The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has the power to make or break your theatrical release with its rating system.
Many original cuts of popular films have been brandished with an NC-17 rating over the years, often prompting filmmakers to re-edit for a more commercially viable R. In 2011, Fox Searchlight famously refused to appeal the NC-17 rating on Steve McQueen’s Shame. This was seen as a media stunt and an attempt to “reclaim” the rating and abolish its stigma. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have Fox Searchlight gunning for our film.
As an indie filmmaker, an NC-17 rating could mean that your film screens one midnight showing, at one theater, and that’s it. Artistically, preserving the integrity of your film and showing it to small audiences may be the right move, but your investors might not be pleased.
Many in the film industry feel that an NC-17 rating is a kiss of death.
Why? Because if your film receives this rating, it likely means that distributors won’t touch you, commercial theaters won’t release your film, mainstream media outlets won’t advertise it, and your movie becomes relegated to “smut.”
How serious can this really be? With the exception of a few breakout hits like Showgirls, NC-17 films rarely gross above 5 million at the box office. And most indies can expect far less than that.
What is the MPAA?
Believe it or not, these ratings came about as an answer to the strict censorship of the Hays Code. In 1968, Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America sailed onto the scene, replacing the antiquated code with their modern day rating system. A system that is in their words, “a symbol of American freedom of expression.” Thanks, Jack!
If you’re not familiar, the MPAA is a trade association that represents these six major Hollywood studios:
- Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
- Paramount Pictures Corporation
- Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
- Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
- Universal City Studios LLC
- Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
They act as a lobbyist in the interests of these studios, and advocate for such industry related legislation as SOPA and PIPA. But their main function revolves around one division called the Classification and Rating Administration. This division rates films with the intent to “provide parents with advance information… to help them determine what movies are appropriate for their children at any age.”
But the MPAA’s ratings don’t just affect children. When it comes to their strictest ratings, the difference between an R and an NC-17 can drastically affect a film’s marketability and as a result, its box office. In fact, many in the film industry feel that an NC-17 rating is a kiss of death.
It is an indisputable fact that the large majority of NC-17 films are labeled as such for reasons of sexuality, and not violence.
How does the MPAA work?
There are no hard and fast rules for rating, and the MPAA retains the right to make seemingly arbitrary decisions based the vague factor of “discomfort.” So the only real measure of the rules is precedent. What irked them before is likely to irk them again. Knowing these precedents ahead of time allows you to creatively problem solve in the way you write and shoot your film, so you don’t get stuck with an unsatisfying re-edit.
How do you reduce chances of getting an NC-17?
These are a few guidelines to follow based on previous MPAA rulings.
1. Violence Over Sex
It is an indisputable fact that the large majority of NC-17 films are labeled as such for reasons of sexuality, and not violence. Many in the industry have pointed out these misguided principles, especially questioning the negative psychological effect of violence on the under-seventeen demographic. But violence is easy to find in just about any theater in the country. So if this is your film, not to worry! As long as there’s nothing in it as gratuitous as the “sadistic graphic violence” in Rob Zombie’s 31 (the only film to earn an NC-17 this year so far), you probably don’t have to worry about the MPAA.
If you’re aiming for a PG-13, however, it’s important to note that bloodshed makes a difference. Gunshots without consequence: PG-13. Open and bleeding wounds on screen: R.
The quickest way to take your film into NC-17 territory is with a shot of genitalia, male or female.
2. Frame Out Full Frontal
The quickest way to take your film into NC-17 territory is with a shot of genitalia, male or female. Behinds and chests are fine for an R-rated film, but anything between the legs is deemed over-the-line.
This is also one of the easier rules to follow. Most stories can be told with the same emotional impact, with or without full frontal. Think of all those steamily obscured sex scenes in teen movies, or George Costanza's infamous ‘I was in the pool!’ moment. Some major blockbusters have even managed to skirt this rule through quick editing, like Ben Affleck’s shower scene in Gone Girl for example, or Sharon Stone’s famous crotch shot in Basic Instinct (both R-rated).
The keys to staying R-friendly are implication and obfuscation.
3. Tone Down the Female Pleasure
The morality of the MPAA starts getting murky again with their apparent distaste for female pleasure. There are several examples of films getting NC-17 ratings for sex acts that, were the gender roles swapped, would’ve likely only merited an R.
In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce bemoans the struggles she went through with the ratings board over Chloë Sevigny’s too-long orgasm and the way Hillary Swank wipes her mouth after performing cunnilingus. Jamie Babbit encountered similar problems with her film But I’m a Cheerleader, for implied female masturbation, the same year American Pie ran it’s R-rated, widely released, trailer touting Jason Biggs humping pastry. Both Peirce and Babbit re-cut their films and ultimately received R-ratings. Depending on your story, this tenant may be harder to abide. The keys to staying R-friendly are implication and obfuscation. And of course, don’t linger too long on that O-face.
4. Maintain “Traditional Values”
The MPAA has historically been more accepting of sexuality in “traditional” relationships than otherwise. That is to say, a heterosexual, married couple having missionary sex is usually deemed PG-13, while homosexual promiscuity could easily garner an NC-17. Beware diverse sex positions. Beware LGBTQ couplings. Beware sex workers (unless your story is as vanilla as the TV cut of Pretty Woman). Stanley Kubrick’s notorious orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut earned the film an NC-17 for this reason, that is, before the studio employed some digital wizardry to obscure the most “offensive” parts.
But digital manipulation can’t save everyone. John Waters was once slapped with an NC-17 for the overall sexual tone to his film, receiving only the note, “We stopped taking notes.” Generally speaking, the MPAA can’t censor you for including the above elements, only for clearly picturing them. So think of it as a game of creative problem solving.
5. The Fewer Thrusts, The Better
One of the more specific boxes that the MPAA checks is the number of thrusts visible in your sex scene. It seems that 1-5 is OK for an R rating, but more than that is considered pornographic. Again, this is a matter of framing. So when you’re shooting your sex scene, plan the coverage accordingly!
6. Use Your F*cks Sparingly
Another thing the MPAA counts is the number of F-words. It’s rare for a film to earn an NC-17 rating for language alone, but depending on that number, it could easily be the deciding factor. Though not as devastating as an NC-17, an R rating also can severely limit the audience for a teen or family movie. The Oscar winning film Once, for example, is a sweet musical romance about musicians in Dublin, perfect for the whole family, except for the language that earned it an R. So as early as the scriptwriting phase, think about how necessary those cuss words are to the story, and where they can make the most impact.
These are just a few guidelines for navigating the MPAA rating system. Despite the system being voluntary, few reputable theaters will screen an unrated film. And as Matt Stone pointed out in Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the system is unfairly biased against independent filmmakers, making it nearly impossible to appeal or recut an NC-17 film without the strength of a major studio behind you. So keep these parameters in mind if you intend to write or direct a mainstream film.
Have you had any experience with the ratings system? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!