Friday, January 19, 2007

Censoring for fun and profit

A 2006 documentary opening tomorrow in Toronto, This Film is Not Yet Rated, exposes the secret methods and agenda of America’s MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), according to Canada’s globeandmail.com (thanks to Slap Upside the Head for the pointer). The MPAA is both America’s film censor and a trade lobbying organisation for America’s film industry.

The documentary alleges that the MPAA uses the NC-17 rating to force cuts to films and to stifle competition. The rating, introduced in 1990 to replace the “X” rating, was supposedly for adult-themed films but has become to be the same as X. Many newspapers and television stations won’t accept ads for NC-17 films, some film distributors won’t touch them and some cinema chains won’t show them.

Using undercover investigation, the film shows the NC-17 rating is used mostly on anything that the secret reviewers think is aberrant, including gay themes as well as some other sexuality. Violence, however, clearly doesn’t raise the risk of an NC-17 rating.

What does the MPAA stand to gain from this? Most films threatened with an NC-17 rating are foreign or independent—meaning, direct competition to
America’s established film industry. This provides them a seemingly legitimate way to fend off some competition.

It also allows them to reward the Christian Right, who don’t want film depictions of homosexuality, among other things, but whose support the MPAA needed to enact some repressive legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. To advance the financial interests of their industry, the MPAA is happy to cede censorship duties to the far right.

So, the MPAA have things completely their way. They get to reduce competition from foreign and independent films that won’t bend to MPAA ratings, they can make money distributing those that do, and then they can make more money from the same audiences when they sell uncensored versions on DVD. Sweet deal.

The American system shows the folly of allowing a film industry lobby group to control the censorship of films. In many other countries, like
New Zealand and Australia, a government body handles it.

New Zealand, unrestricted films (G rating) and many rated PG and M (16 and over) films aren’t reviewed if they’ve received their rating from similar authority, like in the UK or Australia. Restricted films are checked here against NZ standards.

The overall system is like a traffic light: Green is rated G; yellow is PG and M, and red is restricted. Restricted films are generally R16 (must be over 16) or R18 (over 18; this includes adult films). A general R rating has some other restriction, like must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. In addition, the labels may carry an informational warning (like “contains violence”) which aren’t legally binding, but help consumers—and parents in particular—to make informed choices.

Being separate from the industry, a government system like
New Zealand’s provides a more impartial review than the MPAA can. Some people feel that having an official censor is dangerous, but how can it be any more dangerous than having totally unaccountable secret individuals with private agendas deciding what people can and cannot see? In NZ, if we don’t like what the censor does—and the public has a lot of input into the office’s work—there is a democratic means to change things. It’s impossible to change the MPAA system.

I suppose this is just another reason why I don’t go to movies (generally, only one MPAA-approved version is released worldwide due to cost). Instead, I wait for the uncensored version on DVD or on pay TV. Declining attendance at movies? Perhaps the fault, dear MPAA, lies not with your stars but with yourselves.

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