6 Bizarre Realities of How Movies Get Their Ratings
Unless you have kids (or still are one), you probably stopped paying much attention to movie ratings a while back, but they're actually the secret gatekeepers of Hollywood. The rating even determines whether a film can advertise via TV spots (NC-17 movies cannot). This means millions, maybe tens of millions of dollars lie between an R rating and an NC-17 rating. Even more money lies between PG-13 and R.
The MPAA is the final arbiter of exactly how many boobs we get to see in a given summer, and that is too much power for any one organization to hold. So who are they, and why are they qualified to choose our entertainment? In the course of our research, we spoke with Kirby Dick, director of the MPAA investigation documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
The MPAA Is Owned by the Big Studios and Exists to Shut Down Independent Films
The MPAA is comprised of and funded by the Big Six studios -- Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Sony, Disney, NBC Universal, and Paramount. Together, they make about 90 percent of all movies in the United States. But remember, the MPAA rates all films: everything from Transformers to obscure foreign films like Die Hartseer van Lewe.
And Cracked's own French art house flick, Le Zizi Grincheux: Une Comedie d'Pipes.
Independent and foreign film companies are not part of the Big Six, which means they're completely at the mercy of a regulator owned by their competition. The Big Six dominate American film like ACME dominates the roadrunner trap and TNT markets. If you're an independent film trying to explore human sexuality as an art form (which would actually get a fairly low rating in Europe), you'll have a harder time sliding in under the dreaded NC-17 bar than an Eli Roth/Quentin Tarantino crossover film, provided the latter is produced and backed by one of the major studios that run the MPAA, of course. Hell, even Clerks got an NC-17 rating when it was first released as an independent film, but after its sequel went through a major studio, it got an R.
Remember? The one where the dude fucks a donkey?
European rating systems typically give violent movies high ratings, but MPAA raters consider the murder of dozens of human beings via machine gun to be perfectly safe for a 13-year-old, as long as there's not much blood. But two girls making out? That shit is dangerous. Violence can be traumatizing for kids, but we'll let them watch Heath Ledger pencil a man to death because hey, it's PG-13! Meanwhile, should Heath choose to kiss a man, well obviously that shit deserves an R. But hey, the nightmares and sleep disorders that little Billy is suffering from after a summer spent bingeing on violent blockbusters surely don't hold a candle to the horrors that would await him if he saw two dudes consensually makin' out.
The Ratings and Appeals Boards Are More Secretive Than Hydra
When the ratings board started in 1968, Lyndon Johnson chose his friend and JFK assassination witness Jack Valenti as its head. And that ... actually kind of makes sense. That guy saw some serious shit, why not make him the judge of who gets to see what shit? But from the beginning, Valenti put a stranglehold on the organization. He decided that members of the board would remain a secret to "protect the organization from outside influence." But that's absurd, because the United States has a justice system where judges are public figures. Make laws that govern an entire country? Your face is front and center -- you're on your own, and best of luck. Decide how many times Sam Jackson can call a cartoon penguin a motherfucker? You clearly need the utmost protection.
"We got the same guys who guard unreleased Harry Potter books."
Since 1968, several newspaper investigations have tried to find out who the members of the ratings board were, only to hit brick walls. So in 2005, Kirby and his producer decided to give it a try: They hired a private investigator and went after the men and women behind the curtain. The process wasn't easy. Only one name is known to the public: the leader of the raters since 2000, Joan Graves.
Being filmmakers, Kirby's team apparently took all of their cues from classic noir flicks: They started by parking outside the MPAA building and following cars, checking license plate information and tailing suspects. They eventually found themselves rooting around in garbage cans outside people's houses (which is totally legal, even if it is totally unjustly frowned upon by your fascist homeowner's association). There, they found the telltale rating forms, and the rest was easy: After they found one rater, the identities of all the others fell quickly into place. It was just a matter of seeing who they mingled with in the parking lot. Kirby soon found himself with the MPAA's entire roster. Surely it was a roll call of the most powerful and sinister forces in Hollywood. A rogue's gallery of brilliance and corruption. The veritable Legion of Doom of film. Or ...
The Raters Are Wildly Unqualified and Wholly Incompetent
All of the raters on the board in 2005 were white. That doesn't seem to have changed today in 2014. And, despite having to view a diverse selection of films, they also are all upper-middle class, all live in the San Fernando Valley, almost all have no children, and almost all have been on the board more than seven years (despite Graves' insistence that no member can stay on the board longer than seven years). These people are uniquely suited to judge the selection of cheese at the local Whole Foods, but they're also who decides the ratings of most of your art and entertainment.
When Kirby researched the MPAA, he found that there was no sort of test or evaluation for membership. None of them are experts, or even trained in a relevant field. If you were trying to put together the least qualified group of people to do this job, the McHale's Navy of film rating, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than the MPAA's current board. And not only are parents rare on the board, but there are no child development experts (which all of the European systems have) involved in the process at all. So it turns out these MPAA folks, who are so very concerned about "the poor children," only barely know what children are. They're, like ... the mythical beasts with the heads of a lion and a snake, right? No wait, they're those Mexican fried burritos!
They may not be clear on what exactly sex is, but they'll be damned if any children know more than they do.
The Review and Appeals Process Is Totally Screwed
The only people who talk to the raters on a weekly basis work at the movie studios. No outside filmmakers have that kind of access. Well-known directors can go in front of the ratings board and talk about what rating their movie should get, while independent filmmakers can only submit their film and, eventually, if they're lucky, get a phone call explaining how screwed they are.
"... so you'll have to cut the lesbian make-out scene, and the other raters really felt like there should be a talking dog."
Many films have just three or four raters, making an already skewed rating even, uh, skewdier? When there's a tie vote, Graves breaks it. She's like the vice president on Senate votes, except with a little more power. And even then, the head of the MPAA (currently former senator Chris Dodd) has absolute veto power over the rating. Does your film feature a guy who looks kind of like Chris Dodd getting a well-deserved wedgie? Boom: NC-17.
No matter how small you make his penis.
Don't like it? Of course you can appeal. Just head on over to the appeals board. One problem: It turns out that almost every member of the appeals board is an executive of one of the major studios or theater chains. They're not about to break rank for your upstart little indie film about chubby old white guys getting their underwear yanked up their crack. There is no objectivity to the process. There are two independents on the board and two members of the clergy who sit in on the films as well (but have no voting power), but other than that, it's all people who work for the studios and theaters. You'd have a better chance of receiving justice from a literal court of kangaroos (and those bastards are vicious).
The MPAA Hates Sex Because They Want to Appease Congress
Studies found that, while PG-13 violence was on par with R-rating violence, sexual tolerance for PG-13 films was much lower than for R. Sometimes the number of "thrusts" shown during a sex scene was the deciding factor in the rating. Picture that: a room full of prudish middle-aged white folks carefully counting every single thrust until one of them shouts, "Eleven! That's NC-17." It almost makes the ridiculous double standard worthwhile.
We can only hope there's somebody there counting the number of "fucks," too.
Because even if there's no sex or swearing in a gay film, it still means a nigh-automatic R rating. And what little sex that does lube up and slip by is always from the straight-male perspective. The MPAA will cut just about any female sexuality beyond "get topless and dance around for the menfolk" out of a film. Name a recent movie with sex in it and, 99 times out of 100, the act is filmed with a clear male perspective. When films do try to get scenes from the female perspective, such as the recent Charlie Countryman, that's the first scene the MPAA will say has to go to avoid a higher rating. What is so terrifying about women and sex to these people? Did the female orgasm kill their parents or something?
"Oh, don't be silly. The female orgasm is a myth."
Back in the 1970s, there were only two ratings for more mature films: PG and R. Then the MPAA brought out a new rating in the 1980s: PG-13. This new rating allowed for more violence, but still kept the sex to a minimum, and the strange schism between boobies and stabbings began. But why even bother? Wasn't the system working before? Yes, but the MPAA is like any lobbying agency -- they need to get laws passed that are favorable for film studios. By harshly rating movies with sexual content and appeasing lawmakers wary of such sexual morality issues, they get the support of Congress to pass, among other things, certain intellectual property laws. The whole "The MPAA is there to protect the children" idea is just PR; it's really an "I stab your back, you stab mine" situation (tender scratching was deemed too intimate).
There Is No Sign of Change or Progress
Kirby's 2005 documentary shook the MPAA up. They'd been comfortable in anonymity for so long, and then they found themselves reviewing a documentary starring themselves. The MPAA held a press conference after This Film Is Not Yet Rated came out, promising to come clean about their membership. They haven't made good on that promise in the nearly a decade since. They never did state who their members are, and Graves and Dodd are still the only faces of the system. They are not exactly ... friendly faces.
The kind of faces you just want to hit with a brick, you know?
In fact, the MPAA has no meaningful plans whatsoever to change the system for the foreseeable future. They're focusing their efforts on mildly tweaking the information in the ratings display, but not anything to do with the ratings themselves. That's why recent films such as The King's Speech and Blue Valentine have been given "outrageous ratings." A few theaters have seen how screwed the whole system is, and in Blue Is the Warmest Color's case, several just decided to ignore the rating and show the film anyway. There are presumably blacked-out MPAA helicopters on their way over as we speak. And homosexual content is still given higher ratings -- even if there are no sexual moments.
"There! Those two totally shared a moment! R!"
As long as six giant studios are making 90 percent of our movies (and making decisions for 100 percent of them), they'll always keep a tight rein on what gets released, where, and how. We wish the American public could see exactly how screwed the whole system is, but there's no way that sort of depravity is coming in under an XXX.
Evan V. Symon is a workshop moderator and interview setter-upper guy at Cracked. He also helped contribute to the De-Textbook.
Be sure to check out what happens when the MPAA goes nuts in If Classic Christmas Movies Were Rated R.
Related Reading: Cracked's made a bit of a habit of talking to people with interesting experiences, including a former Biggest Loser contestant and Mormon missionary with some candid words on that experience. We spoke with a woman who was raised in a Christian fundamentalist cult and a 911 dispatcher on just how terrible that job can be. If you've got a story to share with Cracked, message us here.