B-Movies Extended: Should the MPAA Be Destroyed?

Bibbs and Witney debate the merits of the White House petition to investigate the Motion Picture Association of America.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

It’s a good thing we defeated Frisco Breckinridge, and are now able to rest safely at home, knowing that anti-critic terrorists are resting in jail where they belong. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, I humbly implore that you listen to Episode #53 of The B-Movies Podcast here on CraveOnline. You’ll find a grand adventure in the offing, wherein William Bibbiani and I enlist the help of Grae Drake, Jessie Maltin, Dave White and Alosno Duralde to take down an evil kidnapper (played convincingly by one Marc Edward Heuck).

As a result of our misadventures, we were unable to discuss some of the news items of the day, including a particularly important one that most certainly warrants comment. The website Film School Rejects (also part of the CraveOnline family) has evidently penned a petition to the White House, imploring an earnest antitrust investigation into the misdeeds of the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA is not-so-secretly moneyed, you see, by the six largest film studios in the world, and are, the petition argues, strictly beholden to the commercial interests of said studios, much to the deference (and consternation) of smaller, independent filmmakers. You can read the petition here. They start the petition with the rather inflammatory phrase “The MPAA must die,” and give a more details account of their grievances on their website here.

Their central argument is that big studios, to this day, use the approval of the MPAA to dictate how well films can be distributed. There was a time, you see, when big film studios once owned theater chains, and would only book their own product. In 1948, a law was passed to prevent this form of monopoly, and theater became autonomous entities. Theaters have remained largely autonomous since then, but, over the last few decades, as media conglomerates merged, grew and mutated, the lines as to what media companies owned as opposed to television networks and theaters and websites began to blur. What does Disney own these days? If you can ever find a list, I’m sure the length of it would be staggering.

Film School Rejects complains that the MPAA is using this well-moneyed cinematic aristocracy to the disadvantage of other non-studio filmmakers whose work would be given wider distribution, more lenient ratings, and more of a chance. Back in the 1950s, you see, filmmakers could often shop their product around directly to local theaters, ensuring an audience. It was during this time that people like Edward D. Wood, Jr. could make their notoriously bad movies and still find an audience. William Castle could make live appearances. Hammer studios would easily be the most successful of this golden age of early exploitation movies. In recent years, though, theaters have been making more and more contracts with big studios, and indie filmmakers have been relegated to various aesthetic ghettos: first the straight-to-video market, and now the online-only market.

I have actually written about the MPAA before, and the widespread ambivalence toward their ubiquitous rating system, and how it is often seen as a form of institutionalized (and often arbitrary) censorship. I wonder, though, how much relevance and power the system still has. As I pointed out in the above link, there is no legal obligation to submit your film to the MPAA for rating. Many filmmakers have complained about the rating their films have received. Films with adult sexual content, for instance, usually get an NC-17 rating, which many theaters will not exhibit. In this regard, the MPAA is using their clout as the distributor of ratings to force certain content to be cut from films. This would change if an NC-17-rated film became a huge hit (can you imagine if such a film was the top-grosser of the year? How would that change the way we look at film ratings?), but until that happens, many filmmakers feel stifled by the MPAA’s insistence that they re-edit their product. Many filmmakers have come forward about how violated they feel by the rating process, and how the standards of content are vague or arbitrary. They finally landed the dream gig of making a big-budget Hollywood film, but they’re not allowed to use the word “f*ck” as often as they would like. The studio decreed it. Is this the MPAA speaking? I would say not. I think it’s the studio’s marketing department trying to hit all four marketing quadrants that enforces most filmmaker censorship. Dealing with studio interference is a long-standing and proud tradition in Hollywood.

But, again, there is no legal need to submit your film for a rating. If your town has an art house theater in it (I live in Los Angeles, so we have many), you’ll find that the bulk of films that play in such places often run films without ratings. International films aren’t often subjected to the same scrutiny. The MPAA may put a rating on the film once it reaches home video, but by then, you’ll likely have a choice of which cut you want to rent. Well, provided you’re not stuck with whatever version is arbitrarily on Netflix. My point is; the rating system is indeed unfair, and it does make for some arbitrary self-censorship, but filmmakers are not beholden to the MPAA unless they’re making a hugely expensive studio product. All it would take is one studio to refuse to submit a big summer release for rating, and the system entire would collapse. It’s bound to happen soon anyway. Imagine if The Avengers was released without a rating. Would that impact its success at all?

The only real force enforcing the MPAA ratings, then, are the theaters themselves, and the distributors of home video. Many of the big-box stores (however paltry their video selection is these days) will now carry NC-17-rated and unrated films. Home video markets are savvy enough to offer multiple cuts of movies, and often will hype such a thing on the video box as a selling point (“8 Extra Minutes of Footage Not Seen in Theaters!”). As unrated films proliferate, the MPAA becomes increasingly stodgy and irrelevant. If you ask any 16-year-old, they’ll tell you about how easy it is to get into an R-rated film without a guardian. Most theater employees don’t really care that 16-year-old are seeing R-rated films, and few will enforce the rating rules. Some might now and again, but, as a longtime theater employee, I can say that we were rarely vigilant. It was only if the film was notoriously violent or sexy that we really kept an eye out. Natural Born Killers, for instance, would not be welcome to a group of unaccompanied 11-year-olds. But I saw many R-rated films before I was 17, and rented plenty from my local video store. The censorship behind the MPAA is merely ceremonial at this point.

And theaters, despite certain contracts are not (at least ideally) beholden directly to studios. Well, some are. The El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Blvd. is owned by Disney, and they show exclusively Disney films. But larger national theater chains like Regal and AMC have contracts with big studios, but will still run smaller films of local filmmakers from time to time. Yes they will. You may have seen one on the marquee from time to time. The Bollywood film that snuck in, or the indie thriller that managed to book a theater for a week. People tend to see the bigger studio films, but I suspect this has less to do with studios stifling creativity, and more with multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns.

I sense that most filmgoers are becoming savvy to marketing, and will seek out what their friends are talking about. The Human Centipede II made more money than either the Roger Ebert-touted film Trust or the Academy Award-nominated documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. The Human Centipede II was not rated, and was sought by a certain audience in the areas where it played. The MPAA had nothing to do with it. Films are being distributed online and on Netflix with increasing regularity. Many are bypassing the MPAA altogether.

Film School Rejects wants the system to be fought, and the MPAA to be dismantled. It doesn’t need a fight, and it doesn’t need dismantling. It is slowly dissolving before our eyes. Indie filmmakers are given an increasing number of alternate distribution models. And the enforcers on the front lines of the MPAA warpath are hard-working theater managers and shiftless and indifferent theater employees. This is a non-issue. Here is a technique that most people learn when their teenagers: if you disapprove of something; parents’ rules, church rules, government, cops, etc., you merely dismiss it with a wave of cynical, adolescent hand. In this case, we can fight the MPAA by dismissing them.


From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

It may seem like an extreme about-face from the flightiness of our big and flashy (and late) anniversary episode, but this talk of the MPAA is actually one of the most fitting editions of B-Movies Extended we’ve ever had. Throughout the guest star-laden episode Revenge of the Theta Covenant, I incessantly bitched that Witney and I seemed to agree a lot. Ironically, at the heart of our action-packed radio drama lied the complete antithesis of actual drama, at least in our reviews of this week’s new releases. So it’s a good thing we’re talking about the MPAA, because I thoroughly disagree with Mr. Seibold on this one. No, I don’t think the MPAA is a good thing, but while Witney thinks that taking action against the MPAA is unnecessary, since it appears to be withering and dying on its own, I for one fully support Film School Rejects in taking some god damned action and trying to put Old Yeller out of its misery. Actually, that’s a terrible metaphor. After all, somebody actually liked Old Yeller.

Again, Film School Rejects has posted a strongly worded and accusatory editorial damning the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for serving the interests of the major studios – who essentially run the MPAA – at the expense of independent studios and filmmakers. I urge you read it for yourself to decide your own opinions, and to research the matter further to make sure you grasp the totality of the issue at hand. The Film School Rejects are urging their readers to sign a petition to White House in the hopes of opening an investigation – just an investigation, mind you – into the MPAA to determine if their actions are illegal, and a violation of American anti-trust laws via clever loopholes. Proving this is going to be a bitch, but while they may not have a smoking gun, they sure as hell have a dead body. The negative impact of the MPAA is obvious, but it’s difficult to determine how much of it is the result of genuine corruption as opposed to just good old-fashioned bad ideas.

The history of the MPAA is a long one, and I don’t have the space to cover it all here. But in a nutshell, the MPAA was formed by studios as a system of self-regulation to prevent the government from stepping in and dictating the artistic content of their film in a fit of “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?” This sort of thing comes up every now and again these days, but with the exception of the Columbine backlash (now over a decade old), for the most part the issue is decades old. The MPAA came up with a simultaneously arbitrary and subjective ratings system under the pretense of telling parents which films were appropriate, more or less, for their children. G-rated films were basically controversy-free, PG had some potential naughtiness but nothing too pervasive, R-rated films contained material clearly intended for adults but were potentially suitable for some children if their parents were comfortable buying their tickets, and X-rated films contained content that, for one reason or another, was clearly not intended for the idle amusement of little kids. Eventually PG-13 was added as a halfway mark between PG and R.

The problem of course is that these ratings determined a film’s marketability. Kids couldn’t go see an R-rated film without their parents (assuming theaters bothered enforcing the rules, which were technically optional all along), so studios began recutting R-rated films to a PG or PG-13 to make them more marketable. X-ratings were even worse, since kids couldn’t see them at all, and were usually cut down to a R-rating instead. Thanks to the unfortunate stigma attached to hardcore pornography, most movie theaters – to this day – refuse to even show a film with an X-rating or an NC-17 (a rating added to remove said stigma, but which failed to catch on). What began as arguably unnecessary labeling turned into a system self-censorship. What’s worse, studios – which funded the MPAA – had an easier time getting their films re-labeled with more marketable ratings. It became abundantly clear that major studios and prominent filmmakers could release an R-rated film which contained content roughly similar to a smaller release that would, arbitrarily (at best), get slapped with an NC-17, effectively preventing said film from receiving a proper release, and therefore making money. This in turn effectively prevents many such films from even getting made.

The hypocrisy of the MPAA has been well documented, and if you have any interest in exploring it further I highly recommend the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated by Kirby Dick (it’s available on Netflix Instant right now, so you have no excuse). It’s biased, but based on reasonable data. Amongst many other shocking examples of hypocrisy, film juxtaposes footage labeled R and NC-17 side-by-side, making it clear that there’s a massive double standard between studio films and independent ones. This Film is Not Yet Rated also includes interviews with a host of filmmakers whose experiences with the MPAA can only be described as Kafkaesque. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were stonewalled by the MPAA in their attempts to cut their early film Orgazmo from a deadly NC-17 into a more theater-friendly R-rating, but were welcomed with open arms once their studio release of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was having the same problem. Only one thing was different: a major studio was involved.

Regardless of its original intent, it’s clear that the MPAA has become a tool of artistic oppression. I’m not going to accuse any individual of this kind of villainy. I believe that it’s entirely possible that this unfortunate institution has formed out of organic self-interest and self-righteousness. I also believe that without a clear set of guidelines, the rating system means absolutely nothing. The craziest part is that there are no rules forcing a filmmaker to submit their work to the MPAA for a rating, beyond the simple fact that the theaters require them to. The industry is beholden to an organization it personally willed into existence. It’s like your parents hired a nanny to keep you in line, but then started taking orders from the nanny. The tail is simply wagging the dog.

Even if this petition goes forward, and an investigation actually ensues (even Film School Rejects admits that’s a long shot), and there turns out to be no hard evidence of actual wrongdoing, the time has come to put the MPAA down for good. Witney’s right, it’s dying on its own, but that’s not good enough. There’s no advantage to letting the MPAA, at the very least in its current form, continue operating any longer. Books don’t have a ratings system. A 13-year-old can go into almost any bookstore in the country and purchase Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and read it cover to cover, but they can’t see it in theaters without a parent present. There’s something very wrong there, however you want to interpret it. It’s certainly a double standard. In an age when practically any fact can be summoned on your flipping phone, placing power in the hands of a small cadre of self-appointed individuals to determine what’s suitable for your children is utterly irrelevant. And effectively giving them the power to undermine Freedom of Speech under the auspices of self-regulation is comparably fascistic to the very threat of government regulation the MPAA was created to prevent.

Whether or not the Film School Rejects petition works, it calls attention to the fact that Motion Picture Association of America needs to go. I for one don’t want to wait until it withers and dies on its own. I support Film School Rejects’ attempts to strap it into the chair.