MPAA ratings and independents: bias proved!

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Feb. 24 2011 7:43 PM

The 7 Percent Solution

A recent study proves MPAA ratings really are biased against independent films.

In the ratings game, do smaller films lose out to the big studios?
In the ratings game, do smaller films lose out to the big studios?

In August 2010, a documentary titled A Film Unfinished was released by Oscilloscope, a New York-based independent distributor. The film's subject is the making of an unfinished Nazi documentary about the Warsaw ghetto that was intended to spread anti-Semitic propaganda. The director, Yael Hersonski, would like A Film Unfinished to be shown in schools to educate children about the Holocaust. But because the documentary includes some horrific footage of death camp atrocities—some of them showing Jews, both dead and alive, stripped naked—the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings division assigned the documentary an R rating. Oscilloscope appealed the decision, pointing out that a dozen years earlier, Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation had released a Holocaust documentary titled The Last Days that featured similar footage but received a PG-13 rating. It even presented the MPAA with a letter from a Warsaw ghetto survivor who urged that the film be used to educate young people. But the MPAA's appeals board voted to maintain the R rating, 12-3.

Why the disparate treatment? It's hard to suppress the suspicion that it had something to do with Hollywood muscle. Oscilloscope is a small independent distributor founded by Adam Yauch, who (as "MCA" of the Beastie Boys) maintains some influence within the hip-hop world but who is an outsider to the motion picture industry. By contrast, Allentown Productions, which released The Last Days, is based at Universal Studios and run by a Spielberg protégé. Spielberg is the most powerful director-producer in Hollywood—the ratings category "PG-13" was his own invention—and his name was right there above the title ("Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation present"). That was probably enough to make The Last Day's Holocaust more child-friendly than A Film Unfinished's.

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For some time, critics like Kirby Dick (director of the anti-MPAA documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated) have argued that movie ratings are biased in favor of Hollywood insiders. Sex and violence in studio-made films, it's been said, are given greater leeway than sex and violence in the latest sensation from Sundance. The most recent puzzler was the NC-17 rating initially given Blue Valentine, distributed by the Weinstein Co., for an emotionally intense but emphatically unerotic sex scene that wasn't remotely explicit. (The scene is so achingly sad that its only likely effect on teenage carnality will be to discourage it.) In that instance, the MPAA came to its senses and reversed its decision, assigning the movie an R rating. Would the MPAA have ever assigned its most punitive rating to the film had it been made by a major studio? It didn't back in 1973 when it gave an R rating to Blume in Love, a Warner Bros. release that included a scene that differed from Blue Valentine's mainly in that the husband rapes his (ex-)wife.

Now the tools of social science have been brought to bear on the favoritism question. In a June 2010 study for the journal Organization Science ("The Ratings Game: Asymmetry in Classification"; registration required), David Waguespack, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, and Olav Sorenson, a professor at Yale's School of Management, find that the MPAA goes easier in its ratings on the major studios. This is less surprising when you take into account that the MPAA's only members are, in fact, the six major studios (Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros.). Still, the MPAA has always maintained that its ratings carry no bias in favor of its funders. Waguespack and Sorenson allow us to conclude with some certainty that the MPAA's claim is false. Films distributed by MPAA members are, on average, about 7 percent less likely to receive an R rating than films that aren't distributed by MPAA members.

Waguespack and Sorenson made their calculations by looking at all the MPAA ratings for films released in the United States between 1992 and 2006 and comparing these to the scores they received from a Web site called Kids-in-Mind. No rating system is perfect, but Kids-in-Mind, the authors argue, is fairly objective because it aims to provide dispassionate descriptions to a global and multicultural audience. Its description of a film's homosexual content, for example, is intended to be of equal value to both gay rights liberals and religious-right conservatives. (The company's publisher boasts he's received favorable e-mail from both.) More important, Kids-in-Mind has no financial dependence on either the major studios or the independents.

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