When the Federal Trade Commission released in March a survey revealing that an all-time low 24% of teenagers succeeded in buying tickets to R-rated movies, the results painted a media-friendly picture of the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s movie ratings system and exhibitors’ willingness to enforce it.
But as illustrated by recent news of the IFC Center in New York allowing teens to see the NC-17-rated French pic “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” enforcing movie ratings is much murkier. It’s a tricky game seeped in politics and money, aimed at nurturing the oft-strained studio-exhib relationships.
As the MPAA stipulates, NC-17-rated films are “patently adult. Children (meaning no one 17 and under) are not admitted.”
That said, the ratings system, which is governed by the MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration board, is not strictly enforced. The major U.S. exhibitors, all of whom are members of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, adhere to the system as a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” with NATO.
“Everybody is in the same boat,” said one exhibition exec. “It’s a collective agreement to police our own content. That may be the one thing that studios and exhibitors agree on.”
Addressing the issue, a NATO representative said: “The voluntary rating system protects people who make and exhibit movies from government intrusion … Exhibitors have an interest in keeping government censorship out of our industry, as well as keeping our bargain with parents to enforce the ratings.”
With “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” IFC Center, which is not a member of NATO, decided to permit high schoolers 17 and under, calling the film “appropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.”
In a statement, IFC said: “The MPAA has recommended that no American citizen under the age of 18 be allowed to see the film. While many people find the MPAA’s recommendations useful, others may look to alternative sources: reviews, recommendations of friends, etc., in making movie choices. The MPAA rating is a voluntary guideline that we as a theater are not obligated to enforce. In this case we feel it is unnecessarily restrictive, and we will indeed admit high school age patrons to screenings of this perceptive and moving film at the IFC Center.”
Both the IFC Center and IFC Films, the pic’s domestic distributor, are owned by New York-based Rainbow Media.
“Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, centers on two young lesbians as they embark on an explicit, tumultuous relationship. The film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, recently fired back at criticism from his leading ladies, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, who claimed he manipulated them during filming.
This isn’t the first time a distrib or exhib has cried foul against the ratings board under the rationale that a film be seen for educational reasons, such as the Weinstein Co. did with “Bully” and “The King’s Speech.” In fact, the ratings system has been used countless times as a way to generate media coverage for a film — and almost all instances have involved specialized films with limited core audiences.
Regardless, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” has a challenging road ahead at the domestic box office, especially since the film didn’t qualify as France’s official submission for the Oscar foreign-language category. “Blue” launches Friday at four locations, two each in New York and L.A.