10 of the MPAA’s Biggest Rating Mistakes

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Movie geeks and horror fans across the internet are up in arms over news that director Guillermo del Toro’s dream project, a film adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness, has been canned by Universal Pictures. Harry Knowles at Ain’t It Cool News fired off one of his barely readable screeds, calling Universal “chickenshit” for cancelling the picture; Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny responded with a reasoned and reasonable essay, noting that Universal has taken on plenty of chancey movies.

So why were they so afraid of this one? “Concerns over the film’s budget and likely R rating,” explains The New Yorker. Basically, the studio feared that the film’s high production costs ($150 million) would require a box office gross that said R rating would preclude it from generating. Commentators like Knowles and McWeeny have taken this news as an opportunity to fire up this year’s model of the art vs. commerce debate. But here’s a more pressing question: why have we allowed an organization as clearly corrupt and incompetent as the MPAA to play such a pivotal role in determining what films get made?

Kirby Dick’s brilliant 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (go watch it, it’s streaming on Netflix) is a sharp, funny, angry examination of the MPAA, the anonymous “group of parents” who determine a movie’s rating. In the course of his feature-length investigation, Dick discovered that most of the members of the review board were parents of adult children, if any. Most damagingly, he demonstrated how independent filmmakers were more likely to be branded with harsher ratings than those working for the big studios (who, incidentally, are the MPAA’s only members), and how studio filmmakers are given guidelines and advice for trims that indie filmmakers are denied. As Slate recently reported, a team of social scientists took a look at the board’s decisions and found that, to no one’s surprise, films distributed by MPAA members are (on average) about seven percent less likely to receive an R rating than films that aren’t. That information certainly goes a long way towards explaining some of the group’s more befuddling decisions — movies that should have been R (or worse) but weren’t, and movies that got an R (or worse) for no good reason. We’ve compiled ten of the MPAA’s most bewildering calls below.

A Film Unfinished (Rated R, 2010)

Yael Hersonski’s riveting documentary (new to DVD) assembles footage from an uncompleted Nazi propaganda film called Das Ghetto and complements it with testimonials from survivors, as well as information about the making of the film and why it was abandoned. It’s a brutal, vital document, full of haunting moments, such as the scene in which a group of horrified Jews are stripped and forced to take a “ritual bath.” The MPAA apparently decided that nude scene was too super-hot for today’s teens and slapped the movie with an R rating. The film’s independent distributor, Oscilloscope Laboratories, appealed the rating, citing the film’s importance as an educational tool and pointing out that the PG-13 rated 1998 documentary The Last Days featured similar scenes. (Key difference: that film’s executive producer was one Steven Spielberg.) Didn’t matter; one of the many delights of the MPAA’s appeals board is its refusal to allow filmmakers to cite precedent. The R rating stood. Oscilloscope released A Film Unfinished unrated.

The Tillman Story (Rated R, 2010)

One of the appeals board’s few surprise rulings was its overturning of the R rating affixed to Gunner Palace , the 2004 Iraq War documentary that was successfully downgraded to PG-13 “for strong language throughout, violent situations and some drug references.” The MPAA’s rules for use of the “F-word” have become fairly well-known; in a PG-13 movie, it can only be used fleetingly, once or twice, and only in a non-sexual sense (i.e., you can maybe get away with a “fuck you” but not “I sure do wanna fuck you”). There have been exceptions: All The President’s Men (which pre-dates the PG-13) got a PG in spite of several droppings of the F-bomb, presumably due to the story’s historical importance. Gunner Palace got its PG-13 in spite of the 42 uses of the word “fuck,” with co-director Michael Tucker arguing that the profanity used by the soldiers in the film reflected the reality on the ground in a war zone. Unfortunately, director Amir Bar-Lev couldn’t cite that precedent when the MPAA gave an R to his war documentary, The Tillman Story, which examined the life and death of the famed NFL-player-turned-soldier and included some salty language — but certainly no more than Gunner Palace. The Weinstein Company appealed, but the rating was upheld, and the film went out with its R in place.

The King’s Speech (Rated R, 2010)

The Weinstein brothers have a long history of clashing with the MPAA, going back to their days running Miramax and appealing the NC-17s applied to films like Clerks (they won) and Kids (they lost). Continuing that tradition, they spent much of fall 2010 dealing with the board — there was not only Tillman but Blue Valentine (which got a comically inappropriate NC-17 rating, later overturned, for the world’s saddest and most depressing sex scene) and, most notoriously, The King’s Speech, rated R for “some language.” Most of it was in the scene above — saucy, eh? Yep, the dozen or so “fucks” in The King’s Speech, non-sexual though they were, we just a few too many, so the bean-counters gave The King’s Speech the same rating as The Human Centipede. The Weinstein Company did the only sensible thing: released it with the R rating and made a bunch of money off it and won tons of awards (including the Best Picture Oscar), while simultaneously deciding to submit a “PG-13 edit” that they would then send out to theaters in place of the original version. Way to stick it to ‘em, Weinsteins! Wait, what?

Insidious (Rated PG-13, 2011)

This forthcoming horror effort from Saw director James Wan just nabbed the PG-13 for “thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language.” The notion that this film, with its screeching music, child-in-peril storyline, and two-by-four-to-the-head scares, is somehow more appropriate for a family audience than The King’s Speech is borderline insane — but you’ve got to give it to Wan: no F-words and no boobies! This is just the latest horror movie to open itself to those lucrative teenage opening weekend dollars by keeping those two things (and only those two things) off the screen. Chillers like The Last Exorcism (“Rated PG-13 for disturbing violent content and terror, some sexual references and thematic material”) and the remakes of the R-rated Prom Night (“Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some sexual material, underage drinking, and language”) and The Stepfather (“Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, mature thematic material and brief sensuality”) danced up to the same line.

It’s Complicated (Rated R, 2009)

There are plenty of reasons to stay away from Nancy Myers’ 2009 rom-com: namely, that it is two hours of forced affability and wine-soaked “girl talk” and music montages and unrestrained self-indulgence on the part of its abysmal writer/director and her cast of hermetically sealed upper-class twits. But that’s not why the MPAA decided to limit it to audiences over 17; the film received its R rating for “some drug content and sexuality.” It was the former that put it into R territory — specifically, a sequence in which stars Meryl Streep and Steve Martin smoke a lil’ reefer and get the giggles. According to the New York Times, which spoke to unnamed insiders, “the ratings board was concerned about what the movie did not have: a negative consequence for the behavior.” In other words, the board is still engaging in Hays Code thinking, which allowed the bad behavior of the gangsters played by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson as long as they got theirs in the end. Presumably, if Streep and Martin had got busted for their joint, Universal could have won their appeal. (And, again, they couldn’t cite the precedent of the PG-rated weed-smoking in 9 to 5 .)

Requiem for a Dream (Rated NC-17, 2000)

Let’s be clear: Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel is not for kids. It is a brutal, intense, harrowing dramatization of the throes of drug addiction — both the occasional highs and the many, many lows. Considering the board’s insistence on “negative consequence for the behavior,” you’d think they’d have been delighted with the unfortunate scene that befalls Jennifer Connelly’s Marion Silver, who ends up performing in a graphic private sex show in exchange for drugs. But no, the nudity of that sequence was apparently too much for the R rating (the board wasn’t bothered by the gore, violence, and intensity of the rest of the film, since the trimming of that nudity was all they required for the later R-rated home video version), and the picture got an NC-17. To their credit, Artisan Entertainment released the film unrated, but the unrated/NC-17 stigma is the kiss of death in today’s moviegoing marketplace, with most theater and newspaper chains refusing to screen or advertise films so branded, and video chains refusing to carry them. As a result, most of America had to wait for video to see Aronofsky’s dark masterpiece.

Scary Movie (Rated R, 2000)

On the other hand, the MPAA had no trouble at all issuing an R rating (“for strong crude sexual humor, language, drug use and violence”) to the horror spoof Scary Movie, a film with such delightful gags as a girl thrown to a bedroom ceiling and all but drowned in semen, and a bi-curious young man stabbed in the head by an erect penis while investigating a glory hole. For comparison’s sake, the year’s other R-rated films included Almost Famous, High Fidelity, and the Ethan Hawke version of Hamlet . Or, here’s a more interesting comparison: two years before, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a similarly smutty sex comedy, Orgazmo , which was rated NC-17 for “explicit sexual content and dialogue.” The difference? Orgazmo was released by independent distributor October Films, while Scary Movie was put out by Miramax’s Dimension label — both of which were subsidiaries of the Walt Disney Company.

Titanic (Rated PG-13, 1997)

According to Slate’s article about the recent study of the MPAA’s track record, University of Maryland professor David Waguespack notes that the PG-13 film most likely to have received an R rating (between 1992 and 2006, anyway) was James Cameron’s Titanic. As Slate notes, “it includes a very excellent look at Kate Winslet’s breasts, bloody gunshots, an electrocution, many horrific drownings, many floating dead bodies, and a few obscenities. If you ignored that Titanic was distributed by Paramount and Fox (which together constitute one-third of the MPAA’s membership), then Titanic was 99 percent likely to get an R rating. And yet the movie got rated PG-13!” That same winter, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter got an R rating for “sexuality and some language.” You would be hard-pressed to find anything in it that is more objectionable than what’s in Titanic. It’s a better movie, too.

Gremlins/Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom/Sixteen Candles (Rated PG, 1984)

There are few things in this life more rare than the MPAA admitting a mistake. But a trio of PG-rated movies caused enough of an outcry in 1984 to lead to a change in ratings policy: Gremlins, with its creature-feature mayhem and exploding-gremlin-in-the-microwave scene; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which a ritual sacrifice includes the live extraction of a still-beating heart; and Sixteen Candles, which includes a long, lingering look at a naked teenage girl in the school shower. No doubt the pleadings of Steven Spielberg, executive producer of Gremlins and director of Temple of Doom, helped assure their box office-friendly ratings, but when the parental outcry became deafening, Spielberg led the charge for a new, intermediate rating, suggesting the PG-13 to MPAA head Jack Valenti.

Poltergeist (Rated PG, 1982)

A generation of kids has the MPAA to thank for the nightmare-inducing accessibility of Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s haunted house movie from 1982. It’s no surprise that it’s absolutely terrifying; Hooper, after all, directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not exactly kiddie fare. The pre-PG-13 MPAA originally gave Poltergeist a deserved R-rating — after all (as so eloquently catalogued by the good folks at the horror blog The Flesh Farm) “a man watches in a mirror while his face decomposes and falls into the sink, parents smoking weed in front of their children, decomposing bodies jumping out of the ground and a mother getting dry humped by an unseen apparition.” But Spielberg was the PG king, so he appealed the decision to the MPAA — who reversed their decision and gave the film a PG rating without changes. Cut to a few months later, when your author (then an impressionable eight years old) spent countless hours wide awake, in constant fear of tree limbs crashing in through the bedroom window. Thanks, MPAA. Thanks for nothin’.

These are just a few of the MPAA’s memorable mistakes. What would you add to the list?