Changes in Movie Ratings Part 2—More NC-17 Movies Coming to a Theater Near You

For years, independent producers (and foreign filmmakers) have claimed their movies receive stricter ratings than movies coming from the big six studios that contain similar content. One filmmaker who decided to make a strong statement about this inequality is Kirby Dick. His recent documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, made its debut appearance at the Sundance Film Festival early last year, and circulated through art house theaters last fall.

Dick also contests that sexual content is rated more restrictively by CARA than is violence, and that sexual behavior seen as (quoting Mary Harron, the director of American Psycho who is interviewed in the film) "unusual forms of sex" are especially prone to receive a higher rating.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated received an NC-17 rating for the graphic sexual examples he includes from other films. Yet, it’s obvious that Dick only submitted the film for a rating to make his point and gain access to the inner workings of CARA. Dick then surrendered his rating, made revisions to the film to include the rating process he went through (which obviously wasn’t included in the version originally submitted to the MPAA) and then released it as an unrated movie.

On January 23, 2007 This Film is Not Yet Rated releases to DVD, and the timing is impeccable, with the head of the MPAA, Dan Glickman, visiting the Sundance Film Festival in Park City Utah and giving the producers there a big sense of hope for marketing edgier entertainment.

In the industry trade publication Daily Variety on January 16, 2007, it was reported that Glickman and ratings head Joan Graves would both be kicking off a "campaign" to help indie filmmakers and parents better understand the ratings system and make it more transparent.

His inspiration for making the changes? Dick’s documentary.

Quoting Glickman directly from the article by Daily Variety writer Pamela McClintock: "The documentary made it clear that we probably haven’t done as much as we can to explain how it all works," Glickman told Daily Variety, adding that the voluntary ratings system—devised and implemented by Jack Valenti, his predecessor—is a "gem," even if it needs some polishing.

But on January 22, 2007, Variety’s web publication reported the results of the "kickoff:" Glickman wants the movie business to embrace the NC-17 rating and has appointed a liaison to help filmmakers with questions about the ratings process. This is an obvious reaction to one of Kirby Dick’s repeated points in his documentary is that no one knows who actually decides the rating of a movie at the MPAA. The names of the members of CARA’s review board have always been secret, and filmmakers often receive conflicting reasons as to why a movie receives a particular rating.

But even more enticing to independent filmmakers working in edgy themes is Glickman’s statement, "We are going to talk about this with the Directors Guild of America and NATO. [NC-17] is one of our ratings, and we would like to see it used more."

I’m betting this doesn’t mean Glickman is going to instruct the board to issue more NC-17 ratings for movies that would now be rated R. That’s further confirmed with another announcement he makes that explains how the ratings board will be using a new ratings descriptor to indicate certain R-rated movies aren’t appropriate for younger children. (Hold that thought for a few paragraphs…)

How this affects you will depend on where you sit with all of these variables. Some families are more sensitive to sexual content than violence. Others are the opposite.

However, I see problems with these changes, which should concern every parent, no matter which side of the sex versus violence fence you sit on.

To begin, if we are looking forward to the prospect of having more NC-17 movies playing in our neighborhood theaters, NATO better be prepared to do a far more effective job of checking for age verification than has been done in the past. In December 2001, the Federal Trade Commission’s Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A One-Year Follow-Up Review… indicated that a study conducted for the report witnessed one-third of 13-yar-olds and nearly two-thirds (62%) of sixteen-year-olds gained admittance to R-rated films without an accompanying adult.

This was just twelve months after the feds rattled the cages of the entertainment industry, threatening legislation-backed movie ratings if the MPAA’s voluntary system could not be effectively enforced. Can we assume these compliance rates have improved any since then?

NC-17 films contain very high levels of sexual and violent content. It is probable to conclude a child or even teen could suffer psychological consequences after viewing such material. (I would suggest even many R-rated films have the potential to cause emotional harm to young viewers.)

Remember, unlike the bar on the corner of your street, there is no law you can fall back on if a slack theater employee doesn’t check your child for age. There is no law forcing theaters to hire extra staff to make sure a teen who buys a ticket to a Disney film isn’t heading for another cinema within a multiplex.

Further, if NC-17 movies are to become financially viable, they will need to be marketed somewhere. Outdoor advertising? Television? The Internet? Movie trailers at the start of other films? Will the industry be able to police itself in these areas?

Finally, back to my earlier comment regarding the decision to qualify certain R-rated movies as not being appropriate for young children. What does that mean? Isn’t that inherently obvious in the R-rating itself? Or is this indicative of plans for the MPAA and CARA to acquiesce on certain films with more explicit sexual content, and give them an R-rating with this new descriptor instead of an NC-17 in order to balance the perceived inequality between sexual and violent content? It’s important to recognize that R-rated films with this new descriptor will still allow any age patron into the film, as long as an adult accompanies them.

I can’t help but feel as studios and independent producers fight this battle through the MPAA, that parents are on the outside of the loop. I fully endorse First Amendment rights, and recognize that those who want to produce NC-17 films have a right to do so. Yet children have rights as well, and it’s up to adults to ensure their protection. The tobacco and alcohol industries have had to live with highly restrictive marketing and selling rules because their products are known to cause harm to children (and, arguably, adults). However, well over a thousand studies have concluded that violent media can have a detrimental impact on a child’s mental health. Unfortunately, hardly any studies involving extreme sexual content have been completed, so we lack the scientific proof of potential harm.

Obviously, the answer is to make theaters as accountable as bars and retailers selling alcohol and tobacco. However, based on previous performance, I find it difficult to believe that theaters have the staff and resources to effectively limit access to minors from seeing these films, especially considering how many of their staff are minors themselves! And I’m certain these movies won’t be exclusively promoted in "adult" media or in places where children won’t be regularly seeing the advertisements.

I encourage parents to contact the MPAA and NATO and let them know they are being watched. The movie industry is already at risk of alienating a huge segment of their potential audience who write to me frequently complaining about not being able to find a film that meets with their tastes. Parents are frustrated with a ratings system that, despite the MPAA’s claims of being very successful, is still used as a marketing ploy by many studios that release films cut to the very highest limits of the PG-13 or R-rating.

Our film industry is an essential part of our culture, and has long been a pastime families have enjoyed, and for the most part financed. With the constant pressure to push the envelope and appeal to a particular segment, which I personally believe is a small fraction of our society, Hollywood is at risk of writing itself a very unhappy ending.

Contact information for the organizations included in this article:

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)

Office of the Chairman and CEO

1600 Eye St., NW

Washington, DC 20006


Classification and Rating Administration (CARA)

15503 Ventura Boulevard

Encino, CA 91436


National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO)

P.O. Box 77318

Washington D.C. 20013-7318

Tel. 202.962-0054

Fax: 202.962-0370


More details about the movies mentioned in this post…