pageok
pageok
pageok
Entertainment Rating Systems:

Speaking of movie ratings and the MPAA, William Ford has an extensive post on entertainment rating systems on the Empirical Legal Studies blog. His post was prompted by this study concluding that governmental entertainment rating systems are not necessary, and that private systems tend to be superior.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Entertainment Rating Systems:
  2. MPAA Rejects Documentary Poster for Hood Image:
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I am less worried about government vs. private rating systems as I am about rating systems that just provide information and those that have some coercive power.

The MPAA may not be the government, but they have that kind of power, because newspapers and TV stations don't accept ads for NC-17 or unrated pictures and theaters won't book them and retailers won't sell the DVD's.

I am all in favor of any service (including a governmental one) that puts out information about the content of mass entertainment. The line I don't like to be crossed is not between public and private, but between information and restricting consumer choice.
12.19.2007 4:55pm
Oren:
Given the current 1A doctrine that all but forbids content-based regulation of speech*, I find it stupefying that any intelligent person could believe this. For instance,
While officially a voluntary industry standard, the comics code came into existence following a series of hearings that made it clear that Congress would impose a code if the industry did not write one.
, is absurd. Neither Congress nor the states can proscribe a written work unless it is "utterly without redeeming social value" I fail to see how Congress could get any traction whatsoever. The relevant test in Miller is
Under the holdings announced today, no one will be subject to prosecution for the sale or exposure of obscene materials unless these materials depict or describe patently offensive "hard core" sexual conduct specifically defined by the regulating state law, as written or construed.


Given the constraints thus placed on a governmental rating system, I would highly prefer it to a private one.


* The FCC is a different matter entirely because the government can impose stricter requirements for broadcasts on the public airwaves than is otherwise constitutionally acceptable. This distinction between public and private broadcast is critical in understanding the misguided notions of rating system that take place in private.
12.19.2007 5:05pm
KeithK (mail):
Oren, the specific example you cite is inapt. The Comics Code Authority came into existence in 1954, almost 20 years before Miller. The MPAA film ratings themselves began in '68.

Besides, a government rating system wouldn't necessarily limit the rights of adults to view a film or read a book. If it tracked the current MPAA system it would be designed to prevent minors from viewing adult materials. I suspect that the court would allow such a rating system as long as it only placed restrictions on minors.
12.19.2007 5:50pm
Avatar (mail):
If you've ever dealt with the BBFC, you should need no convincing that private ratings systems are superior to publicly-mandated ones.

I remember a former employer having to edit a couple of episodes of the Street Fighter cartoon to remove all images of nunchaku. Mind you, this is in the context of a martial arts show, right? But not only were the nunchaku deemed to be unsuitable for young children to view, the Board refused to give the show a rating lower than "Adults Only" (with the power of the law behind it, such that it would actually be illegal to sell the video to a minor) unless the nunchaku were removed.

That's not even talking about the statutory fees to get that rating (nor all the stupid government hoops to jump through with the paperwork.) Honestly, we did less business in the UK because of it - it's a low-margin business to begin with, so the fees made several otherwise-profitable projects unprofitable.
12.19.2007 5:53pm
Oren:
Avatar: The British model of free speech (think libel cases) is totally inapplicable to the US model.

KeithK: Perhaps it was true that, when the codes were created, they were less restrictive than Congress could have passed. Now, however, it is clear that they are considerably more restrictive. In other words, if they were created out of a genuine fear of government censorship then they should have been abolished when that fear turned out to be unfounded.

Furthermore, the "protection of minors" shtick wouldn't be nearly as restrictive as the current MPAA procedure.
12.19.2007 6:15pm
Thoughtful (mail):
Here's a question from a non-lawyer, non-economist: If there's no govt. prohibition, why is there no market niche for newspapers/movie theaters that WILL take ads/show movies of art not rated by MPAA (or anyone). I suspect the answer will be "There is now, the city weeklies that also take escort ads and the 'artsy" theaters. But that dooms a picture to failure." But it seems that has it backwards. If enough star power and major motion pictures wanted to be made without MPAA guidance, wouldn't that push more major theaters/newspapers to show them/take the ads? Is Speilberg wanted to do a non-MPAA rated movie, I'm pretty sure the theaters would carry it. So what follows: that MPAA doesn't restrict producers that much? That the moviemakers use the MPAA to cartelize the industry? But why would the newspapers go along?
12.19.2007 7:08pm
Oren:

Is[sic] Speilberg wanted to do a non-MPAA rated movie, I'm pretty sure the theaters would carry it.
No they wouldn't. The theaters are very well represented on the MPAA board. It's not an exaggeration to say it's really one big cartel.
12.19.2007 8:37pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
A big Hollywood can't make money without an MPAA rating. A documentary can make money, and getting this story out about its mistreatment by the MPAA will probably help it make more money than the MPAA approval would have.

A recent movie that did OK without submitting itself to the rating process was The Aristocrats. I think MPAA threatened to give it an X rating, even though there was no sex or violence depicted. It was going to get the rating simply for foul language. If foul language doesn't easily offend you, I highly recommend renting this movie. It's probably the funniest movie I've seen in a decade or so.
12.19.2007 8:51pm
Bruce:
The theaters are very well represented on the MPAA board. It's not an exaggeration to say it's really one big cartel.

Oren, I don't think this is accurate. The theater market is extremely fragmented. The largest theater owner, Regal Cinemas, owns under 12% of U.S. movie screens.

Furthermore, despite your claim that the legal argument may be crazy, it's a fact that the MPAA ratings board was founded in 1968 in order to stave off federal regulation.
12.19.2007 9:58pm
Thoughtful (mail):
How many of you would refuse to see a movie on the grounds it hadn't been rated by the MPAA? I'm suspecting the answer is none of you. If that's true, there's a market for movies that don't happen to have an MPAA rating. So explain again how having a movie theater cartel explains why the cartel doesn't want to make money by serving this audience?
12.19.2007 10:43pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
If that's true, there's a market for movies that don't happen to have an MPAA rating. So explain again how having a movie theater cartel explains why the cartel doesn't want to make money by serving this audience?

I would like to hear this explanation too. Several years ago the MPAA got rid of the 'X' rating because it become associated with hard core pornography (I believe Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, and Last Tango in Paris all were released with X ratings and played in legitimate theaters) and replaced it with the NC17 rating. The theory was that once the 'X' stigma was removed (since the MPAA never bothered to trademark the ratings, anyone could slap an X or on their lastest 'Debbie Does Dallas' release eventhough it never was rated by the MPAA), theaters would be more willing to show adult (as opposed to "Adult") films rated NC17, and film makers would be relieved of the burden of jumping through hoops to make sure they didn't show a little too much male anatomy or use a little too much bad language or discuss sex too frankly or honestly (it is almost impossible to get an NC17 rating on female nudity, gore, or violence alone) in tackling adult themes. This never happened. NC17 became the kiss of death and the edits were saved for the "unrated" DVD release.
12.20.2007 9:43am
JK:
As much as I find the MPAA obnoxious, this hardly seems like something the market can't handle. There's plenty of opportunity for independent, unrated, films to filter their way up to the mainstream. I don't following the independent movie scene personally, but I see a fair number of good ones through friends that are. It seems like a pretty thriving industry to me.

Any government involvement would almost certainly lead to more problems than it solved.
12.20.2007 11:40am
Elliot Reed (mail):
Those government rating systems have a high burden to meet if they're going to be worse than the MPAA.
12.20.2007 12:05pm
New World Dan (www):
Furthermore, I generally find MPAA ratings to be fairly useless. The biggest problem is that they essentially have a monopoly on movie ratings and have their own ideas about what should trigger what rating. At least in recent years, they've been identifying the things that have caused a more sever rating.

Compare this with kosher food labeling where there are numerous labeling organisations. Some of which are far more reputable than others. Actually, movies seem to be heading in this direction. The web has really opened up a lot of communal rating sites that my wife and I rely on more than anything else before we take our 4 year old daughter to a movie. They give a lot more detail into what we might find objectionable than does the MPAA.
12.20.2007 12:36pm
New World Dan (www):
Neither Congress nor the states can proscribe a written work unless it is "utterly without redeeming social value" I fail to see how Congress could get any traction whatsoever.

Congress can, however, be real jackasses. They can introduce any number of labeling requirements, proceedures, forms and record-keeping requirements that can all but make it impossible to do business. Just look at what's been happening to the porn industry the last 5 years or so. Steroids testing in baseball, it can be argued, exists only to prevent regulation by Congress. Explicit lyrics labeling on music is also a direct result of threats of regulation by Congress.
12.20.2007 12:44pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
As much as I find the MPAA obnoxious, this hardly seems like something the market can't handle. There's plenty of opportunity for independent, unrated, films to filter their way up to the mainstream.

Maybe in New York, Chicago and L.A. and a handful of liberal smaller cities (mostly college towns or Park City). But if your movie doesn't have an MPAA rating or worse yet, gets rated NC-17, it is simply not going to be shown at an AMC, Loews, General Cinema or any other major chain theater (which also have almost all the really good and high tech projection and sound equipment) that dominate the theater screens in almost the entire country. Consequently, we are stuck with endless Spiderman and Shrek sequels and gorefests (because of course sex is a lot worse than violence). Independent films or films that deal with difficult and adult subjects don't get released or go straight to DVD.
12.20.2007 12:50pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Just look at what's been happening to the porn industry the last 5 years or so.

Yeah right, the porn industry is foundering.

Regardless, Congress knows they can't regulate the film industry because of the 1st amendment. The porn industry is getting increasing hard to regulate because even the most ardent porn crusaders can't find anywhere where mainstream porn violates "community standards" any more (not even Utah).
12.20.2007 12:57pm
Oren:
Congress can, however, be real jackasses. They can introduce any number of labeling requirements, proceedures, forms and record-keeping requirements that can all but make it impossible to do business. Just look at what's been happening to the porn industry the last 5 years or so. Steroids testing in baseball, it can be argued, exists only to prevent regulation by Congress. Explicit lyrics labeling on music is also a direct result of threats of regulation by Congress.

The Supreme Court struck down the CDA and its brethren, while the 6th Circuit struck down the porn labeling requirement that was, indeed, strangling the porn industry. I'm pretty sure than any attempt to regulate song lyrics would meet a similar fate.

Industry groups that claim government censorship is possible under current precedent are either ignorance or lying. Full Stop.

PS. What's steroids got to do with it? Not a freedom of speech issue at all and has nothing to do with rating.s.
12.20.2007 1:05pm
Oren:
s/ignorance/ignorant/ in previous (yeah, I'm dumb).
12.20.2007 1:10pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I think that some people here are so committed to the free market that they don't realize that it can fail in situations involving cartel-like activities or monopoly power. (I find this, actually, to be a strange aspect of modern libertarians. Great libertarian thinkers of the past ALWAYS recognized this as a limitation on the free market. I have a feeling the identification of economic conservativism with the interests of big corporations has changed this.)

To see what is happening with unrated movies, you need to think first about two chains, Wal-Mart and Blockbuster Video. One is the largest retailer of DVD's in the country, the other was, until recently, the largest renter of movies, and still is the largest bricks-and-mortar rental chain.

In many towns in this country, Wal-Mart and Blockbuster may be the ONLY outlets selling and renting videos. In smaller cities, there may be a couple of other places, but they are not convenient and may be constantly going out of business because the size and selection of the big stores draws people into them.

Plus, much of this country is very conservative, even about R-rated movies or Janet Jackson's nipple, let alone anything that might criticize the War on Terror in graphic terms.

Given those realities, Wal-Mart and Blockbuster each have policies that not only preclude the selling or renting of hardcore porn, but also just about anything that gets an NC-17 or would get one if it were rated. If they didn't do this, many of their customers in middle America and the Bible Belt would get very offended.

Now, it is true that this DOES NOT mean that there aren't some ways for someone in, say, Hope, Arkansas to see NC-17 rated movies. There are. He or she can wait for them to come out on video and rent them through NetFlix, or he or she can travel to Little Rock or Fayetteville and see them at an independent arthouse theater or rent or buy them from an independent video store.

But what the extreme libertarians don't understand is that THIS NONETHELESS EATS INTO THE PROFITABILITY OF THESE MOVIES, AND THUS LESS OF THEM ARE MADE AND THEIR PRODUCERS GENERALLY CAN'T AFFORD BIG STARS AND BIG BUDGETS. In other words, we don't see works of art that we would see if Wal-Mart and Blockbuster didn't have these policies.

Well, many major theaters have the same policies. Now, in any given place, there might be an independent arthouse that doesn't, though in practice, sizeable majorities in many parts of this country OPPOSE the showing of NC-17 and unrated movies, and thus all the theaters in such places tend to have the policy. Plus, the newspaper doesn't take advertisements for them, so even if the theater wants to show one, ticket sales will go down.

Again, what this does is ARTIFICIALLY DECREASE THE MARKET FOR THESE FILMS. People who want to see them have to go to greater lengths to see them, and many of them don't.

Notice how the theoretical market possibilities of a theater or video store owner coming and serving the underserved market do not really exist, because (1) the number of people in any particular smaller town or city who want to see these films isn't great enough for the theater to make money; (2) the local media won't take the theater's advertisements; and (3) vested interests will accuse the theater of peddling pornography.

Libertarianism is a wonderful philosophy. But people have to admit that there are times that the free market doesn't function the way it is supposed to in the textbooks. This is one of them.
12.20.2007 2:57pm