In theory, it would sound like it would be a helpful tool for parents and movie goers to have some system in place that would evaluate the content and summarize the type of content for those wishing to avoid certain exposures. The unfortunate reality however is that the most widely utilized system, the MPAA – the Motion Picture Association of America is failing to not only fulfill this role, but is damaging to the film industry.
It would stand to reason that the evaluation criteria for the MPAA should be transparent so that the filmmakers and even the movie going public can understand the reasons for a film’s rating. Unfortunately the MPAA has to this day never publicized it’s evaluation criteria to either the public or the filmmakers themselves. The result for filmmakers is that their submissions may return ratings that they didn’t aim for and not have a clear understanding as to why a rating was applied.
As there is a strong tie to box-office viability and the rating of a film, films rated PG are typically the highest grossing films for their broad appeal whereas R rated films are typically among the lowest for their stricter admittance guidelines. Consequently, the MPAA has responded by broadening the boundaries for what is considered unacceptably explicit so as to incorporate films that may otherwise have rated higher. This unfortunately creates some unusual juxtapositions and audience members and filmmakers like wonder why certain films are juxtaposed with one another in the same category.
Films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Philomena and The Expendables 3 all land PG-13 ratings in order to try to fulfill ‘blockbuster’ expectations. Goblet of Fire for “sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images”, Philomena for “strong language, thematic elements and sexual references” and Expendables 3 for “violence including intense sustained gun battles and fight scenes and language”. If this seems at all strange, it should. There seems to be a rather wide tolerance for this PG-13 rating, thus resulting in the rating itself being unreliable for parents and those who would otherwise rely on the screening system, the logic being if Harry Potter was suitable for my children, by this standard, so too must these other two films. So the question then becomes, what merit does this rating hold if a fantasy adventure featuring magic and Quidditch will occupy the same space as Stallone’s gun battles and Judy Dench dropping F-Bombs?
A recent study conducted by the Universities of Ohio State and Pennsylvania in analyzing the prominence of gun violence in the top 30 grossing films form 1950 – 2012 observed not only a sharp increase in the presence of said violence, but also that there was more violence in films rated PG-13 than R. Similarly, a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health noted an increase in the number films achieving a PG-13 rating that feature violence and explicit sexual content.
While this should be contextualized under the broader understanding that standards of what is deemed ‘acceptable’ with respect to depictions of violence and sexual content changes over time, it becomes impossible to know how the MPAA identifies and weights these depictions as their standards are kept private, possibly even subjective. Why Clatyton (Brian Blessed) hanging to death in Disney’s Tarzan warrants a G rating whereas Free Birds lack of profanity, violence and sexuality receives a PG for “some action/peril and rude humor” has yet to be qualified.
These questions yet again all relate back to transparency. It becomes impossible to know what the censors were considering that would cause these films to warrant the same rating. In a similar issue, another 2013 film, Nebraska, which was very similar in theme and subject matter to Philomena hit the box-office with an R rating, despite only having have as many F-words as Philomena. As a consequence of this R rating, Nebraska grossed $24.8 million at the box office, while Philomena made $100.1 million. Both films were made on a budget of $12 million and both were very well received critically. Paramount and the filmmakers appealed to have their R rating for Nebraska changed to a PG-13 but failed. So there would seem to be something more at play than simply unbiased censoring. What may incite this apparent favoritism? While it’s impossible to know, the MPAA has been heavily criticized for their more heavily scrutinizing independent films as opposed those made within the Hollywood mainstream system.
So all of this begs the question – why aren’t they publicize their rating criteria? There are plenty of theories on what constitutes unacceptable for a PG-13 (i.e. blood being spilled) and would justify an R but the simple truth is, there is no certainty. The MPAA retains the right to arbitrarily decide what rating a film should receive, and thus dictate the prospects for commercial success of a film and thus the filmmakers. The highest grossing R rated movie of all time is The Passion of the Christ with $370 million, which while respectable, is a far cry from Gone With the Wind with $3.44 billion in adjusted dollars or even the number 2, more contemporary Avatar which grossed $3.02 billion. In fact, the sum total of all of the top 10 grossing R rated movies of all time collectively only grosses $2.58 billion – nearly a billion dollars less than Gone with the Wind. This total gross of $2.58 billion would earn this meta-R-Film the 4th spot on the top most profitable movies of all time. From this, we can understand non-R-rated movies as having the earning potential of over 10 times that of their R-rated counterparts.
Critics such as Roger Ebert have criticized the MPAA for their disproportionate emphasis placed on sex and language usages in films as opposed to violence. While the MPAA denies this claim, as their ratings are not substantiated by criteria transparency, there can be little by ways of proof for either case. On a societal whole, it has become almost common place to note stronger reactions by censors, not exclusively the MPAA, to incidents involving sexuality than those of violence. The implication adopted by cynics is that sexuality is more morally damaging than violence.
What needs to happen is not that film ratings need to disappear, but they need to be organized and represented more fairly to all films, not just domestic blockbusters, but all films submitted for evaluation. A film industry is a beautiful thing however it, like any agency, needs to be handles respectfully and with care and dignity. Unfortunately, unless drastic changes are made to the MPAA, this system is not likely to be what the industry needs.
All sites accessed on August 9, 2015