Home > Editorial > The MPAA, the NC-17 Rating, and Me: Part III

The MPAA, the NC-17 Rating, and Me: Part III

Shame Hungarian PosterIn 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:

Transformers Dark of the Moon Poster LTBX

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 Kings Speech Rush Firth LTBX

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.

Shame Michael Fassbender LTBX

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.

Who knows.

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.

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  1. June 2, 2013 at 15:29

    All due respect, but there are all kinds of problems with the ratings system you don’t bring up.

    First, let’s talk about the sex vs. violence aspect. You mention that we’re exposed to violence at a certain age in the media when we’re not exposed to sexual matters. One, that’s no longer as true, with the sexualization of certain performers these days (Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, and so on). Second, however, even with that, we don’t talk about sex in general, not just in the media (with the push for abstinence-only teachings in school, for example), and just because we aren’t exposed to matters sexual, or at least we don’t talk about them, doesn’t, in any way, mean that we shouldn’t. Third, the hypocrisy isn’t just having to do with the movies that show violence having an easier time with the MPAA than those that show sex, it’s the way sex can be shown. Rape? An R, no matter how graphic. But pleasurable, consensual sex? Depending on how graphic you get, that can mean an NC-17 rating. And that’s not even talking about sex between gay people, women or men. BOYS DON’T CRY, for example, almost received an NC-17 rating not because of its violence, but because of its sexual scenes, which were consensual between the characters. So do you think, for example, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR will be frowned on more by the MPAA for its sex scenes, or for the fact they take place between two women? (Imagine the outcry if it had been two men)

    Second, there’s one major difference between TRANSFORMERS and SHAME that you don’t address at all. TRANSFORMERS was made by a major studio, while SHAME was distributed by Fox Searchlight (which, while backed by major studio 20th Century Fox, is still an independent studio in that they have less resources). It is a known fact major studio movies have an easier time with the MPAA than independent movies, no matter how often the MPAA denies it. Do you think, for example, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and the Bourne movies (all of which I happen to love, by the way; the latter except for BOURNE LEGACY, the last one) would have received a PG-13 rating if they had been released by an independent studio? Probably not. The MPAA knows which side of its bread is buttered, and the fact they give indie movies a harder time is simply hypocritical.

    Third, let’s talk about the Walmart issue for a bit. When you have multiple avenues of obtaining art, be it books, movies, music, and so on, it may not seem to matter if one of those avenues – like, for example, an independent bookstore – refused to carry something. But when it’s a large chain that has pushed those independent avenues out of business, as Walmart has, and they’re the only game in town as far as that goes, as Walmart is in many areas (we can’t only live in a major city), and they refuse to carry something, as Walmart does in your example, then yes, it’s pretty important. Yes, it’s true with the advent of Amazon and other online outlets, that’s no longer as important, but that’s only the financial argument. The philosophical argument is even more important; yes, I believe no government, government agency, or corporation, should be able to censor. If one corporation, government, or government agency is able to censor in one instance, that makes it easier to do so later because there’s precedence.

    Fourth, you seem to think the major issue in this is whether “the children” have access. That again is a simplistic argument. The fact is, it’s whether *anyone* has access. If a movie gets tagged with an NC-17 rating, most theaters, and theater chains, won’t book it, most newspapers, magazines and TV stations won’t advertise it (I’m not as familiar about Internet advertising, though I do concede You Tube provides free advertising in that sense, but that can always change), and when it comes out on DVD, libraries (for those who can’t afford video stores or Netflix or so on) won’t carry it, and it won’t show up on TV except on some stations (like IFC or the Sundance channel, say). You call that a “pact” a filmmaker makes when he chooses to make an “artistic” or “commercial” film; I call it sad, and infuriating, a filmmaker has to make that kind of “pact” at all. Free speech isn’t free when the access is restricted. But if you want to talk about “the children”, let’s talk about the documentary BULLY. Whatever its merits as a film – I personally thought it was more well-meaning than artistically successful – it’s a film designed to get kids of a certain age group (7th grade and up in particular) talking seriously about bullying, and to get schools and groups concerned about bullying to show the film to kids of that age. When it was rated R, that meant its very target audience wouldn’t be able to see it unrestricted, and that schools couldn’t show it as a teaching tool. That’s sad.

    Finally, and please correct me if I’m wrong about this, but the whole tone of your arguments seems to suggest there is little, if any, artistic value in any depictions of sex or profanity on-screen. Let’s talk about THE KING’S SPEECH for a minute, and specifically the scene that earned the movie its R rating; the swearing scene. The whole point of that scene is not to say, “Ooh, look, the King of England used the f-word!” (and those who do see that as the point are missing the point); the point is Geoffrey Rush is trying to get Colin Firth’s character to be able to talk to his brother without stammering, and realizing he can talk without stammering when he’s angry and swearing. Without that scene, or if that scene is watered down, the movie doesn’t make sense, or isn’t as powerful (despite the fact the scene is essentially supposed to be funny – and it is – it is also serious). I guess the whole point with all of these arguments is you seem to see the whole NC-17 argument (which I don’t deny SHAME deserved, and probably BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR does as well) as merely a commercial one, whereas I see it as a philosophical, and yes, artistic one. And the way the MPAA looks at this argument in the first place is deeply flawed, as it has been for at least the past 30 years or so.

    • June 2, 2013 at 20:49

      Sean: First, thanks for taking the time to read the series. That means a lot to me. Second, thanks for the detailed response. I love this sort of thing, no matter how much I agree (or not) with the respondent. Now, to your points:

      You make a good point about the sexualization of performers today versus when I was a kid, but I would argue that the level of violence to which children are exposed today is exponentially greater than in the old cartoon days (MMA, Call of Duty, etc.), suggesting that violence is still something that we have a greater desensitization towards than sex. And even if the introduction of easy access to sex (via the internet and PPV) makes the access to sex and violence close enough to call it a draw, over a long period of time, society has been exposed to violence far more than to sex (right or wrong).

      To your second point on sex, you are right, we should be talking about it, and regularly; but the reality is we don’t, and that’s the environment we exist in today. It’s like the gun debate. Are changes needed? Yes. But until such time that change occurs, we have to deal with the reality of the environment in which we exist, no matter how wrong it is.
      I’m dubious of your statement, however, that a rape scene will get an R-rating, “… no matter how graphic,” only because I tend to think that if a rape scene showed actual penetration, it would not get an R-rating. Do you have specific examples to support this?

      The difficulty in agreeing with your assertion that homosexual sex acts are treated differently than heterosexual acts is that you offer nothing to support they are actually treated differently. Were the BOYS DON’T CRY scenes simply too steamy, regardless of the genders of the participants? And I can just as quickly point to BLACK SWAN and its steamy same-sex scene and say, “Hey, that got an R, so it’s not like it’s an anti-gay thing with the MPAA.” I’m not saying it isn’t a thing, Sean; I’m just saying that there is a burden of proof.

      Your “major studios versus independent studios” argument is interesting, but just as you think there are things I don’t cover with the TRANSFORMERS vs. SHAME argument, I think there are things you don’t cover here. For starters, you cannot dismiss the fact that Fox and Fox Searchlight are related simply to make a point. They are related, period, and if you are going to accuse the MPAA of kowtowing to Fox, then they kowtow to all of Fox, not just the big pat of it. (For the record, that R-rated BLACK SWAN? That was a Fox Searchlight film.) Second, major studios are primarily about commerce and indies are primarily about art, so of course a major studio is going to produce what it thinks is most popular because it wants to sell the most tickets. SHAME is not that kind of film, no matter what the rating. So to suggest that majors get more leeway than indies is to suggest that majors and indies are making the same types of films, and they aren’t. That’s not to say that majors don’t take hits in the ratings department, either. CASINO, with its major studio (Universal) and its major stars and its major director, got an NC-17 for violence (not sex). So it happens. I just think it APPEARS to happen more with indies because of the types of films indies make versus the majors.

      I presume your BATMAN and BOURNE examples were examples of violence that you think indies would have been popped for, but not majors. I don’t recall any sort of violence in any of those films (although I’ve only seen the first two BOURNE films) that made me wonder why they weren’t R-rated. And this year’s EVIL DEAD, released by TriStar (a mid-major, perhaps?) and certainly not an art house film, got hit with an NC-17 for violence and had to be cut down (no pun intended). Again, it happens.

      With all due respect, your Walmart argument is preposterous. You argue that corporations should not be allowed to censor (lest precedent be established), yet you want to force a corporation carry a product. Is there a difference between those two things? And wouldn’t the latter actually be worse? And is it only as it relates to art? What if Walmart does not carry your favorite brand of breakfast cereal? Should they be made to carry that as well? You seem to want to tie censorship and Walmart’s retail dominance to the same argument, and it simply doesn’t work.

      What a lot of people tend to forget is that “freedom of speech” protects speech from being banned by the government, not by businesses. I work in Corporate America, and as part of my employment, I cannot publically disparage my employer. Is my speech censored? No. I am free to say what I want to say wherever I want to say it, but by the same token, my employer is free to terminate my employment at will if I disparage the firm. That’s how it works, and if you owned a company and one of your employees started bad-mouthing your company, I like to think you would want to do something to stop the employee from doing so.

      And since when do we let mom-and-pop bookstores off the hook for what you consider censorship, yet we hold a corporation’s feet to the fire for doing the same thing? That’s hypocrisy.

      To your fourth point (having access to a film, be it children or all of us), your argument ultimately suggests that all art should be free to all people, which would decimate the film industry because even something like SHAME has a financial component. But even if I look beyond this, while the NC-17 rating makes a film’s availability in a multiplex unlikely, it doesn’t just apply to NC-17 films. I don’t live in a big city, I live in suburbia, and I have five multiplexes within a 30-mile radius of my home. None of them screened STOKER, a film I had to drive 50 miles to see, which was rated R. And only one of those five multiplexes (and the furthest, of course) screened TRANCE and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. Oh, and it was the only theater to screen MUD, an excellent film that was rated … wait for it … PG-13. Don’t let your opposition to the ratings system fool you into thinking that just because a film gets a friendlier-than-NC-17 rating it is automatically guaranteed that the world will have unfettered access to it. Yes, an NC-17 makes it even more difficult, but it still comes down to how many tickets a theater thinks it can sell. In my part of the world, those five multiplexes represent 72 screens. One screen showed MUD.

      Is this censorship? If a theater decides not to show the near-family-friendly MUD, should it be made to, the way you think Walmart should be made to sell the less-than-family-friendly Playboy?

      My greatest concern with your fourth point, though, is the notion that because a film is rated NC-17, a library won’t carry it. I’ll forego yet another Walmart comparison only because I’m interested to know if that same library also refuses to carry the book TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. You see my point, I’m sure. If your local library won’t carry an NC-17 rated film, you have bigger issues than the MPAA.

      As for your BULLY argument, two points: first, with its R-rating, children could still see the movie if their parents would take them. Don’t blame the MPAA, blame the parents. This is the same group of people who don’t want to talk about sex with their children. Second, if it was so important to Harvey Weinstein that every one of America’s 62MM kids under the age of 15 had access to the film (ratings be damned) as he made his position out to be, why didn’t he simply offer it on the Internet for free? Why did he rally the likes of politicians and Johnny Depp and others to go public with the cause? Because turning it into a social issue = free publicity = more tickets sold. And offering it for free is what you want with art, yes?

      The intent of the series was to look at the ratings system as a whole – artistically and commercially – and illustrate that the system isn’t as cut-and-dried as people make it out to be, and that for as often as people think there are artistic “victims” of the ratings system, there are also people who gladly thrive financially within the system’s construct, be it Bay or Weinstein (something most folks don’t consider), and that, ultimately, the system works. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t exist. If you think the major studios have that much influence over the MPAA as to garner “better” ratings, then surely those same studios have enough clout to do away with the ratings system as a whole.

      In closing, I’ll ask you a question about something that I posed in the first installment: what’s the alternative? If you think the system is so flawed as to be more harmful than helpful, what’s your solution?

      I wasn’t kidding when I wrote that I’ve been considering this for years – not around the clock, of course, but off-and-on pondering for years, and I have yet to come up with something better than what we have today (and the answer might be that I’m just not clever enough to devise a way, but at least I’m thinking about it). And I never suggest that the system is perfect. But if something has been in place for as long as the ratings system has been, with so few changes, at its core I think it works. For me, I’ve never used the ratings system for my own viewing purposes; nothing really offends me to that degree (and while I don’t like gory movies, I don’t really need a ratings system to keep me away from that; the trailers pretty much clue me in). However, I do have two kids, and I use the ratings system as a quick reference as to whether or not I should research the film further via the Internet (which I do regularly), mostly for R-rated fare. That was the point when I mentioned that most parents have neither the time nor the resources to screen a movie first before letting their kids see it. Something needs to be in place, and what we have is, indeed, the devil we know.

  2. June 4, 2013 at 00:52

    Michael: and thank you for the detailed response.

    Have you seen the documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED? It talks about a lot of the things I bring up, including the argument I made about gay sex getting a harder time. As much as I loved BLACK SWAN (it was #3 on my top 10 list for that year), there is a huge difference between the sex scene in that movie and the one in BOYS DON’T CRY (aside from the fact, you know, that the scene in BLACK SWAN is most likely only happening in Natalie Portman’s character’s imagination, and that she’s really pleasuring herself). The primary purpose of the scene in BLACK SWAN is titillation, which the MPAA doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with, whereas the scene in BOYS DON’T CRY is a more straightforward scene of lesbian sex, and that is something I submit the MPAA does have a problem with. Now, with the acceptance of gays being more prevalent in our culture nowadays, it’s possible the way the MPAA thinks on this will change, but I’m not terribly optimistic.

    The “majors vs. indies” argument is, with all due respect, kind of simplistic, I think. There are indie films that pretty much resemble studio films of even 10-15 years ago that want nothing more but to entertain (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK being a good example), while there have been studio movies that actually have been striving for art (I seem to remember I liked ZERO DARK THIRTY more than you, but that was a major studio film – Columbia released it – and that, to me, was the most artful film of last year). But more importantly, the implication you seem to be making – and again, please correct me if I’m wrong in my assumption here – is that if you’re trying to make art, you should be punished by tougher standards, and I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s right. And again, THIS FILM IS NOT RATED covers this argument as well.

    I don’t think “mom and pop” stores should be let off the hook for censorship. It was mom and pop stores – along with the government – that, for example, were censoring things like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” back in the day, and I think they were wrong to do so. But they never had the reach of someone like Walmart. And the reason why I do think corporate censorship is just as pernicious, and wrong, as government censorship is an artist has to eat (I’ll have more on the financial argument you made below), and if a corporation is cutting off access to an artist’s source of income simply because they’re “offended” by it, yes, I do think there’s something wrong with that. And to compare art to breakfast cereal is simply wrong. Breakfast cereal is only utilitarian; if feeds your stomach, not your soul, which art (on its better days) does.

    If I implied all art should be free, that was a total mistake. I don’t think all art should be free. I *do* think, however, people should have access to pay for it. And yes, I’m aware non-mainstream (a more meaningful term these days, I think, than “indie”) films of all kinds, and given all kinds of ratings, aren’t well-distributed beyond the big cities; I’m reminded of Carol Ballard’s PG-rated family film DUMA of several years ago, which wouldn’t have been given much of a release except for the support of critics like Roger Ebert, and even then, it was a limited release (particularly sad when you hear from those who complain about the lack of good family films). But at least DUMA (and MUD, and THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, and TRANCE) can advertise themselves, which will get people in the those theaters, which will encourage people who run those theaters to (a) keep the movie playing for a longer period of time, space permitting (that is, if they don’t have something booked to take its place soon), and (b) encourage them to book more films like those. Again, the lack of advertising by newspapers, TV and the like for SHAME means people won’t know about it playing at that theater, so not as many people will go, and the theater owners won’t readily seek those films out. So it’s sort of a vicious circle.

    As far as BULLY goes, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; Harvey Weinstein is an ass, and I have no problem believing he’s more interested in self-promotion than anything else. It doesn’t make the MPAA right about BULLY (you’ve heard the Fitzgerald quote about holding two opposing ideas in your head at the same time?). And yes, I’m agree that library would probably censor “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Doesn’t make them right.

    Finally, there comes the question of the MPAA in general. You seem the think the MPAA is under battle with the studios. No, they aren’t. The studios may battle with the MPAA on certain films, but they want the MPAA in place right where they are. There are several reasons for this (Thomas Doherty’s “Hollywood’s Censor” and Mark Harris’ “Pictures at a Revolution” are two good books to start with to go in more detail), but here’s a summing up; first of all, the MPAA is the main too the studios use to both combat piracy and to lobby Congress for laws that are friendly to the studios, and second, the MPAA is there so the studios can say to the government, as well as to any groups that complain about content, “Hey, look, we can police ourselves.” As with the Production Code that ran from about 1934 till it eventually ran out of steam in 1966, the MPAA is in place so the government on any level (federal, state or local) doesn’t move in and start censoring the movies themselves. The studios don’t want that (to be fair, I don’t want that either), so, again, they want the MPAA right where they are. That is why the system is in place. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it “works”, and like I said, I don’t think it does. What would be the alternative? Well, if we must have a ratings system, I lived in Canada for over a decade, and the one they have makes more sense; G and PG are about the same, but they have something called AA (no one under 14 can get into the movie without being accompanied by an adult), and R (no one under 18 can get in, period). You can quibble about what age to set the AA rating at, but that would replace PG-13, be more effective, I think (and, for example, kids of that age group would get to see BULLY), and more importantly, since the R rating is already accepted, having it be a film that only adults could get to see would remove the stigma NC-17 has (don’t forget it was replacing the original rating with all the stigma, the X rating). Or you could do what Roger Ebert proposed; have an “A” rating for movies that are meant to be seen only by adults. That, I submit, makes much more sense than what’s in place today.

    Okay, sorry, one last thing; you mention parents not having the time or the resources. Again, all due respect – I admit I’m not a parent – but in this day and age, I can buy the time argument, but not the resources. There are more reviews than ever before, there are more websites than ever before, and all of those will tell you about the content of the movie, and probably more accurately, than the ratings system does (seriously; isn’t “thematic content” one of the vaguest terms you’ve ever heard?).

    • June 10, 2013 at 14:23

      Sean: I haven’t debated this much since I wrote about politics and social issues many years ago under a different nom de blog. 8 )

      I’ve not seen THIS FILM (although I’ve wanted to), so I can’t speak to it or its content. However, even if the suggestion that SWAN’s content was titillating but CRY’s content was straight-forward, I’ll again point to the fact that plenty of films – SHAME being one – have been dinged for straight-forward, non-titillating heterosexual sex scenes. If THIS FILM cites statistics that suggest the MPAA judges same-sex scenes harsher (although differentiating between titillation gets into even grayer territory, as one man’s straight-forward is another’s, well, you know), I’ll concede the point and hope that the MPAA follows suit with how the rest of society seems to be thankfully gravitating towards broad acceptance of same-sex relationships.

      Your previous majors vs. indies point suggested that Fox Searchlight is treated differently than Fox, and I disagree with that; Fox is Fox. Now you make this SLP/ZDT comparison which suggests that the line between the two is blurred. So which is it – indies are treated differently than studios or it’s hard to tell them apart? And my argument has never been that anyone should be punished. Where did you get that? My argument is that filmmakers understand the rules that are in place (whether those are right or wrong is a different debate) and they make decisions within the construct of those rules. It’s no different than a filmmaker deciding between R and PG13 – the filmmaker understands there is a financial impact for making a movie rated the former (Harvey knew this with SPEECH, which is why he cut it for rerelease).

      Your next point sounds more like an anti-corporation screed than an argument about censorship. A business decision isn’t censorship, regardless of the reason why the decision is made. If a corporation thinks it can’t make money from a product (art or otherwise), or if it considers the product offensive and is opposed to it, it won’t carry it, period. That’s the company’s right. And don’t let your judgment be clouded by the monolith of Walmart, for two reasons. (A): In my town where Walmart does business, I also have three grocery stores (Giant, Acme, Food Lion) and two drug stores (Walgreen’s and Rite-Aid) and none of them carry Playboy either. Should they all be made to? You suggest it does, but you never came right out and said that yes, corporations should be forced to sell art even if they don’t want to. (B) In a small town, where there is no Walmart and only a mom-and-pop place (as my town used to be), and that mom-and-pop place frowns on Mr. Hefner, then that mom-and-pop place has the exact same impact on its community that Walmart does: 100% of the town’s population is negatively (by your definition) affected. Yes, the head-count might be smaller, but the percentage is no different.

      As for the notion that “an artist has to eat,” Sean … what is that? Are you suggesting that Corporate America be made to feed ALL starving artists? The life of an artist is no secret. Artists have starved for years. What if the artist is trying to sell paintings to Walmart to sell in their stores? Should Walmart be made to do that too? Because the artist has to eat? For centuries, and long before the notion of corporations, the world has been about commerce, whether its trade is in dollars or gold or chickens or bags of salt or some form of barter. You work to get paid in a form of currency and you use that currency to procure other things. If you choose to be an artist, you choose to make less than the farmer or businessman, and the farmer and businessman owe nothing to you in terms of feeding you.

      I’m not familiar with DUMA, and as much as I agree with you that it would be great if the MUDs of the world caught on in the scenario you suggest, the truth is that there have been MUDs and TRANCEs for decades, and they’ve never gotten the play the big releases have gotten because of money. Exhibitors can sell more tickets (which equals more concessions, their real money-maker) to a blockbuster than to a non-mainstream film. Just this weekend I had to drive 55 miles (!) to see FRANCES HA. The 72 screens within 25 miles of me weren’t screening it, and I had to go to a small theater on (essentially) a college campus. And the number of people there? About three dozen. It isn’t censorship, it isn’t punishment, it’s supply and demand. If the tiny theater in Bryn Mawr was packing them in on a routine basis, chains would take notice and line up. A cineplex cannot afford to have an auditorium 80% empty on a Sunday afternoon. It stinks to high heaven, and I’m luckier than some because 55 miles might be closer than options they have, but still. My $7 matinee turned into an additional $20 in gas and tolls, plus the investment of adding another hour-plus to my schedule. Did I like having to go to that extreme? No. But that doesn’t mean HA was being censored and it has nothing to do with fair play of any kind. As I’ve said often online, “I traded culture for a McMansion.” Just as the artist must live with his decision or make a change, so too must I.

      I’m glad we agree about Harvey. 8 ) Was the MPAA right? Again, it’s about the rules in place. If they’ve given an R to other films (with no redeeming social benefit) for the same reason, then at least they are consistent. If they treated BULLY differently (for whatever reason) then there is an issue. Still I ask, if the overall message of the film was so important, why not do anything to get it to kids – why not bleep it, or edit it, or even assemble a field trip and get permission slips signed? (And again I ask … where are the parents in this? Why are they not taken to task? The film was an R, not an NC17.) I just struggle with someone who says “kids can’t” when, yeah, they can. What do you think is more important, Sean: keeping foul language in a film to preserve an artist’s vision, or helping kids from getting the crap beat out of them? It’s a cheap-shot question, I admit, but it gets to the root of my point: if Harvey really believed in the issue, he would have stopped mugging for the camera and done something about it. God, Harvey could have released two versions and called the unedited version a director’s cut and thrown in some extras and raked in the dough so the artist wouldn’t starve.
      You are right and I agree: the studios only fight the MPAA on certain films (although I think the number is higher than realized because cutting an NC17-to-R gets much more press than cutting an R-to-PG13). And if the price the studios pay for having an industry ally allow the industry to police itself is the occasional dust-up, it sounds like it’s more the price of doing business than anything else (supporting my argument that filmmakers know the rules by which they must play). And I don’t think we’ll ever agree on whether or not it works because I think, on the whole, it does. If it didn’t, it would have gone through much more change over the last 40 years than it has.

      But your Canada argument really puzzles me. You say it makes more sense, and yet it doesn’t sound like it. They have four ratings: G, PG, AA, and R. You say, “G and PG are about the same” (I presume you mean in comparison to the US). Okay fine. Agreeing with you that the age can be adjusted, Canada’s AA sounds like US’s R: “no one under [age here] can get into the movie without being accompanied by an adult.” Then R = “no one under 18 can get in, period.” That’s the exact same thing as NC17. Other than eliminating PG13, you haven’t changed the ratings system, you’ve only changed the letter designations. What kind of change is that? It’s cosmetic. In fact, I would argue that it would create more confusion, only because it is redefining a rating that has been known by the masses for decades. As for Ebert’s solution, it’s no different than yours: Slap an “A” on it so that only adults can see it. Um, that’s EXACTLY what NC-17 does. If you put an “A” on SHAME instead of an NC17, the issue is still there.

      As for parenting, thank you for accepting the time argument (believe this father of two … it’s a real thing.) And you are right, there are more resources available than ever before. In fact, the one I use is called Common Sense Media, and it is ridiculously conservative, which is what I want – not because I’m conservative (I’m not), but because I know they will (and always do) tell me the number of F-bombs, and skin reveals, and sex scenes, and drug hits, in a movie. I look at it and say, “My kids can handle pretty much any language (except DJANGO language, if you catch my drift), and I don’t care about drug use or commercialism, but how gory is the violence and how gratuitous is the sex?” Then I make the call. But here’s the thing about that, Sean: I still use the MPAA ratings system to make the determination to go to CSM. If it’s rated R, I check it; otherwise, I typically don’t.

      I will ask you this, though: just as there are other resources – better resources – for ratings, couldn’t you say the same thing about art? If you want to use the Internet as the answer to the MPAA, you have to use it as the answer to Walmart … and if you argue about those who don’t have Internet access to buy their art, I’ll argue that those same people don’t have Internet access to finds better ratings, either.

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