Pondering a World Without the MPAA

Bouncing on the MPAA is a favorite hobby of movie bloggers and filmmakers throughout the country. An easy target for criticism, they operate in relative secrecy, employing a number of professional film raters (who are all supposed to be parents) who look at a film and award it a rating based upon its content. You know these ratings as G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. And in recent weeks, a number of high profile horror films have decided to circumvent the ratings board, releasing their films as UNRATED (ahem, after submitting several times a piece to the MPAA and receiving firm NC-17 ratings) and causing a stir in both the blogging and the film communities as a whole.

Which led a number of us to wonder “What would a world without the MPAA look like?”

And while it’s fun to day dream about a world in which you could make and release whatever kind of movie you want or, as a film lover, go out to the cinema and see whatever kind of movie you want, that’s not the world we live in. Nor could it be. Because if the MPAA didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. (Again.) That perfect world movie fanatics dream of? It not only needs to lack the MPAA; it needs to lack the religious groups that threaten theaters with boycotts for showing explicit films and newspapers and television stations for advertising them; it needs to lack filmmakers who push the boundaries of taste in deliberate attempts to offend; and it needs to lack profit motive, as the more extreme a film is, the narrower its audience is (except on the rare occasion that someone makes something SO SHOCKING that everyone has to see it.) But that’s not the world we live in.

The truth is that parents possess neither the time nor the resources to prescreen every film they show to their children -- so they need some kind of guide to let them know what’s safe. And in a world where artists and corporations are always pushing the envelope in order to titillate some cash out of your wallet, a world without a review board would be 1) a mix of the entertainment you have now and 2) some of the most extreme, sickest cinema you’ve ever seen.

Take for example the internet. It isn’t rated, and it is harder to avoid offensive content than it is to find it. I have watched a lot of unrated and NC-17 films in my lifetime. I can tell you firsthand that I have never, ever seen a single film rated such that didn’t deserve it. The two films making waves now, Hatchet 2 and I Spit on Your Grave,, are the purest example of adults only-horror entertainment that I’ve seen recently. Neither film deserved an R rating and I wouldn’t tell a single parent that either was okay for their child. What I have seen is a number of R rated films that should have been NC-17. This critique of the MPAA is valid, although almost always argued in the wrong direction.

In the film This Film is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick shows a number of films -- literally side by side -- showing an R-Rated example next to its almost identical NC-17 counterpart (from a different film). Dick’s argument (and the argument of every artist appearing in the picture) is that if one is rated R, the other should also be rated R. No one ever argues that the corporate influences of the studios is getting these films through and thus this practice should be stopped; they are arguing that they deserve the same pass the studios are getting.

In truth, the problem isn’t the MPAA and their ratings; it is the evangelical pressure groups holding the whole system hostage. These groups pressure the MPAA to stay honest, and get downright mean if too many offensive films squeak through with an R; they likewise pressure movie theaters and video stores from carrying NC-17 Rated films, and newspapers and television stations from advertising them. Are the artists upset about their films only being viewed by adults? Or are they upset that with an NC-17 rating, no one will be able to see their film (and, you know, actually make money.) The MPAA is just your every day governing body, torn between the overzealous fundamentalism of extremist religious groups and the movie studios that pay the MPAA’s bills and keep the lights on. If films like I Spit on Your Grave and Hatchet 2 get R ratings in place of NC-17, the religious groups will just go after R ratings, like they did NC-17. And the cycle will begin anew.