SXSW: Why Sex Is Worse Than Violence & 9 Other Things We Learned About the MPAA

In light of the burgeoning controversy over how the reportedly ultra-violent "Evil Dead" remake, which screened for the first time on Friday night, managed to get away with an R rating, I decided to take a brief respite from the traditional SXSW day-drinking and hit up the convention center for an event called "This Panel Is Not Yet Rated". During the hour-long discussion, lots of myths about the Motion Picture Association of America's iron-fisted ratings system were debunked and / or explained by the MPAA's Classifications and Ratings head  Joan Graves, while opinions on how these ratings affect film were offered by Twitch Film's Scott Weinberg, director Vincenzo Natali and Cheap Thrills CEO Travis Stevens. Unfortunately, while "Evil Dead" was minimally discussed (Weinberg noted that he generally doesn't care what rating a horror film has, especially a new film, but if you're remaking "Evil Dead", you better make damn sure it has an R rating), Graves hasn't seen it so she couldn't speak to how the film managed to get away with avoiding an NC-17 (which in and of itself offers clues as to the internal workings of the MPAA). But fear not, plenty of interesting discussions were still had. Here are the 10 most fascinating things we learned.

1. Religious Organizations Do Not Participate in the Ratings Process

Graves clarified that when the MPAA was first created, religious organizations were up in arms, seeing it as the "fox guarding the hen house," but their outrage increased tenfold when an appeals board made up of exhibitors and distributors was formed. To placate them, the MPAA agreed to let two members of two organizations have observer seats on the board, so that they may witness the discussion and see for themselves that no one has any personal interest or nefarious intentions, but they may not participate in any way -- including so much as offering their opinions -- and certainly cannot vote.

Also check out: Our SXSW review of "Evil Dead"

2. Adult Themes Don't Cause R Ratings

When "Splice" was screened for the MPAA, Natali was concerned that he would receive an NC-17 because of what the film was about and the fact that, although it was filmed tastefully, there is an interspecies sex scene. Graves explained that theme/subject matter only plays a role up until PG-13, and from there it is only how that theme is articulated that may push it over the edge into R or NC-17. So as horrible as a a sex scene that manages to contain within it both incest and bestiality sounds, the fact that it exists only warrants a PG-13. Because of the context surrounding it and the tastefulness with which it was handled, the sex scene itself never entered into an NC-17 area.

3. Ratings Are Only For Parents - Unless Making Money Is An Issue

For indie filmmakers, they really couldn't care less about a rating. The film is only going to be in theaters in a limited release anyway, and will eventually find more success on home video. On the other hand, for huge movies intended to be on 3000 screens and make a lot of money, the difference between PG-13 and R is enormously pivotal, and often will play a role in the creative process. Graves reiterated many times that the board has 12 parents (6 moms and 6 dads), from all over the country, and the only goal is to give parents a guideline for what might be appropriate for their children. The system is "voluntary" -- if indie filmmakers aren't concerned about money or the parents/kids market, they can bypass the MPAA altogether and still get released and distributed by certain companies ( i.e. what Killer Joe did). Graves even pointed out that when they talked to NATO and polled theater chains about whether or not they would show NC-17 films, only one chain in the entire country said they would not.

4. Our Perception Of What Is Desensitizing Might be Skewed

Weinberg made a fantastic point in discussing film violence. Right now, hardcore visceral violence is most often rated R, while over the top and obviously faked violence with minimal graphic fallout (i.e. you see 75 guys get shot in a big action sequence, but not their tattered reamins) can get PG-13. Weinberg explained that to him, watching violence without consequences is a far more dangerous proposition than being exposed to an approximation of the blood that would actually be caused by a gunshot or sword fight. Perhaps the metrics that determine these ratings are in dire need of an overhaul.

5. "9 to 5" Ruined Everything

In 1980, "9 to 5" was released with a PG rating, despite a very memorable marijuana sequence. So many parents called the MPAA to complain, that it began a shift in the kinds and volumes of drug content that was considered appropriate for audiences under 18.

6. Each Region Has A Different Primary Concern

Graves mentioned that whenever a parent calls to complain, she asks which part of the country they are from and overwhelmingly found that the South complains most about language, the Midwest about sexuality and the coasts are especially up in arms about violence.

7. There's Actually a Reason Why Sex is More Harshly Rated than Violence

On one occasion when a parent called to complain about the sex in a movie, Graves asked: "But you aren't concerned about the violence in this movie?" The parent responded that she isn't worried about violence, she doesn't expect her kid to be violent, but she knows that sex is inevitable, and wants to be able to moderate the content to which her kid is exposed, and when.

8. You Only Get One "F**k"

You've heard correctly. If "F**k" is used as an expletive twice or more, the film in question automatically secures at least an R rating. If "F**k* is used sexually and / or as a verb -- even only once -- the film in question automatically secures an R rating. You only get one "F**k" if you're going for a PG-13, so use it wisely.

9. No, Titanic Didn't Get Away With a PG-13 Rating Because Of James Cameron

Graves knows exactly how the "Titanic" discussion went down and can vouch that only two members of the board (both men) wanted to give it an R rating for sexuality because of Kate Winslet's nude scene. They found it to be unnecessary and provocative, but the overwhelming majority of the board disagreed, and thus a PG-13 rating was given. She stressed that a filmmaker never influences the board in any way. But...

10. "Bully" Most Likely Got Away With One Because of Harvey Weinstein

Every year the board reviews 750-900 films. Of these, about 10 go to the appeals committee and of those 10, about 3 actually get overturned. When "Bully" received an R rating for its 12 instances of "F**k", Weinstein "seized an opportunity," launching an intense publicity campaign about how the movie deserved to be seen by the very youth who were not allowed to see it. The film was eventually recut, with many of the expletives ultimately being removed, but the cut that went to the appeals board still had more than the one the PG-13 rating allows. Yet, for whatever reason, a rule that has been around for decades was overridden and the recut film received a PG-13, all the same. Would it have happened without the world's eye on the MPAA's decision? I guess we'll never know.

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