Run of MPAA appeals reflects evolving standards

When the Weinstein Co. won an R rating for “Blue Valentine” last week after objecting to its original NC-17, it was a signal that perhaps the industry’s ratings board is easing up.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America’s Classification and Rating Administration grants appeals to a handful of the 800 or so movies it reviews every year, but seldom do they do so without the filmmaker making cuts and tweaks first.

This time, “Blue Valentine,” which received an NC-17 rating for explicit sexual content, won the less restrictive designation after a personal plea from Harvey Weinstein, who offered comparisons to past titles.

As one insider notes of the initial rating: “The feeling was that they got it wrong with this one.”

Pic joins the list of other films that have successfully appealed their ratings this year, including “Eat Pray Love,” “How Do You Know” and straight-to-vid “Rock Slyde.”

What the board’s decision didn’t do is instill any additional confidence in the NC-17 rating.

Twenty years after introducing the designation, first given to “Henry and June” as a solution to the stigma of the X, the NC-17 is still regarded as a box-office buzzkill. There’s a longtime perception that exhibs won’t screen an NC-17 film and that advertisers deny such pics ad space.

Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” in 2007 was one of the few recent cases where a distributor accepted that rating rather than making cuts. The National Assn. of Theater Owners polled 100 exhibitors to see how many would refuse to screen the movie, and only five said they would not. The Focus Features title went on gross to just under $5 million domestically.

Ratings board chair Joan Graves admits moviegoers have a skewed perception of the NC-17 rating.

“I do regret that it’s treated as the pariah of the ratings system,” she says. “All we need is one popular NC-17 rating to take that scent away.”

But filmmakers have long groused that it’s not a matter of the ratings, but the opaque and even mysterious way that decisions are rendered.

In 2007, the org proclaimed that it would become more filmmaker-friendly, and be more responsive to appeals. As was the case with “Blue Valentine,” filmmakers can now cite comparable scenes in other films that received less-restrictive ratings, which wasn’t a possibility before.

“It’s a subjective process, first and foremost, and I think that’s where you run into problems,” says one insider.

Even with the changes to the process, it doesn’t mean an end to filmmaker-ratings board clashes.

The board also contends with charges that it has a double standard when it comes to violence.

Graves says the org is taking steps to correct some of those issues. For instance, the MPAA plans to revisit its stance on horror pics, which have evolved considerably from spooky frights to torture porn.

“I do think the R has a very big envelope for that genre,” Graves admits.

Though an R rating isn’t the B.O. anathema of an NC-17, studios still often resist the designation. On average, PG-13 films are the most reliable performers at the box office, meaning that just one “f-bomb” can make a difference of millions of dollars.

Sony contested the initial R ratings for two films this year, “Eat Pray Love” and “How Do You Know.” Both were eventually granted the tamer PG-13. For the latter, Sony changed its use of the word “fuck” to meet the board’s strict language policy: Only one usage of a “harsher sexually-derived word” is allowed in a PG-13 rated film, according to the org.

The Weinstein Co. waged a similar language war over “The King’s Speech” and the docu “The Tillman Story.” An R rating due to a volley of swear words in “The King’s Speech” isn’t necessarily a kiss of death for an adult-skewing specialty release, but Weinstein made a bid anyway. It lost that appeal.

For “The Tillman Story,” the company’s appeal was more pressing, since the docu couldn’t be shown in many schools with an R rating. TWC had to live with that restriction, as the board didn’t budge.

“The King’s Speech” didn’t appear to be hurt by its R rating, scoring the year’s best per-screen average on its Thanksgiving weekend opening, but “The Tillman Story” tallied just $800,000 in Stateside receipts.

“We get more complaints from parents about language than any other element,” says Graves.

Last year, Warner Bros.’ “The Hangover” earned more than $277 million domestically, making it the highest-grossing R rated pic ever. But not every pic can take that chance. During last summer, only 10 of 44 wide releases were rated R.

Still, Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Assn. of Theater Owners, admits there are still challenges in launching an R or NC-17 film. The MPAA only allows trailers for those films to screen before similarly rated titles, which ultimately limits the number of eyeballs that see the trailer. However, for print and TV, advertising is approved or denied based on the materials themselves, not the film’s rating.

While MPAA-filmmaker tensions are likely to continue, Graves says it’s important to keep focus on the ratings board’s mission, which aims not to limit business but to inform parents.

“It’s something you would want to know before taking your child,” she says.

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