Changes in Movie Ratings Part 1—Why Independent Producers Want Change

With the recent media coverage regarding television ratings, few have taken notice of the other major media rating system that is being modified. The Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) movie rating system is about to be affected by subtle changes that I feel could spell big differences in the types of movies you find at your local theater. Perhaps even more interesting, these changes in a system intended to help parents are not due to pressure from moms and dads who are frustrated with using the ratings, but instead the catalyst is coming from filmmakers—especially independent producers.

But first, time for a short history lesson (a usual ingredient in my articles about movie ratings)...

For years, independent films were a rarity in the movie industry. The big studios—20th Century Fox, Disney, Columbia, Universal, Warner Brothers, and Paramount—were the rulers. They controlled virtually every aspect of moviemaking, and even issues they couldn’t directly manage they would use their huge circle of influence to maintain or enact change in their favor. One of the ways they are able to exert this influential force is through the MPAA, an organization formed and operated by these six major players.

However, over past years, the technology required to make a movie has become far cheaper, and a huge surge of independents are cranking out films faster than ever before. Each January The Sundance Film Festival becomes The Place for indies to show their wares and attract distributors (who are often owned by the big studios noted earlier) who will buy their films and then take them to market.

But the road to getting a movie on a screen near you is riddled with various obstacles—one being the necessity to have the movie rated. There is no law in the United States that says a movie must have a rating (there is also no law requiring theaters to enforce the ratings), but one of the organizations falling under the MPAA’s influential circle is the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). This group works closely with the MPAA, and insists that any movies showing at a member’s theater must have been rated by the MPAA Classification and Ratings Administration (one more acronym… CARA).

For an independent producer, that means he or she must have the movie rated or be satisfied with only showing it in independent theaters that are not part of NATO—usually "art house" screens often located in, shall we say, the less accessible parts of your community. Obviously, if you are hoping to make money from a movie you have made, you will want it playing in the giant multiplexes dotting America’s suburbia.

Likewise, if one of the distributors owned by the big six studios is interested in your film, they will insist that you need to have a rating attached to the movie, as they are direct members of the MPAA.

At this point, a logical question would be, "What’s the big deal? Why wouldn’t you want to have a rating for your movie? "

It’s no secret that most independent movies aren’t likely to earn a G or even PG-13 rating. For that matter, the majority fall into the R-rated category and a significant number—upon their first submission to CARA—receive the even more restrictive NC-17 rating.

Movie marketers know the PG-13 rating is the box office "sweet spot." PG-13, PG, and G impose no age restrictions at the box office. They are merely "advisories" as to the content in the film. If a six year old can get to a theater, he can walk right in to a PG-13 film.

Thus, from a money-making perspective, the PG-13 rating is the perfect mix. It allows every age access to a film, but still subtly says to teen and adult patrons that there is some edgy content. However, an R-rating requires anyone under the age of 17 to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. (Although I’m certain it’s unlikely anyone is asking for proof of guardianship at the box office.) Progressing further, an NC-17 film is not to be seen by anyone 17 or under. These restrictions can severely limit the amount of money your film will make, as teens form a huge part of movie audiences. But an even greater limiting factor exists, and for the most part is still outside the MPAA’s circle of influence.

The owners of the buildings where these theaters reside, which are typically in shopping malls or similar developments, will often dictate that NC-17 movies cannot be shown on the premises. Other complications include newspapers and television stations that will not accept advertising for NC-17 movies. Finally, some theater owners simply don’t think NC-17 movies are good for their business.

There’s no doubt that getting an NC-17 movie to the marketplace is difficult, and that’s where the issue of ratings is heating up.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…