The movie ratings are fixed

'50 Shades of Grey' demonstrates that the big studios get benefit of doubt

July 30, 2014 6:00AM ET

Next Valentine’s Day weekend, when it hits theaters nationwide, the film adaption of the BDSM erotica best-seller “50 Shades of Grey” will be rated R. Despite the movie’s being pornographic, thanks to distribution by Universal and a $40 million budget, there’s no doubt that it will play at every megaplex in the U.S. The Motion Picture Association of America and its rating system isn’t just rigged in favor of the major studios; the MPAA is the major studios, and it likes control just as much as Christian Grey does.

I don’t have anything against “50 Shades,” but it’s hard to imagine that a similarly prurient project without the same backing would pass muster with the rating board. The MPAA is an interest group that represents the big six studios (20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.) in their common ventures such as crafting anti-piracy public service announcements, lobbying Congress and rating movies. These ratings carry no legal weight — it is not against any law to sell a 13-year-old a ticket to an R-rated movie — filmmakers don’t need to submit their films for ratings, and theaters can show whatever they want. But the reality isn’t so simple.

In the 2006 documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” filmmaker Kirby Dick makes a compelling case that abiding by the MPAA rating system is effectively mandatory if a filmmaker wants his or her movie to reach the public. If a film doesn’t receive a rating of G, PG, PG-13 or R, distributors won’t take it on, and neither will Walmart. Without a rating, films are limited to screening at the few persisting independent theaters that don’t rely on the big studios. Being slapped with an NC-17 rating is a commercial death sentence, but there’s no right to due process or to confront your accuser. The 10-member rating board is 90 percent anonymous.

Occasionally we see a conflict between the rating board and a movie with industry pull, but such fights are rare and reveal whose interests the MPAA serves. Last year the film “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench as an Irish grandmother looking for her long lost son, at first received an R rating because Dame Dench says “f---” twice. “Blue Valentine,” a 2010 romantic dramedy starring A-listers Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, got a preliminary NC-17 rating, for oral sex that Gosling performs on Williams, before the MPAA changed its mind. What these films share besides getting the rating they wanted is distribution by Hollywood heavy hitter the Weinstein Co. Films without the Weinsteins that get an NC-17 can keep it or surrender and go unrated. Either way, only about one NC-17 or unrated movie a year (recently, “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “Nymphomaniac,” “Shame”) makes any kind of splash.

The MPAA’s system is overtly parental, which is very presumptuous of it; I don’t know a lot of parents who are otherwise happy to substitute the judgment of 10 faceless strangers in Hollywood for their own.

As “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” makes clear, the shadowy rating board has particular hang-ups related to gay sex, women’s sexual pleasure and foul language. This leads to absurdities such as PG-13 movies conspicuously exercising their one allotted F-word or advanced press coverage for every movie that contains cunnilingus (like “Blue Valentine” and “The Cooler”). The few queer movies that manage to get made have to fight extra hard to pass, and they’re often asked to make serious cuts to please what is then by definition a board of censors. Violence is much less controversial, as is sex when it appeals to boys and men — the movies of Judd Apatow and Michael Bay, for example. For filmmakers trying to sneak past the MPAA, it’s easier to show the end of the world than a woman’s face while she has an orgasm.

None of this is to say content warnings of all sorts are worthless. Consumers have more information at the ready than ever before, and it’s easy to imagine an app that does ratings better than an MPAA system implemented in 1968. One obvious weakness in the current system: It focuses on restricting children’s access. The national debate over trigger warnings — as well as consternation over awkward first dates — suggests that there’s a demand for separate alerts for sexual violence. As a 13-year-old, I certainly could have used a heads-up that although “Austin Powers in Goldmember” was PG-13, it was not safe to see with my dad. The MPAA’s system is overtly parental, which is very presumptuous of it; I don’t know a lot of parents who are otherwise happy to substitute the judgment of 10 faceless strangers in Hollywood for their own.

The MPAA isn’t satisfied with dominating the market for movies. It wants to totally control American access to film as a medium. But we don’t have to live like that. Video on demand is fast changing the way the public sees film content, and it’s creating spaces where the rating system is largely irrelevant. On Netflix, unrated movies appear right next to the regular ones — a big change from the Blockbusters of yesteryear which stocked according to MPAA norms. Popular premium TV serials such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective” and Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” could be NC-17, but that hasn’t left them culturally marginalized. Small commercial theaters have shut down, but high-definition projectors are cheap. Nandan Rao is trying to make his site Simple Machine an Airbnb for movie theaters, letting anyone set up a backyard cinema and connect with indie filmmakers (like Rao) for screening licenses.

In order to displace the MPAA, what these diverse elements need is a brand. Luckily, the MPAA already created one. Studios have been using unrated cuts to sell DVDs since at least “American Pie,” and it’s time for the truly unrated to take it back. An unrated film movement could define and develop an alternative distribution pipeline while offering a visibility boost to riskier projects. Given the choice between rated and unrated theaters, maybe some of the industry’s coveted teen demographic will opt for the latter — especially if they’re cheaper. If a few cult Hollywood players with enough attitude and money to buck the system defect for greater artistic freedom — which some already have — then the industry might just have to drop the whip.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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