BIZ TIP TUESDAY:

SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT RATINGS?


Okay, DEADPOOL just beat all box office records, so you're probably wondering about this.

You know, the censor board? Okay, here in the United States we pride ourselves on not having censorship - but the film industry has a form of self censorship... the MPAA ratings board. It's a mysterious group of people who watch movies and decide which rating to give the films...

G: General Audiences, All Ages Admitted.
PG: Parental Guidance Suggested: Some Material May Not Be Suited For Children.
PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned: Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13.
R: Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian.
NC-17: No One 17 And Under Admitted.

How do they decide what rating a film gets? Well, there are no actual MPAA ratings guidelines. No list of things you can and can't do in a movie... they claim that everything is decided on a film-by-film basis. The F-word in one film might get a PG-13, and in another might get it an R. Some PG-13 films can show a breast, others can not. The same language that gets you an R in one movie you can find in some other movie rated PG. Sometimes you can show a character dressing - and sometimes you can't. Nothing about the ratings system makes any sense!

So don't worry about it.

Buy The Not Rated DVD

Recently the documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED put a spotlight on how unpredictable and strange the ratings board is. People have been complaining for years about the ratings board - often pointing to their lenience when dealing with big budget studio films and their complete unwavering-to-the-point-of-censorship attitude when dealing with independent films. The MPAA gave THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED an NC-17... because of the frank discussion of what gets your film an NC-17 rating and a few examples. So very few people ever saw the film...

But it asked enough good questions about the MPAA that at Sundance a couple of years ago ratings board head honcho Dan Glickman announced that they would begin actually trying to work with film makers to explain why their film received this rating and what they can do to change the rating. And they will be open to film makers who can show precedent for a lesser rating by using examples from other films. In other words - the days of a studio film with the exact same content getting a lesser rating than an Indie film are (supposedly) over.

But what does this mean for writers?

Ratings still are not our problem. We just write the scripts. Of course, we should always use common sense - if you're writing a film for kids, the F-word probably won't fit the story - let alone graphic sex or violence. Even if your five year old swears like a sailor, does it make sense to put that in a kids film? If your film is targeted at older kids, they can act like older kids.

Pick a handful of recent films like your story and see what they got away with. SPY KIDS has parents who are very much in love - adults will know they have an active sex life, but there's no overt mention of it. No scenes showing them nekkid. They just kiss a lot (eeeeew!).

I FIND THAT DISTURBING

Buy Taxi DVDs

If you are writing a horror flick, there is going to be horror in it. If lots of limbs are getting hacked off with a chainsaw, chances are that's not going to end up with a PG-13. But most of the time, the rating is going to have more to do with the way it's filmed... which isn't your job. A director can decide how much blood and gore to show. Some horror movies start with an NC-17 rating and get trimmed down to an R, others start out as an R and get trimmed down to PG-13. Everything depends on how something is filmed, and later - how it is edited. One of the famous rating cases from the past was TAXI DRIVER - filled with blood and blown off fingers. They tinted the blood to make it darker - and went from X to R rating!

But if your script is filled with lots of detailed graphic descriptions of blood and guts and severed limbs and peeling flesh and... well, that may be a problem for two reasons: maybe you've got too much detail in your description and maybe some people will wonder if you like blood and guts so much that you might not be pleasant to work with. You know - maybe *you* are the psycho. You want evocative descriptions, but you don't want the reader to blow chunks all over your script.

THE GOOD OLD DAYS

The movie SLAP SHOT (1977) has no shortage of swearing and was rated R. It was a mainstream movie starring Paul Newman - nothing dirty, something your mom might go to see. Let me say that my mom probably never heard that much swearing in her whole life.

Buy The slapshot DVDs

In a weird way we've gone BACKWARDS. Films used to have a lot more sex in them! What happened? LAST TANGO IN PARIS was nominated for an Oscar - and it has some pretty graphic sex scenes ("There's a pound of butter in the refrigerator" right before the, um, non-vaginal sex scene). MIDNIGHT COWBOY was rated X and won Best Picture Oscar - can you imagine that happening today?

How about a coming of age movie about a 12 year old girl growing up in a whorehouse who dreams of having her virginity sold to a customer some day soon? Mainstream film - Oscar nominations - PRETTY BABY (Brooke Shields was the little girl). Talk about taboo! That film would be seen as kiddie porn today!

We all know that the best way to get nominated for an Oscar is to play a hooker or someone with a disability... but what if you're a 12 year old kid? Jodie Foster was nominated for TAXI DRIVER, a role that included a sex scene with Harvey Keitel. This film was successful with the audience - a mainstream studio film. A couple years ago at Sundance cute little Dakota Fanning starred in a film where she was violently raped - and no one has picked it up. No distribution a year later. No rating, yet... but a kid getting raped probably won't get the same rating as Fanning's CHARLOTTE'S WEB. (Note: film finally got a limited theatrical after being trimmed way down to an R.)

We've become much more conservative in the past 25 years. Now we Just Say No to drugs, back then we usually said Yes... and that was on screen, too. A film today with as much drug use as a mainstream 70s comedy would get an R rating (back then it was a PG - seriously!).

Buy wild bunch DVDs

And movies were more violent - THE WILD BUNCH was rated R, but when they ran it past the ratings boards a few years back for an aniversary re-release it got an NC-17. Same movie - same cut! I think they were hoping it would end up PG-13 (a rating that didn't exist when the film was first released). So they decided to rerelease it with the original rating.

I think we have more taboos now. Can you imagine a big studio making a mainstream film about a triple (guy & 2 girls involved in a relationship) that shows the relationship as normal and accepted? That was about 20 years ago - Daryl Hannah nekkid with some other chick and a guy. From the director of GREASE (make up your own joke).

And last, but not least (at least in my lifetime) REAL porno movies were shown in theaters in suburbia... and "normal people" paid to see them. The Mitchell Brothers were shooting 35mm epic porn films - and the mainstream audience paid to see them. My home town (Concord, CA) had a porn theater, as did the town text door (Walnut Creek). These were old theaters from the1950s that had been abandoned when they began building mall theaters - and they became suburban porn houses - and suburban people went to see AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FLEA on the big screen. Weird, huh?

Those were the good old days!

Buy Tarzan DVDs

And if you go back farther, you may find some pre-code movies. Made before there was a ratings board or any form of film classification. Lately there has been a bunch of interest in these films, and many have been released on DVD. The reason why Heddy Lamar became a Hollywood star was her 1933 movie ECSTACY which featured full frontal nudity. Pre-Code movies like TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934) not only were made for general audiences (including kids - this is a Tarzan movie), they had nudity. Yes, Jane swims absolutely naked for about 10 minutes of screen time! Not just topless - full frontal. At least Tarzan keeps his loin cloth on! There was a time when nudity was just a normal part of movies... then the Hayes Office began regulating films.

Pre-code movies had nudity, infidelity, drug use (cocaine was popular in the 1920s), simulated sex, and lots of really evil deeds going unpunished. Those were the good old days!

WRITING TODAY

In these days of wardrobe malfunctions, writers need to exercise a little common sense to keep the MPAA at bay. Look at the situations in your screenplay - is there anything there that might cause problems? Watch a stack of films with a similar story to yours, and use them as ratings guidelines. If you are writing a rom-com and have a whole bunch of sex scenes... do other rom- coms? If you are writing a kids film and have a whole bunch of sex scenes.... Situations are story related - if you are sending your high school kids on a road trip to Tijuana to see a donkey show, chances are that's not going to get you a PG rating. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, about a shy high school kid who falls in love with the girl who just moved in next door... and happens to be an ex porn star - got an R rating. High schoolers and porn stars? Not gonna be a film that kids can go see - even though it's about kids.

Same thing with violence and language. Use films similar films as a reference. Though real kids may use the F word constantly, that's going to land you an R rating (and maybe an NC-17). Plus, *any* word that is overused is going to lose meaning and end up taking the space of other words that might actually help tell your story. When I wrote STEEL SHARKS one of the Navy's rules was no profanity. My sailors couldn't swear like sailors! I cut out all of the profanity... and the script didn't suffer at all.

Now they're talking about making smoking an instant R rating. Kids won't be able to see CASABLANCA!

Ratings are not about reality - real kids may smoke and swear and screw and even kill... but they won't be able to see those activities in a movie without a parent or legal guardian. As writers, ratings aren't really our problem - but a little common sense helps. Watch films similar to your story, avoid situations that you just know are problematic, and don't get weirdly detailed in your descriptions of gross stuff. Don't think about what kids really do, but what their parents would want them to see. That will give you a better guess on what the rating might be. What would you want *your* mom to see you do?

But, at the end of the day - ratings aren't our problem... worry about the story instead.


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