6AM Independence Day! What in the world am I doing up at this hour?
The answer is that actually I’ve already been up for about two and a half hours, having been startled awake by the oddest dream wherein I was on the phone in a yelling match with Hugh Heffner, and I’ve been padding around the internet since about 4 this morning. The light’s just coming up now and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I hope you all are spending it with friends and family, and if you’re here reading this, I’ll hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on the fact that although things are not perfect here in the US, my films have never faced the sorts of problems with the government that they’ve faced in places like Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Italy, or Germany. Now on with the show!
The MPAA Took My Baby Away!: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America.
I first started thinking about this post when we started selling our Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series on Amazon. This was about the same time that Kirby Dick’s MPAA expose doc This Film Not Yet Rated came out on DVD. Kirby and I have rather different takes on the MPAA, and whether or not the MPAA functions as a de facto censorship body; and I think This Film Not Yet Rated, while making some valid points about the vagaries and inconsistencies of the MPAA’s rating system, does a real disservice to the conversation around grown-up movie making by conflating the function and scope of a trade organization with censorship and by promulgating myths about the NC-17 rating.
Of course Dick’s film was enthusiastically received by the indie film community, and not hard to understand why. Indies films often deal with provocative subject matter, and the idea of the Big Bad MPAA destroying maverick films and maverick filmmakers by assigning the dreaded NC-17 rating is an appealing one, or certainly one I found appealing, especially in light of the sort of violence that receives an R-rating.
But in the course of making and marketing our films, I’ve come to believe that the way the system works actually suits exploitation filmmakers like me and Kirby Dick to a T. To understand why, let’s first get a working definition of an “exploitation filmaker.”
Unlike most other counties, here in the US there is no government mandated rating and censorship process. In counties like Australia or the UK, before a film or DVD can be released a film must be submitted to a government censorship board, which decides whether or not a film can be release, and if so, what rating it receives.
There has never been any such requirement here in the US. So even back in the days of the Production Code (aka Hays Codes,) there were films that were not produced within the MPAA system and were not released with an MPAA seal. Many of these films would have qualified for a seal, but for whatever reason did not go through the MPAA system. But for the purposes of this discusion, we’re going to define exploitation filmmaking as films that go “too far” to be granted a Production Code seal, but no so far as to attract attention from law enforcement. As such, “exploitation filmmakers” do a sort of creative arbitrage between what the MPAA will not permit and what the law will not allow, and the days of the Production Code, this is a healthy little niche.
But with the advent of the four-tiered system (G, PG, R, X), this niche threatens to collapse. The four-tiered system wipes out the idea that anything is off-limits in an MPAA rated film; sex, violence, it’s all fair game now, and exploitation filmmakers are faced with the prospect of competing with films like Bonnie and Clyde (violence) or Last Tango in Paris (Sex) or A Clockwork Orange (both!) This is not good news for people like me and Kirby!
But who comes along to save us? The MPAA.
I believe the decision by the MPAA not to trademark the X rating was made with the best intentions. I believe the MPAA’s failure to respond to the effect of the co-opting of the X-rating was stubborn. I believe introduction of the NC-17 as a trademarked “adult only” rating was too slow and when it finally came it was handled clumsily. But I also believe that in combination these things saved exploitation filmmaking. Here’s why.
Whether the reasons are real or imagined, the fact that NC-17 is considered a box office kiss of death, the result is a reestablishment of the space between what Hollywood will do and what can be sold in legitimate venues. Occasionally a film will take the NC-17 rating (Lust/Caution, Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story) but more often than not, films that go “too far”, that is to say past what would receive an R-rating, are released without an MPAA seal. Everything old is new again!
And even better, now you can beat the drum, “Unrated! Uncensored! Uncut!” The subtext is clear, “We’ve got the good stuff! Come and have a look at what those moralists at the MPAA didn’t want you to see!” Wow that must be hot stuff, right? And just like the 60s, when MPAA studios cut and ran on the Production Code when they thought there was money in it, MPAA studios do the same thing today. From John Frithian’s 2007 speech:
[W]e call for our studio partners to abandon the practice of releasing unrated DVDs of the same movies that played in our theatres with a rating. We know that unrated DVDs—unlike unrated movies in our theatres—can do brisk sales. But it is frankly galling to see marketing campaigns designed around the very fact that a movie is “unrated and uncensored.”
Of course the “uncensored” part is just a lie. When the MPAA assigned the NC-17 rating to Marie and Jack: A Hardcore Love Story, Senior Rater Tony Hey told me he thought Marie and Jack was “a well-made, entertaining film that really delivered the goods—just the sort of film the NC-17 rating was made for.” There was no request that we alter the film in any way, and the NC-17 rating is entirely appropriate. In fact, given the laws in this country regarding showing sexually explicit material to minors, it’s impossible to imagine the film earning any other rating.
But I do wonder if we might start “tarting up” the marketing for our films. The Independent Film Channel was using “Unrated, Uncensored, Uncut” for a while, and even though they never aired anything that would have earned more than a PG-13 or maybe an R-rating, the tagline did make them sound edgy and rebellious. Maybe that could work for us too!
But for the foreseeable future, the NC-17 rating remains a dead zone. We didn’t see any benefit from getting a rating for Marie and Jack, so our next five have been released without an MPAA seal. Lust/Caution wasn’t a failure, but until there’s a real blockbuster released under the NC-17 banner, I don’t imagine we’ll see any significant studio efforts in that direction. Variety reports a studio exec at the same 2007 ShoWest at which Frithian spoke as saying, “There really needs to be a good, commercial movie that can break through the tide. The problem is, most of the NC-17 films have been niche or arthouse. It’s unclear whether the problem is the rating or the movie.”
And until then, DVDs films like The Dreams, 9 Songs and Shortbus will continue to be marketed as the “unrated version”, as if there’s another, less sexy version the MPAA tried to force on us, save the heroic defiance of the producers.
Section II)A has explored eroticism and sexuality in cinema from one side of the “exploitation” space, the boundary between mainstream Hollywood film and exploitation cinema. In the next section II)B) Landmark cases in obscenity law and the long shadow of language will look at instances when decisions about eroticsm and sexuality were made in the courts and backed up by the full power of the state.
Till then, happy birthday America and happy Fourth of July to all of you!