One movie that comes out next weekend features a sweet old Catholic lady who goes searching for her long-lost son. Another is about a war-torn dystopian hellscape that celebrates and makes sport of children murdering each other. Which one was originally rated PG-13, and which film had to put up a public campaign to get that rating?
There was never any question that you'd be able to get into The Hunger Games: Catching Fire without a problem. But, until Wednesday afternoon, if you were under 17, you were going to need a parent or guardian to accompany you to see Judi Dench in the new dramedy Philomena.
There are a few new dispatches from the Hollywood leviathan known as the MPAA, where moral decisions that govern America's cultural consumption are made by the six major movie studios that make up its board. The group has faced fire in recent years, and the flames are being fanned once again.
On Wednesday, a hearing took place over the R rating that the organization gave Philomena, a British import directed by Stephen Frears that stars Dench and Steve Coogan. The movie, which has been nominated for several awards in the U.K., tells the true story of a journalist who helps a devoutly Catholic retiree find the son that was stolen from her by a rigid, heartless nun 50 years prior. Philomena mixes personal redemption, affirmations of faith, and fish-out-of-water comedic elements to create what is ultimately a heartwarming and triumphant tale.
And yet, the MPAA, which employs 10 anonymous ratings board members whose rulings dictate what most American theatergoers can and can't see, initially decided that the film is ill-suited for the ears of anyone younger than 17…all because the word "fuck" is used twice throughout the film's two hours. It is, technically, one utterance of "one of the harsher sexually derived words" too many.
The dispute came at a convenient time for The Weinstein Company, which is distributing Philomena in the United States. The indie power relishes this kind of fight, and in this case, proactively produced a Funny or Die video that resurrects Dench's M character from the James Bond franchise to urge the ratings council to reconsider its decision.
The appeal was successful, which is the latest in the blows to the MPAA's system.
Coincidentally, on Monday, a new study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and Ohio State University revealed that films with a PG-13 rating now contain more gun violence than those tagged with the restrictive R. Days of headlines have regurgitated and reflected on this finding, but it's really not all that surprising.
Going by the MPAA's guidelines, there are strict tripwires for language and sexual content that trigger the R ratings, while the interpretation of how much violence is too much violence is left to subjective deliberation. The official guideline for a PG-13 film is that the violence is "generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent." But over the years, the limits for the kind of carnage permitted in PG-13 movies have been pushed further and further. There has been no similar slack when it comes to the restrictions on language and sexuality; only on appeal do these movies have a chance of becoming PG-13.
Why the discrepancy? It is no coincidence that the film industry has self-segregated over the last decade, with the six major studios largely relying on big, violent franchise movies, and independent production companies focusing more on dialogue-heavy films. Even when studios release more dialogue-driven films — typically during Oscar season — those movies cost far less to make, so they don't have to worry so much about maximizing audiences.
Remember, the major studios sit on the board of the MPAA, which creates the guidelines. It is a feedback loop playing an obvious tune. When movies like Man of Steel, which used the death of millions of people as a special effect, get a PG-13 rating, and indie teenage dramas like The Spectacular Now get an R rating, it's not hard to project a possible institutional bias.
"The attempt is to reflect that the way the raters believe that the majority of American parents would rate the film, taking in the elements that, generally speaking, American parents would want to be aware of before determining whether they took their kid to a movie or not," the MPAA's Kate Bedingfield told BuzzFeed in an interview this summer. "It's a diverse country so it's an attempt to reflect the consensus of a majority of American parents."
Theaters don't have to abide by the ratings, but then, MPAA-affiliated studios don't have to send them their movies. And, as multiplexes take over the landscape of American cinema, there are fewer and fewer independent movie houses available to fight the battle.
Because of this discrepancy, it made headlines earlier this month when the IFC Center, an independent movie theater in New York, announced that it would not enforce the MPAA's NC-17 rating of the French film Blue is the Warmest Color. The movie, which won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes this past May, is a three-hour long feature about a young lesbian relationship and includes "graphic" sex scenes between the two protagonists.
The MPAA ratings board has a history of showing bias toward certain forms of sexual intercourse — back in 2010, Blue Valentine was initially given an NC-17 because it featured a scene in which Ryan Gosling performed simulated oral sex on Michelle Williams, but The Weinstein Company fought to get an R rating — and Blue is just the latest in the line of mistreated movies.
The good news is that these ratings are going to matter less and less in the coming years. The divide between studios and independent producers is not just in content, but also distribution models. Video on demand is becoming an increasingly large part of independents' release plans, with a movie often being made available on iTunes, Amazon, and cable systems the same day as it comes out in theaters — and sometimes, even before.
With fewer and fewer independent movie theaters around to ignore the ratings, the VOD method — which has far fewer age controls — is the way most people in America will see films like Philomena, anyway. Perhaps at some point, the MPAA's ally, the National Association of Theater Owners, will begin to realize that strict enforcement of biased restrictions is only hurting them.