The MPAA, the NC-17 Rating, and Me: Part III
In addition to winning this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour has (unintentionally) reignited the NC-17 discussion. This reminded of a three-part series I wrote in 2011, about the MPAA ratings system and its NC-17 rating, for Man I Love Films. The series was entitled The Scarlet Rating and it was inspired by the release and rating of director Steve McQueen’s Shame. For the last two days, I have republished Part I and Part II here, and today concludes the series. Once again, I am quick to remind readers that all of the text is the same as when it was originally published; only the images are different. Thanks for indulging me.
The Scarlet Rating, Part III: Kiss of Death or Suicide Pact?
Steve McQueen’s sexual addiction drama, Shame, was recently given a rating of NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
My original intent was to write specifically about the issuance of the NC-17 rating to Shame, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that this issue isn’t just about why Shame received an NC-17 rating.
The following is the final installment of a three-part look at how we perceive, and react to, the MPAA ratings system as a whole.
Previously, in PART I: THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, I addressed the ratings system itself, its flaws, and the challenges of designing something new.
Last week, in PART II: WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?, I examined why the MPAA ratings system bothers us in the first place.
This week, I want to look at how MPAA ratings influence the decisions of filmmakers.
But in order to do that, we should agree, regardless of what side we’re on (and based on the responses I’ve gotten, my side is pretty lonely), that the MPAA ratings system, for good or evil, is the system of record. We should also agree that everyone in the movie business, from mogul to production assistant, understands before the first time “Action!” is barked on-set, that the MPAA ratings system, for good or evil, is the system of record, and it sets the rules under which Hollywood plays.
Agreed? Begrudgingly, maybe? Very well, then.
There are three categories into which you can place a film: Commercial Movie, Artistic Film, and Hybrid Picture. And in every case, regardless of category, every director and his respective studio has a very good idea what rating their respective films will receive long before the MPAA looks at the films, and if you think they don’t (because of the subjectivity of the system), you’re kidding yourself. Consider the following examples:
The Commercial Movie: When Michael Bay set out to make Transformers: Dark of the Moon this year, his ultimate goal was to sell as many tickets as possible, and on his checklist, along with big robots, loud explosions, and vapid eye-candy, was this: PG-13. It was the rating he needed. If Bay had made an R-rated movie, he would have drawn a smaller crowd and made less money. And, while the ratings system is a subjective one, Bay knew, more or less, what he could get away with to secure his PG-13 rating. And if on the off-chance he had gotten an R-rating, a couple of quick celluloid snips would have brought him his PG-13.
The Artistic Film: When Steve McQueen set out to make Shame this year, his ultimate goal was to tell the story he wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell it. He had no preconceived rating requirement on his list. However, being an industry professional, McQueen had to have known, given the film’s explicit scenes, that getting an NC-17 was possible-to-likely. Fox Searchlight certainly knew it when they picked up the film for distribution.
The Hybrid Picture: When Tom Hooper set out to make The King’s Speech last year, his ultimate goal was to tell the story he wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell it, as long as the way he told it made money for The Weinstein Company. It’s the Weinstein model, as it was when brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein ran Mirimax: make sure the artistic pictures aren’t SO artistic as to alienate those who might affect the film’s bottom line, be they MPAA members, Academy members, ticket buyers, or all of the above. Hooper may or may not have had a rating requirement on his checklist, but when the MPAA made its ruling, it laid an R-rating on The King’s Speech, which prompted Harvey Weinstein to appeal the rating (which he lost) and ultimately edit the film down to a PG-13 for greater public consumption (post-Oscars, for the record, and against Hooper’s wishes).
These three films – films from near-immediate history – are those that I hold as examples for two ratings-based arguments – not about how the ratings system works within Hollywood, but rather, how Hollywood works within the ratings system.
First, I turn to those of you whom I earlier accused of kidding yourselves if you think Hollywood doesn’t already know to a great degree what rating their films will receive. They know. If they didn’t, Michael Bay wouldn’t have as easy a time making his Transformers movie – he understands his limitations. Plus, if it were THAT mysterious a process as to be completely unpredictable, this debate would rage every week, not just when the occasional NC-17 rating makes the news.
Second, I turn to those of you who think that artistic expression is somehow being repressed as a result of the ratings system. It isn’t. The minute a movie is altered to garner a lower rating, which in turn will garner greater ticket sales (or so the thinking goes), the issue is no longer about free speech – it’s about free trade. Fox Searchlight (with Shame) and The Weinstein Company (with The King’s Speech) were faced with similar choices: leave the director’s art untouched for the sake of artistic preservation, or alter the director’s art for the sake of making more money. Fox Searchlight went with Art. The Weinsteins went with Commerce.
Choices were made.
And therein lies what I think is the ultimate fallacy that an NC-17 rating (or a rating higher than desired) is the Kiss of Death for a film. It isn’t a Kiss of Death; it’s a Suicide Pact.
If you skew Artistic and take the higher rating like McQueen, there is no Kiss of Death because you wanted Art to begin with. However, you make a Commercial Suicide Pact – your film will play to a small audience and garner you critical praise, but in the process, you will have sacrificed mainstream success and its spoils.
If you skew Commercial and keep your film at (or edit it down to) a lesser rating like Bay, there is no Kiss of Death, because you wanted Commerce to begin with. However, you make the Artistic Suicide Pact – your film will play on more screens and in front of more eyes and make you more money, but in the process, you will have sacrificed things from any Artistic vision you had to the chance at being taken seriously as a filmmaker.
Maybe the position that Fox Searchlight has taken with Shame will mark the start of a new Evolution of how the ratings system should work. That could mean anything from overhauling the existing system to creating a brand new one. Or maybe the position that Fox Searchlight has taken with Shame will mark the start of a new Revolution against having films rated in the first place.
Or maybe this will be just another wrinkle in Hollywood’s timeline and we’ll go on debating for another 40+ years. THAT would be a shame.