¬Are the MPAA’s classification of NC-17 films justified and what a film can do when given one?
Are the MPAA’s classification of NC-17 films justified and what a film can do when given one?
Presentation Script Ryan Madden
Projector: CU image of MPAA logo.
Presenter: For a long time in film, it has deemed that there should be restrictions. In America,
the MPAA has been here to provide such restrictions. The MPAA is a film classification board
and have been around since 1922.
Projector: CU image of NC-17 logo.
Presenter: The MPAA can ultimately, decide a films fate by what classification they give it. Any
rating but an NC-17 could be considered potential for success. However, if a film receives an NC-
17 rating, then it has a much more inevitable fate. Mark Kermode describes the rating as
“considered to be the commercial kiss of death”. In other words, if you’re film gets this rating;
you’re on the road to failure.
Projector: MS of ‘Requiem for a Dream’ poster, ‘Crash’ poster and ‘Blue Valentine’ poster – side
Presenter: Throughout this presentation I will be looking at the reasons a film can receive an
NC-17 rating, what they can do and whether they deserved it.
Projector: CU of ‘Requiem for a Dream’ poster.
Presenter: The first film I’m going to look at is ‘Requiem for a Dream’, by director Darren
Aronofsky. The plot follows four individuals who are each dealing with accelerating drug
addictions. This film was given an NC-17 almost immediately. When the rating was upheld upon
appeal, Artisan Entertainment decided to release the film without a rating. A CEO of Artisan
Entertainment stated “Artisan Entertainment will release 'Requiem for a Dream' unrated in
order to protect Darren's creative vision and to allow audiences to view the film as it was
originally intended". With the film now not branded with the rating that put audiences off,
Artisan felt this was the only way forward. The problem they faced now was what cinema’s
would show this film to audience’s, and how would they market it.What the reality of the matter
was however was that an unrated film is ignored just as much as an NC-17 film is. When the
public see a film that is unrated, there are questions raised to them. Why is it not rated? Is it too
extreme? Is it suitable? Ultimately to a filmgoer looking for entertainment and escapism, there
aren’t many good points raised from the certificate. The film could not advertise via TV spots or
newspaper ads or general movie trailers at the local cinema. And most mainstream cinema
chains would not show a film withoutany rating. When a film is released unrated, technically it’s
because the MPAA haven’t reviewed it. This could range from a children’s animation to an
explicit gore fest. If the cinemas are not given any age guidelines to the film, then neither are the
audiences, and mainstreams won’t put out a film in which they know no mainstream audiences
will see because of this. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners,
stated that Cinemark have opted not to show any unrated films “because they want to respect
the rating system and encourage filmmakers to use the rating system”. In its opening weekend,
it was primarily only released on two screens domestically. By week two it had been moved into
five screens. On average, two weeks at those five screens earned the film just over $16,000.
However, taking into account that it typically costs around $2000 to make one print of a film,
those five screens haven’t really taken very much at all. When in competition with other films
that had the same opening weekend (for example ‘Meet the Parents’, which brought in
$80,723,025 in just over two weeks), it’s an obvious box office failure. Overall, after a traumatic
time at the cinemas, the film took $3,635,482 domestically. However, internationally the film
raked in a similar figure raising the worldwide gross to $7,390,108. With a budget of
$4,500,000, the film has to be considered a failure at the box office. Filmsite.org suggest that a
“film often must make almost double its budget to become profitable”, and this did not. Moving
back to why this film had to go through such trouble to not even make a profit, the MPAA did
raise controversy over the decision made over the films certification. The film was given an NC-
17 because of one scene in the films climax, in which a montage shows several images which
mostly include drug use and the effects of the drug use at a fast pace to give a hallucinogenic
tone; there’s a sex scene that’s been included that doesn’t show anything extremely graphic, but
does have some strong implications. The MPAA deemed that this short extract earned the entire
film an NC-17. The film, when released on home video, was edited to gain a rating of R. A movie
censorship website (http://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=48227) has identified
all the changes made during this cut that got it down to an R rating, and all the scene’s cut are
just one’s from that sex scene. This is a film that shows excessive drug use, the terrifying effects
of heroin and what dark roads the use of drugs can take you down, even diet pills. The MPAA
believe that this is appropriate for a child under 17 to watch as long as an adult accompanies
them, but this minor sex scene is not. Here’s a scene that shows the use of the excessive drug use
that the MPAA deemed appropriate for an R.
Projector: Show clip of drug use performed by the main characters.
Personally, I’m not saying that that scene is any more than an R rating; I’m just highlighting the
inconsistency within the MPAA. When asked about the MPAA, the director Aronofsky said “I
think there is a place in the world for the MPAA, “I think, though, their understanding of what
the pulse of America is really, really behind the times”. And when asked about how an unrated
censorship might affect his box office, he said “I think it might attract more people, in fact,
because A) People want to see what the controversy is about. And B) There's a hunger to see
stuff that isn't fitting into the normal boundaries that everyone sees all the time.” Although
Aronofsky may have the right attitude in approaching the rating, the notion of an unrated film is
still rejected by majorities of the public. This is supported by the films overall box office
takings.It’s thought that the decision by the MPAA was one of the main reasons behind the films
failure, and many wonder what might have been if it had earned an R rating at the cinema.
Projector: CU of ‘Crash’ poster.
Presenter: As oppose to releasing a film unrated, a film can simply accept their NC-17 rating
and release it as planned. This method has similar consequences to releasing a film with no
rating because it means that the film will not be shown at any major cinema chains and won’t be
allowed conventional advertising. The film ‘Crash’ was released in 1996 and is about a man who
finds himself slowly drawn to a mysterious subculture of people who have transformed car
accidents into erotic events. The film was slapped with an NC-17 rating for ‘numerous explicit
sex scenes’ (according to IMDb, since it’s rare for the MPAA to give reasons for their decisions).
A group of men wrote an essay highlighting the problems the MPAA have with sexual content. In
this essay, it states some ground rules the MPAA typically have when rating a film. For example,
if a word such as ‘f***’ is said more than once or used in a sexual context, then the film earns an
R rating. Female nudity can get a film an R. However, explicit drug use can earn a film an R
rating as a minimum, alike with my first focus film earlier, this is where controversy rises from
with the MPAA. So really, any film with a sex scene in that the MPAA feel is offensive; the film is
on a road to failure. ‘Crash’, however, couldn’t have any complaints. The films plot surrounds
itself around sex. Unlike ‘Requiem for a Dream’, which it was thought had a harsh certification
for one sex scene, ‘Crash’ uses sex as a narrative device and so can’t avoid it. Domestically, the
film took $2,038,450, which is poor when the budget was around $10,000,000. The film was
ultimately a failure. Cronenberg, the director, had this to say when asked about censorship,
“Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion”. Cronenberg’s
suggestion is that the MPAA are incapable of separating the cinema and life. A media theory that
applies to Cronenberg’s quote here is the Uses and Gratifications model. It’s a theory that
suggests why audiences are appealed to a media text. One of the appeals is Escapism. It suggests
some audience’s simply watch a film just to be entertained and to escape life for a little while.
Cronenberg suggests that the MPAA are stopping audiences from being appealed this way by
limiting the films. Personally, I do think the MPAA made the right decision in the sense that if
you’re not over 17 you probably shouldn’t watch this film, but some people may disagree. Then
again, we do have to take into account the actual film. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film
scored a 57% overall, meaning the film wasn’t anything special anyway, so it might have been a
failure without an NC-17 too. But when an organisation has that much power over a film,
justification has to be spot on. In a study that was conducted to identify the MPAA’s justification,
it stated “subjects were more offended by - and found more harmful -violence than sex”. This
gives more suggestion to why the MPAA’s justification may be invalid, because while they
censor the images of sex, the violent films that apparently cause more harm are being released
with lower ratings.
Projector:CU of ‘Blue Valentine’ poster.
Presenter: And then there’s another road a film can take if it’s awarded an NC-17 rating; stand
itsground and appeal the rating. The 2010 romantic drama ‘Blue Valentine’ was a film that did
exactly this; and won. The film was originally branded with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA for its
“shocking, gory depiction of a dying marriage” and “a scene of explicit sexual content”. Harvey
Weinstein, of the Weinstein Co., was shocked to see their film get the rating. When asked about
the rating in an interview, Weinstein said, “they will see that our appeal is reasonable, and the
film, which is an honest and personal portrait of a relationship, would be significantly harmed
by such a rating”. Weinstein suggested thatjust because it’s a real life issue doesn’t mean it’s a
taboo topic. There were questions raised about the one scene that potentially tipped the
decision towards the NC-17 rating, the ‘explicit sex scene’. Kimberly Peirce, a director, had a
similar problem with her film ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. When asked about the decision, Peirce had a bit
of an explanation for the MPAA’s decision. “This is totally about Lana’s pleasure [a scene in her
film], so there’s something about that that’s scaring them [the MPAA], that’s unnerving them”.
She suggested that the movie experience is completely from the male’s perspective; so when the
female is the prime focus here, the MPAA seem to get threatened by this, and deem it
unacceptable. There’s an established media theory that can be applied to the MPAA’s way of
thinking here. Laura Mulvey introduced a theory she called ‘The Male Gaze’ in 1975 which
suggested audience’s had to view a film from the perspective of a heterosexual male. With this
theory being applied to the MPAA’s decisions, it’s clear they are taking a male perspective, and
abandoning anything in the film that isn’t from that perspective. It’s also suggested that the
MPAA may have rejected this notion because the representation of a middle class white male is
being challenged in this film. The ‘Blue Valentine’ lead Ryan Gosling had a bit more to say on the
matter. He admitted the rating by the MPAA was a big disappointment, but also added a few
things about the organisation itself. "You have to question a cinematic culture which preaches
artistic expression, and yet would support a decision that is clearly a product of a patriarchy-
dominant society, which tries to control in response, how women are depicted on screen”.
Gosling is referring to the MPAA’s constant ‘bowing down’ to a society he considers to be run by
dominant male authorities. He believes the MPAA are scared to show a realistic depiction of a
strong female, someone who can stand up for herself. About two months after the film received
its original rating, the Weinstein Co. were successful in their attempt to overturn the NC-17
rating and got it brought down to an R. The MPAA released a new description on the film to
summarise their new rating that read, “Strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating”.
Projector: Show clip of the beating from the film.
This raised several questions around the MPAA’s original rating and description, like ‘did the
film only receive an NC-17 because of the sex scene?’ Or ‘if the sex scene is deemed NC-17
worthy, shouldn’t ‘the beating’?’ However, all the questions were futile. Most people know the
film got its original rating because of the sex scene, and everyone knows the MPAA will never
admit that. In the end, the film took just over 12 million dollars worldwide, making it a decent
success with a 1 million dollar budget. But making just over 10 million dollars profit on an R
rating, some couldn’t help but wonder what the films fate could have been.
Projector: CU of the following image;
Presenter:Overall, it’s clear that the MPAA are sometimes unjustified with their decisions; and
clearly have a problem with sex on screen. We’ve also seen that it is extremely unlikely for an
NC-17 film to succeed at the box office. There’ve been many suggestions throughout this
presentation to why an NC-17 film won’t succeed, but a quote from Mark Kermode of the BBC
puts its superb;
“Here, we don’t have a problem with the idea that films are for adults only, but are still proper
respectable movies. “Here in the UK, we believe in proper adult classification. In America, they
have yet to grow up”.