from the they-only-have-as-much-power-as-we-give-them dept
There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in Hollywood lately surrounding the documentary Bully, which has drawn attention to the ridiculousness of the MPAA's movie ratings system—and may even indicate the first real erosion of the organization's power in that area. The documentary—which has been well-received as an accurate depiction of real problems, and a potentially important film for parents, teachers and kids to see—was rated R by the MPAA for harsh language, which would stop kids under 17 from seeing it in theatres alone. This sparked a massive push-back from the studio and the anti-bullying activist community, but the MPAA refused to budge, so the studio announced that it would release the film as unrated by the MPAA (though they do include the much more reasonable "Pause 13+" rating it received from Common Sense Media, a non-profit children's advocacy group).
This can confuse people, because it's a common assumption that movie ratings are required by the government. In fact, the MPAA's rating system is unregulated and entirely voluntary, and was created as a way to avoid government intervention. The rating from CSM carries no more or less legal weight than an MPAA rating—but participation by studios, cinemas and retailers in the MPAA system has been so widespread for so long that their ratings are the de facto standard, and essentially mandatory. Any film can be released without a rating, but traditionally that has been commercial suicide, since theatres would treat it as NC17, a rating under which success is nearly impossible since most theatres won't show such films at all. But that's where things with Bully get interesting: AMC has announced that its theatres will show the movie and make it easy for kids to see it. In a unique move, they are providing a parental permission slip on their website for kids to print, get signed, and bring to the theatre:
“AMC will be presenting Bully…as not rated,” said the theater-chain in a statement. “Guests younger than 17 can see the film if they are accompanied by a parent or adult guardian, or if they present a signed parental permission slip.”
That permission slip will be available on Wednesday at this link on AMC’s website. ... (A rep for the company declined to comment on the Parent’s Television Council’s statement that screening Bully at AMC’s theaters “threatens to derail the entire ratings system.”)
That last bit is interesting, because it shows that the Parents Television Council (notorious moralist meddlers in the free speech rights of others) knows exactly what's happening. The power of the MPAA and groups like PTC relies entirely on momentum and force of habit. Nobody is beholden to them, but for a long time it seemed like everyone forgot that. That let the MPAA warp the rating system and use it for their own purposes such as playing politics, screwing over indie filmmakers, and even punishing a documentary that criticized the rating system itself. But now people are remembering that they don't have to play by the MPAA's self-serving rules. In their statement, PTC neatly predicts the future, though they rail against it:
"This move, regardless of intentions, sets a precedent that threatens to derail the entire ratings system," said PTC head Tim Winter in a statement."If a distribution company can simply decide to operate outside of the ratings system in a case like Bully, nothing would prevent future filmmakers from doing precisely the same thing, with potentially much more problematic material."
As with most of the disruption happening in the entertainment industry, this has a lot to do with the internet. In the past, if everyone played by the rules, there was basically no such thing as "unmet demand" for a film with a bad rating. Once the MPAA handed down its death sentence, nobody would touch the project, and it would receive no promotion or screen time, so nobody outside film circles even knew about it. Now lots of people are plugged into the festival circuit and the inside world of film, so a movie like Bully can generate plenty of buzz before it even hits Hollywood. The demand for the film was there, the studios were able to gamble on that demand, and AMC could see the advantage in breaking the rules to meet it. If the film is a success (which seems likely) it will deal a powerful and much-needed blow to the MPAA's ratings regime.