crook. What the MPAA is chiefly concerned about is its own interest, and through it, the interest of its members. Obviously a studio which is not a member of the MPAA cannot expect it to defend its position. Unless the MPAA thinks about the film industry at large (notwithstanding MPAA membership), or has devised a long-term strategy allowing small studios to grow so they can become MPAA members in the future (would the MPAA gamble on that?), nobody can be defended by the MPAA without being a member. This double standard should have meant the end of the MPAA-administrated ratings system, but it has not.

Even the mighty Code was flouted a number of times. In the 1950's, United Artists released a few films, which became major box office successes, without the Production Code Administration's seal of approval, and even voluntarily left the MPAA for a while. I don't believe a major studio with a major release would dare to do that nowadays. Similarly, the NC-17 rating, and its notorious predecessor, the X-rating, were not always sure signs of box office failure (the most oft-mentioned example -- perhaps as the exception that proves the rule -- is the X-rated "Midnight Cowboy", a film with popular and critical recognition, not to mention the Oscar for Best Picture in 1969). Why should it be today? Is society more conservative today than it was thirty years ago, or fifty years ago for that matter? Not sure. Maybe, but don't bet your life's savings on this. If the NC-17 rating is so much of a "kiss of death" for the industry today, it can only mean two things:
1) A subtle form of censorship is still around; be too daring and your film will certainly flop is the message sent to the studios. The intent to censor might be there (I suspect it is), but it has proved ineffective, since those films have regularly found a way to reach their audience.
2) Exhibitors and other media -- and those who control them --hold too much sway in the movie business.

Yes, the studios and the ratings boards that deserve separate beds, but it is really the studios and the exhibitors which should be kept separate. Apparently, the old Supreme Court decision against Paramount in 1948 has been reversed in practice, and the ratings system has been allowed to survive for so long not because of its support at the upper echelons of the movie business, but at the lower echelons, unless of course we are back with a vertical model of integration with the studios owning the theatres, just as in the pre-1948 days. Evidence shows we are.

Does the MPAA hold so much power in the industry that it now behaves like the Godfather of the film industry? Most probably.

I hope I have made a cogent argument, since I am writing in a hurry before going to a course.


Last edited by Alex Paquin on Fri Sep 06, 2002 1:11 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 05, 2002 3:06 pm    Post subject: Your argument is indeed cogent. Reply with quote

But what it comes down to is that it makes no sense at all to censor yourself to avoid the possibility that maybe others might censor you. Sometime. Maybe.

The argument that the MPAA treats comedic sexuality as lighter than realistic is completely refuted when you look at Orgazmo. No frontal nudity, a couple of shots of people's backsides (not attractive people at that), and the MPAA slapped an NC-17 on it. Why? It was a comedy! It featured precious little nudity, not any more bad language than any other R rated flick...

But yes, an NC-17 is the kiss of death. Why? Because Blockbuster runs the video rental industry and refuses to stock NC-17 movies. Try finding Requiem for a Dream at Blockbuster. No chance at all, but you can get Showgirls, or any Halloween gorefest with no problem. Was Requiem for a Dream a studio flick? Oh no sir, it was not. Was Showgirls? Sure was...

So how do we defang the MPAA? Well, we lobby to have Blockbuster broken up for starters. It's clearly holding too large a chunk of the video rental industry, to the point where the theatrical rights to some movies, like Heath Ledger's Two Hands, are purchased by Blockbuster and then never used, simply so they can claim a video exclusive. That's anti-competitive behvior in the extreme, and I could cite another four or five such instances of Blockbuster using their clout to the detriment of the film industry. If Blockbuster lost it's anti-NC-17 standing, Avery's movie could be released with the NC-17 intact and the only concern would be a small dip in the number of screens that could take it theatrically. Anyone in the business will tell you that the theatrical run isn't the be all and end all, that many movies do far better on video (Austin Powers 1 bombed in it's theater run but raked it in on video, beginning the franchise as we know it).

Heck, Blockbuster is blatant in it's law-breaking too. You've surely seen those bins of ex-rental movies out the front of your local Blockbuster - movies still on the new release shelves being sold for $6.99 - but this is illegal! You can read it right on the box, this tape must not be sold, copied, re-hired, etc. 20th Century Fox isn't maing anything on these sales, and they're surely damaging not only to the new release rental take (which the disribs get a part of), but also to the retail sell-through figures.

So why doesn't 20th Century Fox slap a lawsuit on Blockbuster's ass? Because if they did, Blockbuster would not stock any Fox product and Fox would lose about 40% of their revenue stream for filmed product - Blockbuster would barely feel a pinch.

Another way around this morass is to embrace downloaded movies. I'm not talking pirated stuff (though that's nice too), I'm talking movies made and put online for distribution because nobody will screen them in theaters. There's loads of them around, and all it will take is one 'napster-like' site to get them all together and market them properly, and suddenly anyone with a camera will be able to make whatever god damn movie they want to make and go around the official channels, Steven King-style, as we watch the studios burn.

I give it two years.
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 06, 2002 12:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"But what it comes down to is that it makes no sense at all to censor yourself to avoid the possibility that maybe others might censor you. Sometime. Maybe. "

I agree that it hardly makes sense, although historically, fear of government censorship was one of the reasons which prompted the rigid adoption of the Production Code in 1934. The industry's fear was that the FDR administration would not hesitate to censor films (or that the Catholic Legion of Decency would urge a boycott of "offensive" films), and the fact that the head of the MPPDA was Will Hays (a well-known Republican) didn't help things either.

By keeping under control any tools of "censorship", the MPAA is basically granting itself the possibility of circumventing it whenever it turns out to be convenient. I am certain that under a government administration (especially a Republican one, I suspect), more than a few PG-13-rated films would find themselves rated R, and again, several R-rated films would be labeled NC-17. Whoever controls the system, however, will be faced with filmmakers who don't give a damn about artistic integrity if the possibility of getting a lower rating is at stake. The MPAA's ratings system, because it is controlled "in-house", so to speak, offers flexibility and pressure possibilities that would be nonexistent in a government-run rating program, and maintains a fragile but undeniable barrier between the film industry and government-administrated out-and-out censorship designed to appease the electorally useful Christian Right.

About Blockbuster: I know it exists (who doesn't?) but I never go there, chiefly because none is situated close to where I live, and if I really, really like a film (which for example I saw on TV), I'll generally choose to buy it. And since my interest is in older films, Blockbuster, even though it offers a vast selection of movies, does not exactly cater to my tastes (which is why I often have to buy some films from the few retailers who carry them -- the few video rental outlets specializing in older films or cultural items in general are located so far from home that it's not exactly convenient to go there), so I'll stay away from Blockbuster.

I agree with you that Blockbuster is playing the Disney card of providing "clean" entertainment for the average Joe who only wants to see large explosions and no potentially artistic, potentially morally objectionable content, and I suspect that they are making so much profit that they really can't be blamed (from an economic viewpoint) for having taken the decision to emphasize the "mainstream" stuff. I agree it's unfortunate, but every bit of it was as predictable as, say, "Blue Crush". The company's policy, however, wouldn't hold if the demand for such films was such that Blockbuster would feel that business opportunities are being lost because of the said policy. Has the issue of banning NC-17 films (or films available only in widescreen on DVD) from ever appearing on a Blockbuster shelf led to a critical uproar among the masses Blockbuster is targeting? Not that I know of. Of course, in some circles, this is denounced, but who outside of these circles has felt any outrage because of Blockbuster's decision? Roger Ebert might say whatever he wants about Blockbuster, only people who read him know about his positions. And most of them, I suppose, don't really care -- we all know that critics have very little influence outside their own circles of faithful readers. I suspect that without any NC-17 rating, or better yet, without any ratings system, the word would be spread quite quickly regarding those films which would normally have been rated NC-17 -- the word would be spread not by critics, but by traditional word of mouth -- and I am convinced that the masses would just stay away, just as they do now. Blockbuster's decision is unfortunate, and in many ways, condescending in its evaluation of what the people want -- panem et circenses -- but, after close analysis, and from a strictly business viewpoint, Blockbuster is right. People don't like "perverse" stuff or those annoying black bars, even though full-screen ruins the cinematography.

I agree with you regarding the dubious practices of Blockbuster regarding "exclusive" rights not used (I have read the same case about Miramax and foreign films), and I do not deny the Blockbuster factor in the argument. Home video is indeed one problem linked with the issue of film ratings. But it is not limited to it. Some of the concerns that have been raised were around when the only form of "home video" you could have was a 16 mm print of the film. The erratic application of the MPAA's standards was present even before. In 1939, the word "damn", usually prohibited by the Production Code, was exceptionally accepted in "Gone With the Wind" ("Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn") because, it was said, of the budget of the production and in the name of artistic integrity (!). Any system of ratings and/or censorship is bound to be erratic at best, biased at worst. As for "artistic integrity", as far as Hollywood is concerned, it died long before reaching the ratings board; to take it into consideration when discussing the MPAA ratings system seems to me like flogging a dead horse.
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PostPosted: Tue Sep 17, 2002 6:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I fucking hate the MPAA. They slap heavy ratings on movies just because they feature some words nobody under 17 has ever heard, some body parts nobody under 17 has ever seen, and some situations nobody under 17 knows about.
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