No, Seriously… ‘Unrated’ Does Not Mean ‘NC-17’

Theater owners threaten to rate every Weinstein Company film NC-17 if they don't officially submit their films to the MPAA. That's a huge problem.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


We haven’t really covered the well-publicized debate between Harvey Weinstein and the MPAA at CraveOnline, which was a mistake on our part. It seemed like the usual Hollywood hee-hawing about the arbitrary ratings system we’ve come to accept, if not necessarily approve of, from The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). In short, The Weinstein Company submitted Lee Hirsch’s feature documentary Bully, formerly The Bully Project, for a rating at the MPAA. Based on the film’s language, Bully received an “R,” preventing the film from being shown at schools nationwide. Weinstein then appealed the board’s decision, citing the film’s intention to reach young people in an effort to curb the tide of bullying. When the MPAA upheld the original R-rating, Weinstein threatened – if that’s really the right word – to release future films from The Weinstein Company unrated. You can catch up on the matter here or here, and I encourage you to do so before moving forward.

Now, The National Association of Theater Owners (often known by the admittedly confusing acronym NATO) responded to Weinstein’s “threat” today by explaining that if The Weinstein Company does not submit their films to the ratings board, they will encourage theater owners across the country to treat them as if they were rated NC-17. This has two distinct effects on those films: 1) No child will be permitted to see them, even if a parent or guardian is present, and 2) Many theaters throughout the country will probably no longer carry them, at all. Bear in mind that these are films from the producer responsible for The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Pulp Fiction, Scream and many more… not that the issue at hand is his artistic reputation.

While the statement from John Fithian, the President and CEO of NATO, is supportive of the MPAA’s goal to cater to parents’ needs, it also amounts to persecution for not going by the rulebook. The thing is, in principle anyway, there is no rulebook: submitting films to the MPAA is supposed to be a voluntary process. But you can’t call an action “voluntary” if you punish anyone who doesn’t volunteer. That is essentially, and quite ironically, bullying. Then again you also could argue, and rather reasonably, that Harvey Weinstein is himself bullying the MPAA into getting the rating he wants, regardless of his motives.

I’m not going to judge there. Three things are for certain: the MPAA has every right to enforce their rating, Harvey Weinstein has every right to not submit his films to the MPAA at all, and NATO is caught in the middle. They’re not victims, obviously, since they’re free to handle this situation however they see fit, but they’re hindered by a ratings system that as gone unchallenged for so long that it’s understandably difficult to think of an alternative practice.

That said, the solution they have come to – largely, I am certain, in a preemptive attempt to placate worried parents – is unimaginative, and unfair. They’re telling Harvey Weinstein that if he doesn’t kowtow to the existing system, he has no other viable options. Doubtless some conspiracy theorists will claim that NATO is simply in the MPAA’s pocket, or the other way around, but until I see any concrete evidence to support that I’m able to perceive this whole situation as evidence of human nature at work, including but not limited to the simple, primal fear of change.

The real issue here, and it’s gone unexamined for far too long, is that if submitting a film for an MPAA rating really is optional, then there needs to be other options. It’s not okay to treat any film without a proper rating as “NC-17,” particularly since that rating is, in practice, more than an objective or even arbitrary indicator of the film’s appropriateness for children. An NC-17 rating, real or implied, prevents a film from seeing a proper distribution in this country, since many theaters refuse to carry a movie with an NC-17. That’s unreasonable at best, and seriously screwed up at all the other times.

Because in effect, NATO is saying that if The Weinstein Company – and by extension any other filmmaker or studio – doesn't submit their films to the MPAA for a rating, they'll rate the films themselves, automatically, sight unseen. And they'll give every film an automatic NC-17, damning the films to financial failure. I understand their hesitation to step up to the plate, especially since theaters are hurting across the country for reasons unrelated to this fiasco. They want to avoid the controversy inherent to showing an even arguably questionable film to minors without the safety net of the ratings board, but this is not the correct way to handle this situation. The issue at hand is not Bully, it's the ratings board and its inherent flaws, which have gone unchallenged for far too long. It's actually encouraging that a producer with as much clout as Harvey Weinstein is the one leading the charge. Something may actually come of it now.

It’s rather unfortunate that a film like Bully, which may arguably deserve an R-rating (I haven’t seen it yet, and cannot judge), is the lynchpin for this debate. In order to see the full implication of this decision, you have to consider the opposite end of the spectrum. Imagine, if you will, that Disney had decided not to submit Cars 2 for an MPAA rating. It wouldn’t happen, obviously, but if the MPAA really is an optional system there’s no real reason why Disney couldn’t have ignored it altogether.* I wonder if NATO’s reaction would be the same. If NATO didn’t have to be proactively fearful of parental objections, would they have tried harder to find a different, non-punitive solution? A “compromise,” if you will? Or would no one under the age of 17 be admitted to Cars 2 under any circumstances?

It’s a complicated issue and I’m not in the thick of it. I don’t have the responsibility for a large organization – either The Weinstein Company, the MPAA or NATO – affecting my deliberations. It’s comparatively easy to debate the issue in a vacuum. But it seems to me that the root of this entire issue, which may finally come to light, is that the MPAA can’t claim that submitting a film for a rating is voluntary unless somebody comes up with a realistic alternative; one that doesn’t punish filmmakers or studios for exercising their supposed right to forgo the current system. 

I don’t have the answer for that. Creating a competitive ratings board would likely result in the same basic problems, and create an entirely new problem if one ratings system seems more lenient than the other (the old “Good Parent, Bad Parent” routine). Placing the responsibility for “rating” a film in the hands of the filmmakers themselves could lead to significant problems as soon as anybody pushes the boundaries too far and claims that their ultra-violent horror movie is a “PG-13” (or its nearest equivalent) simply to boost revenue, sparking national debate and a call for yet another ratings system to prevent such a thing from happening again. And I don’t even think that the solution is to abolish ratings altogether, since parents do have the right to protect their children from seeing material that they, in their subjective wisdom, deem unfit for their maturity level, regardless of age (until the admittedly arbitrary age of 18, at least).

But I do think that we need to put our heads together, as an industry, and come up with a better solution than this. Don’t you? Please, let me know your thoughts. We all need to talk about this.

*Or perhaps I used a poor example. See the comments below.