Unrated Movies Further Erode MPAA System

There is so much attention given to media rating systems lately that many may be led to believe that no mainstream movies are being released to DVD without some sort of rating stamped on the cover. However, a growing trend on store shelves shows yet another indication that the real creative geniuses are not sitting in the writers’ or directors’ chairs, but are instead behind the marketing desks.

When DVDs first started appearing on shelves a few years back, the "extra features" usually consisted of a couple of promotional previews for other titles from the same studio. Of course, anyone with a penchant for purchasing DVDs knows these extras have exploded, to the point where many titles are releasing on two-disc sets because they can’t fit everything on one platter. (Although, from my observations, it appears many "deluxe" releases simply use the double-disc bait as yet another marketing tactic in an effort to convince buyers they are getting more for their money. Instead, the discs are often filled with fluff.)

The catch for parents is all this extra material is not examined by any ratings authority. The MPAA only reviews the core feature movie—not any of the other items. In the interviews, "making of" featurettes, and other material that is typically included, you may discover profanities you weren’t expecting. Another source of content concerns are the popular outtakes, where performers often express frustrations in their words of choice.

But lately, this issue is moving beyond even this point. Discs with the extra features described above at least still carry a rating for the main movie. The rating-breaker came when studios began releasing titles labeled as "Extended director’s cut" or (definitely more to the point) "Unrated Extended Edition."

The path to these releases is very clear. Directors are often forced to modify their "art" when the studio has requested a PG-13 movie, but the MPAA returns an R-rating on the finished film. That sends the director to the editing room where snippets of skin, profanities, and bloodied wounds are carefully excised frame by frame. Eventually, the PG-13 is won, and the film moves into theaters, but you can bet these movies are prime titles for an "Unrated Director’s Cut" on DVD.

(The same scenario can take place when an R-rated target comes back with an NC-17 rating.)

The argument for unrated DVD editions is that they give directors a second chance to show exactly what they wanted the movie to look like. Yet, it also provides a practical way for creators to retaliate against what some perceive to be a far too restrictive ratings system.

Sadly, this situation is short-circuiting the MPAA ratings system, and placing improperly labeled products in front of the most vulnerable consumers—our children.

Some video retailers have policies of not selling or renting R (and hopefully NC-17) rated movies to minors. But where do "unrated" titles come in to play? While some outlets refuse to carry them, many others are happy to oblige. And for parents—or perhaps younger people—who are seeking to know the rating on a product, they are instead met with a small rectangle that states "Not Rated" on the back of the box.

Such a title sits on my desk this week, in the form of the movie Doom, staring "The Rock." This film, from Universal Studios, is based on the highly popular video game. Originally rated R in theaters, the back of the DVD box declares, "Unrated extended movie too intense for theaters."

Anyone familiar with the game knows this bloodbath pioneered the "First Person Shooter" genre, with players viewing the world over the barrel of a gun while shooting anything or anyone that moves. The movie follows suit with scenes of blood and gore aplenty: People are dismembered on screen, a naked woman who becomes aggressive is graphically shot in front of our eyes… the carnage goes on and on.

All this in a package labeled "Unrated" and available from major retailers across the nation. But it doesn’t end there.

Toss the DVD into your Xbox, and you’ll discover a playable demo of the new Doom 3 videogame, with more interactive violence. The game is rated M, which is mentioned in fine print on the back of the DVD box, but how many retailers are going to be vigilant enough to read that notice?

Over the past few years, the home video market has become a freeway for unrated movies to fly past ratings gatekeepers. Before purchasing any title that bears an "Unrated" or "Not Rated" label, you would be wise to do some research, especially as these products cannot be returned for a refund after they are opened.

If you are looking at a newer film, and it doesn’t bear an MPAA rating, there’s a good chance content has been added that may not be in keeping with the movie you saw in the theater. The only types of movies where an "Unrated" label is warranted are movies released prior to 1968 when MPAA ratings began. Unless these films were re-released to theaters after the ratings system was in place, they will not have an MPAA rating.

Finally, we need a quick trip back to marketing school to remember that many young purchasers are drawn to an "Unrated" label in the same way a big red button labeled "Don’t Touch" is so irresistible. The mystery and sense of seeing something they shouldn’t are excellent ways of seducing teens (and adults) into digging out their wallets and buying the disc.

With the MPAA rating system being eroded from every angle, it’s sad to see yet another "loophole" being exploited. Here’s hoping someone in Hollywood will look for ways of providing consumers with better information on future "unrated" editions.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…