Sex, Violence and Incompetence: Some Question Future of MPAA Movie Ratings

Last Updated Dec 6, 2010 6:04 PM EST

The Motion Picture Association of America is coming under renewed attack by movie studios for its contradictory rating of ads for movies and the movies themselves, adding to the chorus of critics in the government and the ad business who are sick and tired of the MPAA's incompetence. It recently gave a lax R rating to Black Swan and an NC-17 to Blue Valentine even though both films feature similar oral sex scenes.

The issue isn't new: MPAA agrees to give all movies a rating. Movie theater chains use those ratings as a guide to which films they will screen and which they won't. The more restrictive the rating -- for sex, violence or language -- the smaller the audience is likely to be. Thus an NC-17 rating -- which bans children -- is marketing death for any movie. Studios thus game the system by releasing ads with green "all audiences" ratings even though they may be promoting NC-17 films. Studios then place such ads in children's TV programming.

The process begins with ads and trailers for movies, which MPAA oversees with an equal lack of consistency. It recently banned a movie poster for Bereavement, a serial killer flick, because it featured a child holding a weapon. The MPAA previously allowed an identical child-weapon pairing for the movie Kick-Ass (click to enlarge images). Among MPAA's other flubs:

  • In 2007, it gave R's to the torture-porn movie Hostel 2 and the love story Once. In the former, "a naked woman is suspended from a ceiling while another naked woman slashes her with a scythe and bathes in her blood. The other featured two Dublin musicians singing songs together, falling in love, and opting not to act on it."
  • Blue Valentine's NC-17 sex scene is realistic and takes place within the context of a loving relationship. Yet somehow Piranha 3D -- in which people are eaten alive by fish -- received the less restrictive R.
  • The Reese Witherspoon-Paul Rudd romance How Do You Know initially received an R rating because it contained the word "fuck" three times. Two of them were cut and the MPAA lowered the rating to PG 13.
  • Similarly, the MPAA gave an R to The King's Speech for using "fuck" three times -- even though the word occurs in the context of a speech therapy tongue twister that the stuttering king of Britain is given by his therapist. Says actor Geoffrey Rush: "They just have a fundamental rule that once you've said the 'F word' more than three times or something it suddenly means that it automatically gets an R rating without any kind of specific analysis or how its language might be being used."
Part of the controversy is being ginned up by The Weinstein Company. But as the ratings system reaches its 20th birthday it faces an array of powerful enemies. In addition to the studios, the FTC has called the MPAA's system "not a meaningful self-regulatory measure." And CARU, the children's advertising watchdog, is collecting a paper trail on MPAA's lack of performance on trailer placement.

Certainly, the MPAA will survive. Its ratings system night not. Movieline suggested that the group no longer has the confidence of the industry it serves:

...for some reason it feels like the beginning of the end of Hollywood in a way.
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